For five long years, the late-night shooting death of Seth Adams by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Sgt. Michael Custer has hung like a dark cloud over local law enforcement.
Arguably, more than any other deputy-involved shooting, the saga that arose from Adams’ tragic death has dogged the PBSO and Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office for the incident’s utter needlessness.
To be sure, last Monday’s announcement by the Adams family of a $2.5 million settlement with Sheriff Ric Bradshaw to end the family’s lawsuit was welcome news. It is a good step toward staunching the distrustful whispers that continue to dog those good law-enforcement officers — especially those in the sheriff’s office — who work diligently and unselfishly to keep our local communities safe.
But it is just a step.
The mess that was made of the investigation into the Seth Adams shooting deserves more. And that more, as requested by his family, should come from the State Attorney’s Office in the form of an independent probe of Adams’ shooting by Custer.
Custer, who was working an undercover detail conducting surveillance on a group of bank robbers known as “The Safe Boys,” confronted Adams at about 11:40 p.m. in the parking lot of the A One Stop Garden Shop on A Road in Loxahatchee Groves, the family nursery where the 24-year-old Adams lived and worked.
Custer claimed Adams viciously attacked him. While he was wearing plainclothes and driving an unmarked SUV as part of an undercover operation, Custer said, he identified himself as a lawman. When Adams reached into his truck, Custer said he feared Adams had grabbed a gun, so the deputy fired his service weapon. Adams was unarmed. No charges were brought against Custer, but the family filed a wrongful death suit.
During a four-week civil trial in March, the family’s attorneys presented overwhelming evidence that Custer actually had no reason to shoot Adams. The jury’s 8-1 vote led to a mistrial, but not before troubling facts about law enforcement’s handling of the case emerged.
U.S. District Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley, who presided over the case, at one point garnered international attention when he said publicly last year that he was “deeply disturbed” by PBSO’s handling of several items of evidence — including the disappearance of the cellphone Custer was using that night. And during the trial, when attorneys for Custer and the agency sought to enter as testimony a 40-minute video re-enactment with Custer holding a gun and standing near a truck or scene that resembled the shooting scene, Hurley went off.
He said he had “never in my life” seen a lead detective close out an investigation with such glaring holes as sheriff’s Detective Christopher Neuman had.
“This investigation from beginning to end has been slipshod and shoddy, and this is a disgrace,” Hurley said. “What was done here was really shocking.”
That’s not all that’s shocking: Three months after the shooting, both the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and then-Palm Beach County State Attorney Peter Antonacci cleared Custer of wrongdoing and declined to pursue charges against him. Their “independent” investigations involved little more than reviewing the PBSO’s own evidence.
Mike Edmondson, a spokesman for State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s office, told the Post’s Daphne Duret on Monday that “the decision not to prosecute Custer was made during Antonacci’s time as state attorney, and added that the settlement of the lawsuit meant nothing new in terms of whether the current administration would pursue charges.”
How can it not? A settlement doesn’t mean justice was served; especially not in a case where a federal judge so savagely and publicly criticized the investigation.
Local police and prosecutors still carry the weight of questions surrounding years of police shootings raised by both the Post Editorial Board and the newspaper’s “In the Line of Fire” series.
To help relieve that burden — and given what we’ve learned from the civil trial — Aronberg should reopen this case and conduct a truly independent criminal investigation into Seth Adams’ shooting.
The mess that was made of the investigation into the Seth Adams shooting deserves more.
To read the full Opinion click here.