The sheriff’s captain said she didn’t want the murder suspect to know law officers were on to him when they pulled him over for thumbprints and a photo.
So the Florida official told a deputy to pretend he was making a traffic stop based on race, audio shows.
“We want it to look like you’re the grumpy old man,” a woman, whom the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to be Capt. Penny Phelps, says in a recording now made public. “You have nothing better to do than, you’re the white supremacist, you’re messing with the black guy who’s riding his bike.”
The sheriff’s office, located in the Florida Keys, quickly took Phelps off the murder case last month and opened an internal investigation after receiving multiple allegations of misconduct, spokesman Adam Linhardt said. Last week, it also removed Phelps as commander of the major crimes and narcotics units, according to documents shared by the agency.
Deception is widely accepted as a valuable and often legal tool for criminal investigators. Police officers routinely go undercover to get incriminating statements, and judges have upheld confessions induced in part by false information. The Supreme Court has stated that “stealth and strategy” are “necessary weapons” for officers.
But critics were leery of Phelps’s willingness to play into documented racism and racial profiling among some members of law enforcement — from “driving while black” stops to offensive social media posts that have sown mistrust.
Ronnie Dunn, a professor at Cleveland State University who studies policing, said he understands why some may see Phelps’s advice as another example of police misleading a suspect to solve a crime. A green light for an officer to project discrimination, though, strikes him as unethical.
“We already know that that’s a charge that has a lot of validity to it, in a lot of areas in this country,” said Dunn, who also serves as Cleveland State’s chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Phelps said in an email that she is prohibited by law from commenting on issues under investigation.
Likewise, Linhardt said the sheriff’s office is legally unable to speak about many details of an ongoing case. He declined to say whether Phelps’s instructions were followed, what penalties she could face or what other complaints were lodged against the captain, who has spent nearly two decades with the agency.
Officials say they have yet to determine whether Phelps violated policy and have made no change to her annual salary of about $110,000. They have not said why the sheriff’s office moved just recently to strip her of her command position.
They emphasized, though, that they are taking concerns seriously.
“Without regard to any specific case, rest assured that I will not tolerate discrimination or any misconduct by Sheriff’s Office members, particularly misconduct that diminishes the trust our community has in this office,” Sheriff Rick Ramsay said in a statement. “When such matters are brought to my attention, I will address them in the appropriate and transparent way that you have come to expect from me.”
He told the Miami Herald that “not everything we do is going to be perfect.”
“When we do something wrong, we do whatever we can to hold ourselves accountable,” he said.
The recording of Phelps surfaced when prosecutors in a 2017 murder case turned materials over to defense attorneys during discovery, Linhardt said. Phelps instructed a deputy to accost Rory Wilson, one of two men accused of carrying out a fatal stabbing in a trailer park treehouse — a crime authorities have dubbed the “treehouse murder.” A third man is charged with driving the getaway car after a drug robbery turned violent, leaving another victim with a cut throat.
The Washington Post could not reach 52-year-old Wilson, and his attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
In the recording, Phelps seems to be talking over the phone to Deputy Lee Malone, who also did not immediately respond to The Post. The audio was captured in the area of an interview room at the sheriff’s headquarters, where equipment records continuously, Linhardt said.
Only Phelps’s end of the conversation can be heard as she tells Malone to wait for Wilson and then make a traffic stop.
“I just want you to be the neo-Nazi who’s picking on the black guy riding the bike,” Phelps says.
She reiterates the goal later on to others.
“He knows his bit,” she tells them. “It’s the white-supremacist cop picking on the poor black guy that’s riding on a bike.”
The recording eventually made its way to attorney Cara Higgins, who represents another man accused in the treehouse murder, Franklin Tyrone Tucker. She says her client — who says he’s innocent — included the white-supremacist comments among many concerns about the defendants’ treatment in a fall letter to law enforcement that Higgins believes was “eye opening” for the sheriff’s office.
The recording has fueled Higgins’s concerns about the murder investigation, as local media report that the Monroe County State Attorney’s Office removed a lead prosecutor who is also under the Florida Bar’s scrutiny for allegedly withholding evidence in a prior case. It’s also bolstered her previous efforts to get Phelps taken off the treehouse case, she said.
Now, Higgins wants Phelps dismissed from the agency.
“Anyone who uses those words has no place in that department at that level,” she said.
Dunn, the Cleveland State professor, said it’s not clear from the details available whether Malone could have violated the suspect’s civil rights in following his superior’s directions — something Linhardt said the sheriff’s office cannot speak to at the moment. In fact, Dunn said, the actions were “probably legal.”
What Dunn could say for sure: “I have never heard of anything quite like this.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Higgins’ client as John Travis Johnson. She represents Franklin Tyrone Tucker.