Keys sheriff says police shouldn’t have arrested 2 deputies after a fight in Key West

Cellphone video that witnesses took of a fight between two off-duty Monroe County sheriff’s deputies and three Navy sailors last weekend shows the cops tried to show restraint until force was unavoidable, the deputies’ boss said Thursday.

Sheriff Rick Ramsay reinstated the deputies, and he’s now criticizing the Key West Police officers who arrested his men despite several witnesses, including the ones who shot the video, saying they were defending themselves against the sailors.

“A poor investigation was done and a hasty decision was made,” Ramsay told the Miami Herald/FLKeysnews.com.

Deputies Trevor Pike, 25, and Connor Curry, 23, were arrested Saturday on disorderly conduct charges. Pike was also booked on felony battery because he was the one who Key West cops say punched sailor James Black in the face — causing him to lose consciousness and hit his head on the sidewalk after collapsing to the ground.

Two of the sailors, Angel Low, 26, and Jose Bejar Jr., 22, were also arrested on disorderly conduct charges. Black wasn’t arrested because he suffered a serious head injury and was taken to Kendall Regional Medical Center.

The fight happened around 1:45 a.m. Saturday outside of the Walgreens on Duval Street. Ramsay, who has a history of taking an uncompromising approach toward members of his staff accused of misconduct, immediately placed his deputies on unpaid leave following the fight. Though he’s since put them back to work after watching the video.

“The arrest was unjust. They did not violate the law,” he said, adding, that there is still an internal affairs investigation looking into whether the deputies engaged in any other possible inappropriate behavior that night.

Witnesses defend deputies

Ramsay also reviewed body camera footage from the Key West officers where he said numerous people are heard telling officers that they witnessed the fight and that the sailors were the aggressors.

The footage also shows the officers declined to take statements with the witnesses or watch the video, which was taken by five women in Key West for a birthday party. After hearing about the deputies’ arrest, one of the women emailed Ramsay a copy of the video and told him the sailors started the fight.

“These are witnesses you want to speak with to either prove or dispute what took place,” Ramsay said.

According to Ramsay, the incident began when the sailors, in town from another base visiting Naval Air Station Key West, were belligerently trying to “mack” on a group of women. When the women weren’t receptive, the sailors turned their attention to Pike and Curry, Ramsay said.

“They were heckling Pike, who was on the phone,” Ramsay said.

The fight

The sailors then crossed Duval Street to confront the deputies. The video shows one of the sailors, wearing a white T-shirt push Pike and then punch him in the face. As Pike backs up, the sailor charges at him, and Pike wrestles him to the ground.

For a few seconds, Pike appears to be dominating the sailor, preventing him from getting up, but he is not hitting him.

“He uses a lot of restraint,” Ramsay said.

However, another sailor, wearing a black shirt, pushes Pike, which allows the other one to get to his feet, still grabbing Pike. At this moment, Pike punches the man in the white T-shirt, causing him to fall back on the street.

Black subsequently confronts Pike, who punches him once in the face, and then one more time as Black continues to approach him. Black’s body collapsed after being hit. The Key West police officers’ report stated Pike pushed Black after hitting him, but the video footage doesn’t show that.

“Pike stopped immediately. He didn’t keep hitting him. Once the attack stopped, he stopped,” Ramsay said.

The sailor in the white shirt then went after Pike who backed up defensively, but Curry stood in his way. This was actually the only time Curry is seen having any involvement in the fight.

“It was three-on-one,” Ramsay said. “The other deputy is doing nothing.”

Officers on scene

Key West police officers then arrive, yelling at all involved to sit on the ground.

One of the officers, Thomas Clark, told his supervisor, Sgt. Alex Rodriguez, that it appeared to him that Pike was defending himself.

“It looked like these three active duty Navy guys were attacking the deputy,” Clark tells Rodriguez in an exchange recorded on Clark’s body camera. “He knocked this dude straight out.”

“In self-defense?” Rodriguez asks.

