Hillsborough deputy gets light charge after alleged road rage incident

Victim says deputy should face assault charge

The victim of a violent road rage incident says he can't understand why the suspect, a deputy, is getting such a lenient charge.


Evan Rees said he never had a dislike for law enforcement.  After all, he has relatives who are cops. 

But after what happened following a rear end crash on I-4 as he was leaving the Florida State Fair with his family in February, Rees doesn't have the same trust for sheriff's deputies as he once did.

"It just seems real shady to me right now," Rees said, after hearing about the lenient punishment Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputy Thomas Pettis received for his role in a road rage incident where he allegedly punched Rees in the face and pointed a gun at his head.

Rees, 44, said he departed the fair in a Honda Fit with his wife, sister, and niece.  They were stuck in stop and go traffic, when suddenly the rear windshield shattered, spraying glass all over the inside of the car.

That's when Rees looked out the window and saw Pettis barreling toward his family.  He got out of the car.

"I just remember ... spit hitting me in the face," Rees said.  "He started bumping me with his chest.  And then, for whatever reason, he grabbed me by the throat."

Rees, a high school wrestling coach, took Pettis to the ground.  Bystanders who had gathered to see the confrontation pulled them apart.  But Pettis was still angry, and pushed his way toward Rees as he was getting up.

Rees's wife said she watched helplessly as Pettis punched her husband in the face, drew a gun out along with his badge, and threatened his life.

"When the gun was drawn he said 'I'm going to ... kill you.'  And then it was 'I'm a ... cop,'" said Cindy Vervuurt.  "It was kind of like him identifying himself as a police officer was the 'a-ha' of the moment," Vervuurt said.

"Honestly, when the gentleman pulled out the badge and identified himself as a officer, my heart just sank," Vervuurt said.  "I felt complete and utter shock that anyone who carried a badge would behave that way."

Vervuurt said witnesses at the scene videotaped the encounter, but to her surprise, she later heard that deputies ordered those people to erase the video from their phones.

"I think that the video footage would have had the threat on there that he said to my husband with the gun out," she said.  "That would have made a significant difference in the charges that were brought upon him."

Prosecutors have charged Pettis with misdemeanor battery, saying he pulled out his handgun in self-defense.  His actions could have carried a felony assault with a deadly weapon charge, which means several years in prison with a conviction.

But video of the incident has not been released, although HCSO said the State Attorney's Office does have a copy.

Rees said the light charges, combined with the accusations that deputies tried to erase any video of the event, suggest some kind of favoritism, or even a cover-up.

"I just think had it been me or anybody else and not a police officer I think there would be assault charges going along with this," Rees said.

Pettis, 55, suddenly retired from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office with full benefits before any internal investigation could punish him. 

The former homicide investigator was the lead deputy on multiple cases, including high profile murders.  Pettis is scheduled to appear in court on Monday for the misdemeanor battery charge.

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