Neighbors: Sloppy police work led to miscarriage of justice

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Ron Russ pauses when he talks -- great chasms of space between thoughts, which are nonetheless connected:

The afternoon he learned his friend and neighbor, Cecil Simmons, had been found dead of an apparent suicide.

The day he realized that a number of Simmons' possessions had been taken by his daughter and son-in-law.

The violent confrontation that ensued.

Russ is a quiet man, still stricken by the loss of his good friend, prone to tears. Seated in the open garage of his Mandarin home, he looks across the street at the house where Simmons once lived, and recounts how happy his friend once was, particularly when he was with his chubby toddler of a grandson.

"He loved that little baby," he weeps.

The suburban neighborhood in South Jacksonville is in many ways an old-fashioned place, where neighbors have pool parties, grill out, play cards a couple days each week.

Russ says, "It's a rare occasion that we don't cook out at least once or twice a weekend."

But the bonds that hold these neighbors have been tested by Simmons' death, and the dramatic events that followed. On June 17, 2013 the body of Cecil Simmons was found in a remote Bayard forest. The Medical Examiner's Officer has since ruled his death a suicide.

At the time of his death, Cecil's Simmons' daughter Theresa Coffman and her husband, Matthew, were living with him, along with their toddler-age son.

"They were broke -- they had no place to live," explains neighbor Rob Flanagan, also a friend of Simmons. "And so Cecil decided to let them live there -- to take them in, be good to them, try to help them get on their feet."

But just two days after Cecil died, before he was even buried, neighbors say it became clear that many of his possessions were missing.

"Rifles, chainsaws, and motorcycle jacks and tools," rattles off Flanagan. "And pneumatic tools. There was a shotgun, too, and quite a few other various things."

According to a police report, the items taken were valued at about $2,000. Concerned about the missing items, neighbors gathered in Simmons' garage to take inventory. But while they were working, Ron Russ spotted Matthew Coffman with Cecil Simmons' rifle case.

"I see him sneaking around the corner," Russ said, "and take off with that AR-15."


Furious, Russ ran after the younger man.

"He was half my age and twice my size, but it didn't matter at the time," he recalls. "I was angry. My friend had just died."

Russ caught up with Coffman's vehicle as it was taking off. Almost without thinking, he said, he grabbed his pocket knife and threw it at the car door. Neighbor Rob Flanagan, having followed Russ down the street, said at that point, the confrontation got truly scary.

"He reached over to the side seat like that," Flanagan demonstrates, leaning down, "and pulled up a pistol. And looked directly at us and went to open the door."

Russ saw the gun at the same moment his friend wrenched him backwards.

"Rob pushed and yelled at me, 'Stop! He's going to shoot you,'" he recalls. "My shoulder still hurts -- he about yanked my shoulder out of the socket."

At that point, Flanagan said he tried to push the door shut, and shouted at Coffman. "I said no -- just leave! Just leave!"

Coffman disputes this version of events; he said he didn't point the gun, merely held it in his lap. But determining the truth of the matter is complicated by one fact: There is no mention of the confrontation in the police report. (READ FULL POLICE REPORT HERE)

There is no mention of the gun or the knife that Russ threw. There is only a brief allusion to an "altercation" between neighbors.

Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Melissa Bujeda told First Coast News that not everything that happens in a case makes it into a police report. In a later email, she added, "There was never an allegation of someone pointing a gun during the investigation."

As for the knife, she said the First Coast News inquiry "was the first time the officer ever heard of a knife being brought up in reference to this case."

That's an assertion everyone involved denies. Cecil's neighbors and widow Debbie Simmons insist they told police about the violent confrontation. Even Matthew and Theresa Coffman, when contacted by First Coast News, acknowledge he pulled a gun, they say, to protect him and his family from Russ.

"We told him [police officer] everything that happened -- him pulling a gun, him [taking the] guns," said Flanagan. "It makes no sense for cops to come take thorough information and [not put it in the report]."

