Interviews with 31 people find pattern of misuse by two sheriff's deputies

After receiving an anonymous complaint about the possible misuse of county-owned equipment and other resources, Manatee County Sheriff's Office investigators interviewed 31 people between August and December 2011 about operations at the sheriff's office's farm.

Records released by the sheriff's office last week summarize those interviews.

Along with bank records and other documents, the interviews led internal affairs investigators to conclude that two now-retired deputies, Maj. James Higginbotham and Sgt. Frank Parks, had committed acts unbecoming of a deputy, but that they had not engaged in "unlawful conduct."

The state attorney's office has reviewed the findings -- which Sheriff Brad Steube has termed "embarrassing" -- and decided not to prosecute Higginbotham, Parks or anyone else.

Here are summaries of what witnesses -- including Higginbotham and Parks -- told investigators, according to documents obtained by the Herald:

Former deputy Lawrence Bahnsen, interviewed Sept. 14

Told investigators that former deputy David Livingston told him that sheriff's office resources were being used on a pasture at 63rd Avenue East and Lockwood Ridge Road. He made video recordings of Sgt. Frank Parks operating and fueling a Caterpillar track hoe. Also apparent is a sheriff's office vehicle and water tank.

Victor Guajardo, interviewed Sept. 15

Told investigators that Sgt. Parks on three occasions asked him to set aside fillets of tilapia. In one instance, he gave fillets to a produce truck driver as "a token of appreciation." He also said that over time, he noticed some spices missing.

Capt. Douglas Baird, interviewed Sept. 19

Told investigators about trailers being manufactured at the sheriff's office welding shop, one for Maj. James Higginbotham and one for Capt. Robert Sanchez. Sanchez paid the commissary fund for his

trailer. Baird learned Higginbotham was going to move away with his trailer and believing he never paid for it, Baird asked Parks to retrieve the trailer. It was subsequently returned. He said he would see Higginbotham leave the farm with hay in his truck.

Deputy James Kane, interviewed Aug. 15

Told investigators he estimates Major Higginbotham asked him to load horse feed into the back of Higginbotham's sheriff's vehicle 12 times at the end of business days. Sgt. Parks and his wife, Deputy Rhonda Parks, asked him to load hay into Sgt. Parks' sheriff's vehicle on three occasions. On two occasions, Kane said Rhonda Parks asked him to load crates of eggs into Sgt. Parks' vehicle. He also recalled the Parkses taking away furniture built at the wood shop.

Deputy Ranel Roberts, interviewed Sept. 21

Told investigators he saw Major Higginbotham leaving the farm with hay. He also said he was aware that Higginbotham used his personal horses to work sheriff's office cattle, and that a trailer had been made for Higginbotham in the welding shop.

Capt. Robert Sanchez, interviewed Sept. 22

Sanchez told investigators that after he refused to sign a requisition presented by Deputy Parks for the purchase of chrome steps for the sides of her son-in-law Sgt. David Boldin's sheriff's truck and said he didn't think Boldin needed a truck, Capt. Douglas Baird told him that Sanchez "had angered the wrong people and Major Higginbotham ordered him back to the jail. In addition, Sanchez was informed his car was being taken away and he would have to find his own way home that evening." Sanchez also said he saw hay in the back of Higginbotham's truck.

Sgt. Leland Crawford, interviewed Sept, 22

Told investigators he would see Major Higginbotham and Sgt. Parks load horse feed and hay into their trucks.

Former deputy David Livingston, interviewed Sept. 23

Told investigators he noticed products being purchased for horses that were not used on sheriff's office horses. Also, he said he saw Higginbotham and the Parkses load hay into their trucks. Also, he said it was common for Parks and Higginbotham to bring their personally owned horses to the farm on the days sheriff's horses were seen by the farrier or veterinarian. Also, he said he saw Higginbotham with a trailer loaded with wood boards; Sgt. Parks told Livingston that Higginbotham was taking them to his residence because Higginbotham was building a fence and stalls behind his house. Also, Livingston said he believed overtime that the Parkses logged exceeded the hours they actually worked at the Manatee County Fair. Also, Livingston said he refused a request from Sgt. Parks to dig a cow pond on private property being used by Warren Rogers. Livingston said he did help escort a piece of equipment to and from the property, where he saw a sheriff's water trailer. Also, he said sheriff's office resources were used to improve property across the street from Higginbotham's residence. Livingston said Sgt. Parks told him that Higginbotham had asked Parks to put some sheriff's office cattle on the property "so it would look OK."

Dale Hancock, interviewed Sept. 26 and Nov. 11

Told investigators that at the direction of Sgt. Parks, he improved property on Golf Course Road that he "assumed was leased by the sheriff's office."

Mark Stanton, interviewed Sept. 26

Told investigators he was instructed in 2009 or 2010 by Sgt. Parks or Major Higginbotham to retrieve a sheriff's office tiller from Higginbotham's residence.

Robert Jones, interviewed Sept. 27

Told investigators he saw Sgt. Parks help load about 14 bales of hay onto a trailer belonging to someone else.

