Here’s how a longtime colleague of Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Fla., talks about him in the local press: “I kid him: ‘The most dangerous place in Polk County is to get between you and a TV camera,’” said Gary Hester, now a local police chief. “He just laughs. But he’s worked the media very well.”
I’m not sure that stale joke is ever funny, but now it has really curdled. Judd is the sheriff who brought felony charges, in conjunction with the state’s attorney’s office, in October 2013 against two girls, 12 and 14, after the suicide a month earlier of a third girl, Rebecca Sedwick. Judd did indeed work the media, racking up local and national coverage by saying at a press conference that Rebecca was “absolutely terrorized on social media.” Judd claimed that as many as 15 kids had tormented Rebecca, baiting her to kill herself. Judd charged the two girls, Katelyn Roman and Guadalupe Shaw, with aggravated stalking and released their names and mugshots (once you charge a felony, that’s what his office says state law requires). He made it sound like they posed an urgent risk, saying of Guadalupe: “We decided that we can’t leave her out there. Who else is she going to torment, who else is she going to harass?”
A month later, prosecutors dropped the charges after combing through thousands of Facebook posts and failing to find evidence of cyberbullying. That’s OK: Judd called it a win, pointing to the fact that Katelyn and Guadalupe—who had to go to a juvenile detention facility when she was arrested—were in counseling. “We’ve raised awareness and we’ve helped kids,” Judd told reporters, “I’m glad we did what we did, and we would do it again tomorrow.”
The file contains scant evidence of cyberbullying, even though officials publicly described cruel text and social media messages as reasons for Rebecca’s suicide.
After Rebecca’s death, Judd said as many as 15 classmates had ganged up on the girl and sent her messages saying “You should die” and “Why don’t you go kill yourself?” But no such messages appear in the case file, although detectives interviewed some students who said they had seen such messages. Judd said his detectives tried to obtain records from social media companies overseas without success.
Deputies wrote that they saw screen shots of cruel messages and that some of the evidence was deleted, but it’s unclear by whom, Judd said.
I’ve read those 300 pages too, and a well-done story in Cosmopolitan by Abigail Pesta that’s based on the file plus interviews with many of the people involved, and here’s what it all shows: When the police initially interviewed Tricia Norman, Rebecca’s grieving mother, she told them her daughter had been bullied during the 2012–13 school year, when she started middle school in sixth grade. She also said Rebecca’s relationship with her father had “deteriorated,” according to the deputy’s notes. “Tricia stated this had a profound effect on Rebecca and she began showing signs of depression,” he wrote. In December 2012, Norman found out that Rebecca was cutting herself. She did what a good mom should: Took her daughter to counseling. Rebecca was briefly committed to a hospital. Norman also took away her cellphone for a time.
Katelyn Roman told Pesta that she and Rebecca met at the start of their sixth-grade year and became friends. Katelyn also became friends with Guadalupe. According to Katelyn, Guadalupe started liking a boy who had been Rebecca’s boyfriend and got other girls to gang up on Rebecca. Katelyn, who says she’d been bothered that Rebecca had been telling small lies, sided with Guadalupe and broke off their friendship. There are multiple reports that at one point that fall Rebecca said her mother was abusing her, but then took it back, saying she’d made it up.
There was a fight at some point that fall or winter, in which Katelyn and Rebecca pushed each other. By February 2013, the school had changed Rebecca’s schedule to separate her from some of the other girls. But Norman decided to take her out of school and homeschool her for the rest of the school year. And according to the sheriff’s office itself, the problems Rebecca had with Katelyn and Guadalupe ended there. The stalking charges cite “a pattern of conduct between Dec 2012 and February 2013.”
When Rebecca started seventh grade in August 2013, a few weeks before she died, she was at a new school. Her mom thought she was doing fine there. But the files show that Rebecca had been thinking about suicide over the summer. The night before she died, she texted a friend “I NEED YOU” and they discussed whether she should break up with a boy she said had kissed another girl. At about 5:30 the next morning, a few hours before she died, Rebecca texted “We broke up so like…” and then “I wanted to say bye…for like ever.”
