John Weatherholt and Glen Nickell stole thousands of dollars from children in the state — that much is very clear.
The two former state employees concocted an elaborate theft ring that was centered at two shooting ranges in the state, both of which were owned and operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Nickell was rangemaster at FWC’s Cecil M. Webb range. Weatherholt was his boss, who worked out of the commission’s Lakeland office.
The pair, along with the help of Nickell’s ex-con handyman, took spent brass — tons of brass — from Webb and another range to a half-dozen local recyclers and pocketed thousand of dollars in cash.
The most egregious part of their scheme? There were signs on the firing line at the Webb range that falsely told shooters that the proceeds from their recycled brass would go to youth shooting programs in the state. I’ve been contacted by dozens of shooters who told me that rather than picking up their spent brass, they left it at the range. It was for children, after all. Right?
Don’t think for a second that Weatherholt or Nickell picked up and sorted all the spent brass themselves. They ordered the Range Safety Officers — low paid hourly employees — to do that dirty, demeaning task. If an RSO balked at the illegal order, they didn’t last long.
When I was first told of the Weatherholt/Nickell scheme by the guys at Sarasota’s Amendment II Armory — the real heroes in this saga — I knew we had to do something. So, once invited to set up cameras inside AIIA, we arranged a sting.
Once the series was published, FWC’s Inspector General pounced. The IG conducted a very thorough criminal investigation.
This is where things went wrong. This is where the system broke down.
Because there were alleged violations in two jurisdictions — Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office of Statewide Prosecution was brought in to prosecute the case.
To be clear — a state agency was tasked to prosecute state employees, albeit former ones.
Weatherholt and Nickell each faced one count of grand theft and one count of “organized fraud,” both third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in prison, five years of probation and a $5,000 fine. But in court yesterday, it became clear the fix was in.
Weatherholt and Nickell were given plea deals — extremely light plea deals, for them.
What does this mean? According to the statute, once the duo completes probation “the court is divested of jurisdiction and there is no adjudication of guilt… In addition, defendants could safely check the ‘no’ box on job applications when asked if they had ever been convicted of a criminal offense.”
Of course both men were ordered to pay restitution, court costs and the cost of the IG’s investigation, but neither Weatherholt nor Nickell will
ever spend so much as one night behind bars.
Weatherholt even had the temerity to ask the judge if he could continue working as an NRA-certified firearms instructor. The judge said he could. Bondi’s statewide prosecutor certainly didn’t object.
In addition to making a mockery of public corruption laws, Bondi’s team has sent a clear message to other state employees. If you get the opportunity to steal — steal.
What’s the worst that can happen? If you’re caught — and that’s a big if in Florida — you’ll only be required to pay back what you stole but, other than some probation, there won’t be any real consequences — certainly nothing long term.
I tried to talk to Bondi’s prosecutor about the plea deal yesterday as she was walking out of the hearing.
She declined to comment, citing an office policy that prohibits prosecutors from talking to the media. Now, I understand why Bondi has that policy in place. We reporters tend to ask uncomfortable questions, like what the hell were you thinking?
In the courtroom, Nickell appeared somewhat remorseful. He was quiet, taciturn.
As to Weatherholt, well, I think the images our photojournalist captured as Weatherholt was walking out of the courtroom sum up his reaction far better than anything I could ever come up with.