Retired Sgt. Frank Parks, interviewed Sept. 27, Oct. 20 and 21 and Dec. 13

Told investigators that Major Higginbotham directed him to load hay onto a trailer owned by Gene Wingate. He said Higginbotham told him he "would take care of" payment, but he does not know if the hay was ever billed or paid for. Also, he said Higginbotham told him the sheriff's office would be subleasing property across the street from Higginbotham's residence, but a lease was never executed. Also, he said he saw Higginbotham take bags of horse feed and bales of hay that he believed Higginbotham was using to feed his animals. Also, Parks said that with Higginbotham's permission, he would "borrow" bags of horse feed and bales of hay to feed his horses. Also, he denied to investigators that, despite photographic and video evidence to the contrary, he had dug a cow pond on the property at 63rd Avenue East and Lockwood Ridge Road. He later admitted that he did dig the pond.

Sgt. Tom Porter, interviewed Sept. 29

Told investigators that it was "suspicious" to see bags of horse feed in the back of Sgt. Parks' truck because the sheriff's office did not keep horses anywhere else.

Sgt. Dale Berg, interviewed Sept. 30 and Oct. 6

Told investigators he knew of a trailer made in the welding shop for Major Higginbotham. Also, he said he knew inmate commissary funds were used to buy an electric jack for the trailer and metal for the fabrication of an extension rack to field dress deer. Also, he said he saw Higginbotham take bags of fertilizer or chemicals from the farm.

Also, Berg said he saw horse supplies delivered to Deputy Rhonda Parks that did not appear to be used on sheriff's office horses. Also, he said the Parkses took home an industrial-sized fan purchased for the grist mill at the farm.

Deputy James Visser, interviewed Oct. 5

Told investigators he learned Major Higginbotham was using a lawn maintenance trailer over the weekends.

Richard Schiavone, interviewed Oct. 5

Told investigators he is "not aware of anyone converting property belonging to the sheriff for their personal gain outside of rumor, innuendo and hearsay."

Ronald Gardner, interviewed Oct. 5

In charge of the tilapia operation at the farm, Gardner told investigators he was not aware of anyone converting farm resources, including tilapia, for their own use or gain.

James Staffiles, interviewed Oct. 5

Told investigators that a trailer belonging to Higginbotham had been manufactured in the welding shop.

Robert Ruggiero, interviewed Oct. 5 and Oct. 7.

Told investigators he saw Major Higginbotham and the Parkses load hay and horse feed into their vehicles.

Larry Schoonover, interviewed Oct. 6

Told investigators he painted trailers for Major Higginbotham and Sgt. Parks. He also saw them take horse feed and hay.

Herman Parrish, interviewed Oct. 6

Told investigators he was unaware of anyone converting sheriff's property for their own use.

John Stephens, interviewed Oct. 11

Told investigators he bartered six of his bulls for 13 sheriff's office calves.

Crawford Wayne Lundy, interviewed Oct. 12

While an inmate at the jail in 2009, Lundy told investigators he loaded horse feed and hay into Sgt. Parks' and Major Higginbotham's trucks.

Retired deputy Rhonda Parks, interviewed Oct. 13

Told investigators that farm employees routinely took eggs home. She denied using horse care products purchased by the sheriff's office on her personally owned horses. Also, she said she and her husband would routinely "borrow" horse feed and hay, with Higginbotham's permission, and that they would replenish it with feed bought at the Parrish General Store. Also, she said she had the grist mill repair an industrial fan she bought at Tractor Supply for $39. Also, Parks said she would bring her personal horses to the farm for farrier services. The farrier has not charged her because he has been borrowing the Parkses' tractor. Also, she said other employees have taken plants and products made by the wood shop.

Lynn Mimbs, interviewed Oct. 18

A jail inmate from January to September 2011, he told investigators Sgt. Parks asked him a few times to load horse and dog feed into the back of his truck.

Roger Grant, interviewed Oct. 18

A part-time mower, he told investigators he was unaware of anyone converting sheriff's resources for personal use.

Donald Gross, interviewed Oct. 25

Told investigators that Sgt. Parks directed him to work on the property on Golf Course Road and at 63rd Avenue East and Lockwood Ridge Road.

Jeremy Jay Skillman, interviewed Nov. 3

Told investigators he leased to Sgt. Parks the parcel at 63rd Avenue East and Lockwood Ridge Road, Also, he provided investigators with a timeline of events related to the property. He said Sgt. Parks called him after Oct. 18 to complain about the timeline.

Kayla Wallace, interviewed Nov. 14

A former employee at Parrish General Store, she told investigators about purchases of feed made by the Parkses.

Patrick Miller, interviewed Nov. 15

A horticulturist at the farm, he told investigators he would invite employees to take home plants that were going to be thrown away.

Retired Maj. James Higginbotham, interviewed Dec. 1 and Dec. 14

Told investigators he did not authorize using horse products on anyone else's horses. He said he did not recall taking his horses to the farm for farrier services. Also, he denied using sheriff's office boards to build a fence on his property. Also, he said he was not aware of improprieties involving recording of time during the Manatee County Fair. He said he recalled twice trading calves for bulls. He acknowledged using sheriff's office resources on the 63rd Avenue East property, even though the sheriff's office was not leasing it. Also, he denied taking horse feed or hay for his own animals. He said he would remove molded feed and hay and feed it to cattle on the farm's pastures. He also denied taking eggs, fertilizer or other sheriff's property. Also, he said he allowed the Parkses to take horse feed and hay on the days they used their horses to work sheriff's office cattle.

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