Traveling missionary claims civil rights violation

Andrew Stephens

OKEECHOBEE — A man who describes himself as a traveling missionary claims his civil rights were violated Tuesday by the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. Andrew Jacob Stephens, 41, was arrested April 7 and charged with resisting arrest without violence. After spending a night in a holding cell at the county jail, he was released on his own recognizance.

Mr. Stephens has been camping at the Fort Drum Crystal Mine in exchange for doing some handyman work for the owner, Edwin Rucks. Mr. Stephens said he and his wife and their two children along with another friend, Ryan Kirby, have been self-quarantining at the crystal mines for about a month now. “We thought it would be a great geological field trip for the kids and we could stay away from potential coronavirus patients.”

Mr. Rucks is putting in a barbed-wire fence that he claims is on his property, but his neighbor claims is on her property. According to the arrest report, the barbed-wire fence is alongside the neighbor’s aluminum carport. She said she told him it was in the wrong place, but he refused to move it, so she called the sheriff’s office.

Mr. Stephens said he and his friend were outside working on the fence around 7:45 p.m. when they saw a deputy pull in. At this point, Mr. Stephens, who described himself as a civil rights photographer, got out a body cam so he could record whatever happened next.

Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Deputy Bryan Holden approached the neighbor first, and Mr. Stephens and Mr. Kirby began to videotape the interaction. The report notes the neighbor claims to have had numerous problems with Mr. Rucks and his visitors since she moved in, and she asked Deputy Holden to please tell Mr. Rucks to move the fence, but Deputy Holden explained it was a civil issue and without survey markers in place showing the corners of her property, it would be hard to determine where the property line was. He advised her to have the property surveyed, and she said she would call the following morning.

Next, Deputy Holden approached Mr. Rucks to discuss the situation with him, and according to the report, he requested Mr. Rucks step to the back of his patrol vehicle alone for the officer’s safety. The report notes Mr. Stephens and Mr. Kirby were talking loudly and recording the entire time. Deputy Holden said he asked about troubles the neighbors had in the past and attempted to ease the situation between the two neighbors until the survey could be completed.

According to the arrest report, while Deputy Holden was talking to Mr. Rucks, Mr. Kirby and Mr. Stephens began walking to the front of the vehicle, and Deputy Holden ordered them to return to the front gate for officer safety reasons, but they refused to go and told him it was a free country. At that point, Deputy Holden told them they were interfering with his investigation and if they did not stop, he would arrest them, so they walked back to the fence, still arguing with him, and then came back up to the patrol vehicle asking if Mr. Rucks was OK and accusing Deputy Holden of acting in an aggressive manner. The men asked Mr. Rucks numerous times if he was OK, and each time, he said he was. Deputy Holden again told them to return to the gate, and he called for another unit to respond to the location. The two men approached the patrol vehicle again and continued filming as Deputy Holden talked to Mr. Rucks. This time, they reportedly refused to back away when told to do so.

Lt. Shane Snyder and Deputy Devon Satallante arrived on the scene and after being apprised of the situation, Lt. Snyder asked Mr. Kirby and Mr. Stephens for their IDs, but both men reportedly told him they had not committed any crime and did not have to give anyone their names. Mr. Stephens reportedly told him he was leaving. Lt. Snyder told him if he tried to leave, he would be arrested, but Mr. Stephens allegedly told him he was a professional “cop watcher” and did not commit any crime. He began walking toward Mr. Rucks’s residence, and was arrested. Mr. Kirby did provide his name and date of birth and went back to recording. The camera belonged to Mr. Stephens and was placed into evidence. Lt. Snyder will be obtaining a search warrant for the camera, containing video of the incident.

After the arrest, the report notes Deputy Holden was able to speak with Mr. Rucks and he agreed to hold off on building the fence until the property line can be identified.

According to Mr. Stephens, he has a body cam because as a traveling missionary, he runs into situations where he needs to record encounters like this. He said he recorded it because he was just trying to document the events. He claims he was not obstructing an investigation because no crimes were committed. It was a civil issue. He said they felt intimidated because the officers were shining bright lights in their faces and yelling at them. “I, myself, was amenable as heck,” he said. He claimed he tried to provide his identification but was not fast enough for the officers’ liking. In addition, he said on the way to the jail, he was told he would be there for 14 days because the court system is shut down. He claims Deputy Satallante told him his video evidence would never get out, and he claims he watched the officers attempt to delete the footage, but it is a sophisticated camera and you need a password, he explained.

Mr. Stephens was held in a holding cell for approximately 12 hours before he saw the judge. At that time, he was released on his own recognizance, but his camera remains in evidence.

Sheriff Noel Stephen said, “He asked for his problems by not obeying the officer’s requests.” He also explained the only way they could get the recording was to confiscate the camera. “That should speak volumes,” he said.

Mr. Stephens is concerned he may have been exposed to the coronavirus during this whole interaction. He said he and his family were peacefully quarantined out at the mines and now he has been dragged to what he called a filthy jail cell. If he and his family come down with the virus, he will know who to blame, he said.

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