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Witnesses accuse Florida Sheriff Scotty Rhoden of intimidating opponent’s supporters

The Feb. 10 campaign kickoff on JD Carpenter’s farm (Courtesy: Carpenter for Sheriff Campaign)

The old C & R Grocery store on a remote stretch of US Highway 90 in the tiny town of Glen St. Mary has long been abandoned, but that didn’t stop Baker County sheriff’s deputies from setting up a speed post there on Feb. 10, according to multiple witnesses. 

As it happened, the deputies were there at precisely the same time J.D. Carpenter was holding his campaign kickoff at his remote farm just one dirt road west of the defunct store. Carpenter is running against  the deputies’ boss, Sheriff Scotty Rhoden, in the Republican primary this coming August.

Attendees said they also watched as sheriff’s Lt. Gerald Ray Rhoden, the sheriff’s brother, drove by Carpenter’s farm house at least three times during the event and at one point rolled down his window to apparently take photos with his cellphone. 

Baker County Sheriff Scotty Rhoden (BCSO)

The Florida Trident interviewed eight witnesses who felt the deputies’ presence was aimed at intimidating those who attended Carpenter’s campaign event. Two of them alleged Sheriff Rhoden, who has served in the position for eight years, visited them personally after Carpenter’s kickoff to pressure them to support his own incumbency campaign. 

If meant to intimidate, it was successful: All eight spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal from the sheriff’s office in the tiny rural county of roughly 28,000 people.

Carpenter, a 30-year veteran of the bordering Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, said he’s heard numerous complaints from his supporters of being intimidated by employees of the sheriff’s department or the sheriff himself, but he said it won’t make any difference in his campaign. 

“I don’t believe [Rhoden] can turn intimidation into votes. Those tactics are unfortunate, but local folks will vote with their heart, not fear,” said Carpenter. 

Voter intimidation in Florida is a felony. “No person, whether acting under color of law or otherwise, shall intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, or coerce, any other person for the purpose of interfering with the right of such other person to vote or not to vote as that person may choose,” reads section 104.0515 of the Florida statutes.

Rhoden didn’t respond to interview requests, but denied in texts sent from his personal cell phone that a speed post had been set up, let alone to monitor anyone attending his opponents’ campaign kickoff. 

“All our LPR’s (License Plate Readers) are in fixed locations and are not mobile.” Rhoden offered. “No license plate readers or speed post was set up. I heard this was something they put out due to the extremely low turnout at this event.” 

One Carpenter supporter said Rhoden, whether intentionally or not, “scared” her in a public place following the campaign kickoff. She said the sheriff, in uniform, approached her and said, “I sure hope you’re still voting for me.” 

Candidate Carpenter (Campaign Photo)

She said she suspected Rhoden had seen her in photographs posted by Carpenter’s campaign on social media following the kickoff at the farm. One couple also appearing in those photographs told the Trident they had an even more startling experience with Rhoden when the sheriff showed up in person at their home the morning after Carpenter’s event.

They said after being alerted by their dogs barking, the wife walked out of their home to find Rhoden in full uniform standing outside their gate in front of his heavily tinted sheriff’s office SUV. 

“I just wanted to make sure you’re still supporting me,” the woman said Rhoden told her. 

She said she told the sheriff she was undecided. Her husband, coming up from the family’s barn, overheard the conversation. “I’ll tell you right now, I’m not in support of you,” the husband told Rhoden. 

The couple told the sheriff they had problems with some issues regarding Rhoden’s deputies. Rhoden told her he hoped she wouldn’t vote against him because of his undersheriff, she said. 

The sheriff didn’t deny visiting the couple, but claimed intimidation wasn’t the aim. 

“I go visit people all over Baker County for many reasons,” Rhoden texted. “I have never went [sic] to anyone’s residence and harassed or intimidated them. I don’t know who was at JD Carpenter’s meet and greet. I’m concentrating on my own campaign.” 

The woman, however, said she felt “very intimidated” by the encounter at her property.

“I’m sure he knew we had been to Mr. Carpenter’s party.” she told the Trident. “Now I have decided I’m 110 percent in favor of J.D. Carpenter, but I am in fear driving around town.”

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About the author: Susan Clark Armstrong is a veteran investigative reporter and former Florida Times-Union columnist who lives in the Jacksonville area.