Grandstanding Sheriff Who Charged Two Girls in the Rebecca Sedwick Suicide Never Had a Case

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April 10 2014 6:23 PM

The Sheriff Overstepped

Grady Judd got the spotlight, but no justice, in charging two teenage girls in the Rebecca Sedwick suicide case.

Sheriff Grady Judd.
Sheriff Grady Judd.

Photo courtesy Sheriff Grady Judd Polk County Sheriff's Office

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.”

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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.”

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Judd said the same thing in stories published this week, based for the first time on the 300-page file in the case. Here’s the AP story. Key quotes:

The file contains scant evidence of cyberbullying, even though officials publicly described cruel text and social media messages as reasons for Rebecca's suicide.

And:

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.

And:

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.”