Police did arrest Theresa and Matthew Coffman almost immediately, and charged them with felony grand theft. The couple had already sold the AR-15 for $800, though police were able to get it back. Police recovered other missing items in the couple's storage facility. Matthew Coffman told police they'd taken the items "because we needed the money."

Initially neighbors were relieved. But relief turned to disappointment when they realized the pair would not be prosecuted. (READ ABOUT THE STATE ATTORNEY DECLINING TO FILE CHARGES HERE).

"I'd called and called the State Attorney's Office trying to find out what was going on, and it was hard to even get to talk to anybody," says Simmons' widow Debbie. "But I learned they'd decided not to press charges, reason being that at time they took stuff property from here, they felt 'entitled' to it."


State Attorney's Office Spokewoman Jackelyn Barnard said that office spoke several times with Simmons and her neighbors, and that none has complained about the handling of the case. (READ RESPONSE FROM BARNARD HERE)

But the SAO's Disposition Statement, in which they decline to press charges, says that part of the reason charges were dropped was the fact that Theresa Coffman could claim a right to her father's possessions. While that determination would typically take place after a probate court review -- with a decedent's belongings distributed after debts are settled -- the Disposition notes, "She may just say … I took the property that was rightfully mine. The state has no rebuttal if [she] makes these claims." (READ THE FULL DISPOSITION HERE)

When First Coast News caught up with Matthew and Theresa Coffman, that's exactly what they said. Theresa Coffman said that the couple worried after her father's death that others would take what they believed belonged to her. She said that her father had previously told her "he wanted Matt to have his tools because he knew Matt would use and appreciate them."

"It was never anything in writing," she concedes. "I guess legally, yes, I broke the law if you will or whatever, because at that point what my dad said to me before -- I didn't have any proof of it."

Matthew Coffman backs up her version. "Did we go about it the wrong way? Probably. But at the time it seemed like the only logical way to essentially make sure everything was fair ... We wanted to make sure we got ours."

But neighbors Russ and Flanagan were incredulous when they learned charges had been dropped. They were even more astonished when they got copies of the police report – and realized what had been left out. There was no mention of the confrontation – Coffman pulling the gun, Russ throwing the knife, no mention that there was a baby in the car the whole time.

"I don't know if it was too much trouble for the police to put it in their report -- too much paperwork, or what?" Russ said. "But they didn't put anything in there about me throwing a knife at his car or chasing after him. They didn't put anything in there about that little baby being in the car. Didn't put anything in police report about him pulling a pistol."

Oddly enough, several months after FCN started looking into this case, a new police report surfaced. This one listed Matthew Coffman as the "victim," and neighbor Ron Russ as the assailant. It mentions the knife being thrown, but not the gun. (READ THE NEW POLICE REPORT HERE)

The number of the second police report appears in the original one, without explanation or context. But it was not given to the State Attorney's Office, and was not mentioned in the disposition. The latter report contains several errors, neighbors note, not least identifying Rob Flanagan as "Robert Palmer."


Neighbors Flanagan and Russ were so upset when they found the errors and omissions, they contacted the State Attorney's Office asking it to reconsider pressing charges. When that office declined, the two men went to JSO in person, asking that to be allowed to submit affidavits with their version of events. (READ FLANAGAN'S AFFIDAVIT OF EVENTS)Russ even created an annotated version of the State Attorney's Office Disposition, marking and correcting every error. (READ CORRECTED DISPOSITION STATEMENT)

But despite their efforts, the case is closed, and no prosecution seems likely. For neighbors, the fact that the apparent theft, the betrayal and the violent confrontation yielded exactly nothing has caused them to lose faith in the system

"One reason they didn't prosecute them was because they didn't have a record," says Russ. "And after all this stuff they're still not going to have a record."

"When people can walk into your house, take whatever they want, especially a high-powered rifle, and sell it on the street – do it while a kid is sitting in your car -- and someone doesn't do something about it, I think we're all victims when that happens," says Flanagan. "All of us."


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