“It looked like self-defense,” Clark replies.

The camera footage obtained from the Key West Police Department shows Clark walking to the 500 block of Duval Street where there is a dispute. It shows a man — later identified as Black, being struck and falling onto his back, smacking his head on the sidewalk.

“Oh, s–t,” Clark says as he watches Black hit the sidewalk. “Stay down!” he shouts to the men as he walks toward the sidewalk beneath the lighted Walgreens facade.

Key West Police Officer Erik Roberts later tells Pike and Curry that he just watched, “that guy’s head bounce off the concrete like a basketball.”

Clark and other Key West officers separated the sailors and deputies for interviews.

The video shows Black being helped onto his feet and then asked by an officer for his identification. He hands it over and is walked to the ambulance while wearing a neck brace.

On another officer’s body-worn camera video, Pike is seen telling police he and Curry were walking to get pizza when the sailors “started talking crap,” from across the street.

Pike said one sailor pushed him and took him to the ground, “and he hits me. I see myself start bleeding.”

Pike said he got up and hit the sailor once.

After hearing Pike’s version of what happened, Roberts tells him, “Regardless of what they were saying, as soon as he puts his hand on you, you got a right to defend yourself.”

On the video, Clark at one point before the arrest tells Pike, “In my opinion, from what I viewed briefly, it looked like you were defending yourself.” But Clark tells Pike he is worried that Black will have to be airlifted. He also says he has to talk with his supervisor.

Pike and Curry, who were off duty at the time, were taken to the detention center on Stock Island, along with sailors Low and Bejar.

Aviation Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Black was later airlifted to Kendall Regional after police said he suffered a brain bleed from striking his head on the sidewalk.

Black remained hospitalized on Wednesday and was in stable condition, according to Lt. Cmdr. Amber Lewis, a spokeswoman for the Commander Navy Reserve Force Command.

Clark and Roberts weren’t the only ones who said it looked like Pike was acting in self-defense.

A man recorded on the body-worn camera video said he saw three men on top of one man.

“He was fighting them all off of him,” the witness, who identifies himself as Chuck Carter, tells Clark. “When I first started walking down they were laying out here on the curb on top of him. Then when he got up he was kind of backpedaling, fighting them off of him.”

Lewis said she can’t comment on any possible disciplinary actions while an investigation is ongoing.

Navy investigating sailors

While Black was in the hospital on Wednesday, Lewis said Low and Bejar had returned to Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“The incident is currently under investigation by local authorities,” Lewis said in an email. “The Navy has high standards and expectations of all its sailors, takes allegations of criminal activity very seriously and gives full cooperation to all appropriate investigative and law enforcement authorities whenever they occur.”

In the body-worn camera video, Clark tells one sailor they should have known better.

“You’re putting me in a really bad spot,” Clark says. “You’re probably going to go to jail. Because you guys can’t handle yourselves when you’re drinking it’s not fair to me. You understand? You’re putting me in the worst situation ever having to arrest active duty.”

Ramsay said Rodriguez, as supervisor, wrongly decided to arrest all four men on disorderly conduct rather than speak with witnesses, gather evidence and find out exactly what happened.

As a result, the deputies’ careers could have been ruined over the incident had Ramsay not seen the video. He said at least one of the sailors, the one wearing the black shirt and who shoved Pike off of the sailor in the white shirt, may have simply been trying to separate the men.

But since he was arrested, he faces demotion or possible expulsion from the Navy.

“[Rodriguez] made the situation into what it is today, which is a shame,” Ramsay said.

Key West Police Chief Sean Brandenburg said Thursday that, for now, he stands by his officers’ actions that night.

“I am not going to second guess the decision of my officers,” Brandenburg said in a text to the Herald. “It is up to the State Attorney and the judge to decide whether the arrested men are at fault.”

Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward said he and his investigators have seen the video and most of the officers’ body cameras, but have not made a decision on moving forward with the charges.

“We have to read a couple more witness statements and do a couple of intakes,” Ward said.