This is all incredibly sad—heartbreaking. Rebecca’s suicide and its aftermath are reminiscent of the suicide of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince and its aftermath. Phoebe died in South Hadley, Mass., in January 2010. A zealous prosecutor, Elizabeth Scheibel, went on a crusade, bringing criminal charges against six teenagers that held them directly responsible for causing her death. Months later, after interviewing many students and adults at Phoebe’s school who said the prosecution’s version of events was misleading and oversimplified, I read through hundreds of pages of court files, thinking I would finally understand the basis for the charges. The opposite happened. I only felt more baffled. And also dismayed, on behalf of the teenagers who because of the criminal charges had become the focus of an unrelenting barrage of attacks and anger, online and in person.
In both of these stories, the point is not that Katelyn and Guadalupe, or the older teenagers accused of bullying Phoebe, weren’t at fault. They were involved in a social conflict—drama—and at times they acted meanly. But holding them responsible for a suicide, by bringing criminal charges, is unwarranted and unjust. Pesta writes that Judd told her he felt a “moral obligation to raise awareness.” That is no kind of reason for charging a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old with a felony. You don’t plaster their photos all over the news and threaten them with a maximum penalty of five years in prison to “raise awareness.” Judd also had the temerity to say: “No one wants to criminalize children” and “our desire was to make sure these children got counseling.” Do I even need to say that these are empty, self-serving pieties?
When I called Judd’s office for comment, I couldn’t get him on the phone, so I guess this is the moment in which even the biggest media hound knows to take a break. I asked the spokeswoman who returned my call about a remaining mystery in the files, this note from the deputy who interviewed Rebecca’s family: “They showed me several screen shots of messages on various text message apps telling Rebecca to ‘kill’ herself’ and to ‘just go die.’ ” The screenshots of the messages themselves are not in the file. When were those messages written, and by whom? What happened to them? The spokesperson said she would email the screenshots to me. She instead sent 15 pages I already had. There were no messages telling Rebecca to kill herself.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. If you watch this news broadcast, at the 1:50 mark, you’ll see screen shots of messages that say “can u die plese” and “go die.” Kids do write these awful kinds of things to each other, and it is very much worth talking about how that can possibly be and why they should stop. But there is no proof that Guadalupe or Katelyn wrote those messages..
In defense of Judd’s decision to charge Katelyn and Guadalupe, his spokeswoman told me: “We had probable cause to charge them with aggravated stalking.” The fact that the charges were dropped “doesn’t mean there wasn’t sufficient evidence,” she also said. “That’s a bogus phrase from the media.”
When Judd called Guadalupe a danger to society, he trumpeted one post in her Facebook feed: “yes ik I bullied REBECCA and she killed her self but IDGAF.” That is horrible. (Guadalupe has denied posting it, saying someone else had her login info.) What Judd never said, though, is that the 15 pages of screen shots in the file are filled with sorrow. After Rebecca died, Katelyn wrote to Guadalupe “Why does everything have to fuck up I feel like rebeccas dead cause of me if only i could say sorry.” Guadalupe wrote back, “Iknow I feel so bad omg I feel like its all my fault for saying all that shit to her omfg I didn’t mean for nun diz to happen.” You can read this as a damning admission, I suppose. But you can also read it as heartfelt, if overdue, remorse. And the girls were expressing that before they talked to a single cop. Charging them on this evidence was massive overreach.
Grady Judd’s tendency to overdo it isn’t news to the voters who elected him. At the outset of his career, a deputy was killed in the line of duty, and other officers emptied their guns into the suspect, shooting him 68 times. Asked why, Judd said, “because we ran out of bullets.” In 2007, he boasted of arresting a man for running an Internet pornography site out of his home. An expert called the porn “run-of-the-mill erotica available anywhere on the Internet to anyone who wanted it.” Judd is also the sheriff who took the basketball hoops out of the local jail and stopped supplying inmates with underwear. A federal judge sharply criticized him last year for using pepper spray on detained juveniles. “Polk County is the only county in Florida so far to detain children and teens charged as juveniles under adult jail standards as opposed to those tailored for juvenile detention,” the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out.
I would like to think that the wrongheaded case against Katelyn and Guadalupe will spell the end of trumped-up criminal charges for bullying in the aftermath of teenage suicide. Maybe other sheriffs and prosecutors will see the real lesson to be learned here: This is not the way to help kids. Or to make yourself look good, either.
Update, April 10, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that Sheriff Judd brought charges against Katelyn and Guadalupe in conjunction with the state’s attorney.