TALLAHASSEE—At Jack McLean Park, Darryl Newman sits alone, on top of a picnic table, with his feet resting on the bench.
“This is where I go. This is my sanctuary. I sit here and read the paper and pray,” he said.
Newman said he used to be a volunteer football coach to middle school boys at this park. He can’t afford it anymore.
“I spend a lot of time alone now,” he said.
For almost two years, Newman has been battling depression, trying to keep a brave face for his wife and two daughters, ages nine and twelve.
“But every day, Dad wants to cry,” he confessed.
It wasn’t always this way.
Until two years ago, in addition to being a volunteer in the community, Newman was a veteran 911 dispatcher with over 20 years of experience, first with the Tallahassee Police Department (TPD) and then with the county’s new Consolidated Dispatch Agency (CDA) as a fire dispatcher.
He loved his job. He loved helping people in tough situations, loved the adrenaline rush of an emergency call and going home at the end of a shift knowing he had really made a difference in someone’s life.
On Nov. 22, 2014, the CDA received a call that Newman described as a “dispatcher’s nightmare.” The 911 call came first to the call taker, Doyal Hester, a 20-year city employee. Hester alerted the TPD dispatcher, Gwen Forehand, a 25-year veteran and Newman, the fire department dispatcher.
Newman said, “The three of us were the cream of the crop. We knew exactly what we were doing. The fire call was that the house was fully engulfed. I dispatched it the way I had thousands of times. It was a Priority One. I dispatched eight trucks.”
But this call was unlike any other. The firefighters and deputies Chris Smith and Colin Wulfekuhl were sent to 3722 Caracus Court for what they thought was a routine house fire. Instead, they were ambushed by the resident, Curtis Wade Holley, who investigators said held anti-government views and set the home ablaze to lure first responders.
Smith, a 47-year-old married father of two, was immediately shot and killed by Holley. Holley also shot Wulfekuhl, who was saved by his bullet-proof vest. TPD Officer Scott Angulo shot and killed Holley following a lengthy gun battle.
“I was the first one in the command center to hear over the dispatch that a deputy, Deputy Chris Smith, was down,” Newman recalled.
He said a couple of hours after the tragic event, Newman was told to go home. He, Hester and Forehand were suspended.
He said, with the training he had received, there was nothing he would have done differently that day. “I had a screen with red Priority One numbers all over it. Now they say I should have checked a little blue hash tag Priority Three note on the right corner of the screen, first. I never saw it.”
He explained that this blue code, once clicked on, displays various premises alerts about the residence, such as gate codes, and was routinely ignored. Under the new Motorola system used by CDA, this area also holds any warnings for the police or firefighters that they may be in danger. In this case, tragically, no one saw the warning that this resident was wanting to harm first responders.
Newman said that it was his understanding that the firefighters and police check that code for themselves before they respond.
He said of the deputy’s death “It weighs heavy on my heart, but I know I didn’t do anything wrong. It is really tough living with that on your heart.”
Newman said he was driving down the road when he heard that an investigation into the incident showed that Newman and the other dispatchers were being blamed for Smith’s death.
“I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me,” he said. “It was surreal because I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
Newman said he was never interviewed about the incident and his immediate supervisors, Connie Dukes and Jay Frohock, neither of whom are certified on the Motorola system, “didn’t know how the system works.”
According to Newman, Dukes and Frohock are still CDA supervisors.
But on Dec. 12, Newman was fired over the phone, as were Hester and Forehand.
Director Tim Lee wrote in Newman’s Dec. 23, 2014 termination letter that during a recreation of the event, it was determined Newman “did not view the premise hazard notes for the call…and failed to notify the first responders or anyone else in the center that there was an officer safety premise hazard on the address that first responders were responding to.”
“There is clear evidence in the training records and day-to-day operational documentation that you were knowledgeable of the premise hazards and their functional use,” Lee wrote.
Newman said that was not true and that he was not trained to do that. The subsequent audit of the CDA seems to back up his claim. Page 104 City Audit 1505 states, the “areas for which formal policies and procedures have not been completed as of the date of our review included, for example, premises hazards, training, and fire dispatching.”
He said he was a scapegoat, a scapegoat for supervisors not certified on a Motorola system that he said was not properly vetted before its use in Leon County.
“It was easier to blame people who can’t defend themselves,” he said.
“I have spent half my life as a dispatcher. I have given my heart and soul and this is what I get back. I feel like they stuck a finger in my eye. It hurts. I’m not angry. I’m sad,” he said.
“I’m sad they can do people like this,” Newman said as a tear welled up in his eye.
He said that not only was he not interviewed by his supervisors or Lee, he also was never interviewed by the grand jury which investigated the case.
He said that after he was fired he did meet with Lee who said, “Darryl, you can tell me why I should give you your job back,” to which Newman said he told Lee, “You should have asked that at the beginning. God told me to forgive you.” Newman offered Lee no other explanation of the event.
Fully humiliated, Newman said he then asked to tell everyone at CDA good-bye. “The secretary was crying and my supervisors literally turned their backs on me.”
Since then, he has applied for other full-time jobs but with no luck. “I couldn’t even get hired as a switchboard operator,” he said. “This has completely destroyed my character and my name. They left me, with a family, out to dry.”
Lee resigned over the incident but was quickly rehired by the City of Tallahassee in a different position.
Newman said he never got the chance to defend himself. He and the other dispatchers have brought suit against the CDA, Leon County, the City of Tallahassee, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office and Motorola to clear their names. The court date is set for May 2017.
“I just want the Smith family to know it wasn’t the dispatchers’ fault,” he said. “I want to tell the truth, clear my name and win the case.”
“Many people know I was railroaded, but I’ve lost a lot of friends over this. They either just ask how’s it going or they avoid me. Thank God for my wonderful wife and my kids. I often tell myself it could be a lot worse. It’s hard to complain. I’m still living and I could be destitute or homeless. I’m just tired,” he said.
“This has been very draining,” he sighed. “I just try to keep moving forward.”