Chief US District Court Judge Mark E. Walker sentenced ex-Gadsden County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Barnes Jr. to 10 months behind bars on Monday, July 25, 2022, in Tallahassee, Florida, for giving a false statement to federal agents in 2019. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
A Florida deputy who prosecutors alleged was tied to dog fighting and drug trafficking is going to prison, but only after all but one charge got tossed.
Chief US District Court Judge Mark E. Walker sentenced ex-Gadsden County Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Barnes Jr. to 10 months behind bars on Monday, July 25, in Tallahassee for giving a false statement to federal agents in 2019.
The sentence was at the lowest end of the federal guidelines and came three months after Barnes, 54, inked a plea deal with prosecutors halfway through his jury trial.
“It was the way the jury was laid out,” Barnes told Coffee or Die Magazine. “The dynamic of the jury at the time had 13 white jurors and only one Black juror, and I wasn’t sure I’d get a fair verdict.”
In late 2016, Gadsden County Sheriff Deputy Joseph "Joe" Barnes Jr. was paired with his K-9 working dog, Ranger. Gadsden County Sheriff's Office photo.
In a prepared statement released Monday, US Attorney Jason R. Coody called Barnes’ conduct “the greatest and most harmful betrayal of public trust."
“The corrupt acts of an individual law enforcement officer endanger, rather than protect, the public,” Coody said. “Moreover, such illegal conduct erodes the public’s trust in the legions of brave men and women who faithfully honor their oaths and place their lives on the line each day to keep our communities safe. We will vigorously investigate and prosecute any officer who betrays both their oath and the public’s trust.”
It was a long fall for Barnes, who became a K9 handler at the sheriff’s office after stints as a state correctional officer and service as a second-class engineman on board the Yellowstone-class destroyer tender Acadia during the Persian Gulf War.
He told Coffee or Die he also served as an FBI informant helping the agency target corruption in the Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office between 2011 and 2013. Barnes said he gave them 17 cases, but federal agents didn’t pursue all of them.
So he wasn’t surprised when FBI agents called him to the Tallahassee Field Office on June 20, 2019, to discuss, as they put it, “any knowledge of federal law enforcement actions in Gadsden County,” according to court documents.
The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office polices the only predominately Black county in Florida. With fewer than 50,000 citizens, the community is a rural section of the Florida panhandle. Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office photo.
In reality, it was an FBI sting operation.
Agents had sent a confidential informant facing drug charges in Georgia to Barnes’ Chattahoochee home. He wore a wire. Barnes led his working dog around the man’s vehicle to see if the K9 alerted to drugs, and then the deputy fibbed when federal law enforcement asked him about it.
“I’ve seen both sides of this now,” Barnes said. “In this case, the federal agents seemed to think I had something I could give them. But I had no one to give them. I didn’t know anything.”
Barnes was fired from the sheriff’s office. He’s made his living over the past few years running an outdoor toilet service.
He’s slated to report for incarceration on Aug. 22.
Federal authorities say that Gadsden County, a most rural community in Florida's panhandle, is plagued by violent street gangs and narcotics, like these drugs seized in late 2018. Gadsden County Sheriff's Office photo.
Federal prosecutors charged him with six felonies, including racketeering tied to narcotics trafficking, drug dealing, and misusing communications facilities. But by the time he finished signing his plea agreement nearly three years later, only the false statement was left.
“I beat five of the six charges because there never was any intent on my part to do what the government said I was doing,” Barnes said.
Court records reveal that Barnes’ prosecution spun out of a 2018 federal probe into the “773 Boys” and the “424,” a pair of street gangs linked to cocaine and methamphetamine sales and illegal dog fighting rings in the Florida Panhandle.
The investigation triggered the arrest of the network’s leader, Jermaine “Tank” Hadley, 33 — who’s now serving a 30-year federal sentence at the high-security US Penitentiary Coleman 1 in Sumterville, Florida — and 20 other defendants.
Federal agents suspected that Barnes had checked drug traffickers’ vehicles for tracking devices planted by law enforcement, and had removed one of the transponders.
On March 12, 2019, Gadsden County Sheriff's deputies arrested three young men for a drive-by shooting of farm animals. From left: Travion Turrell. Antonio Rouhlac, and Trayvontaye Cheesmon, who sported a large "424" tattoo inked across his throat. Coffee or Die Magazine composite.
With fewer than 50,000 citizens, Gadsden County is a mostly rural, sparsely populated and predominantly Black community in the Florida Panhandle.
Highlighting its problems with rural gangs, in early 2019, deputies arrested three young men in Hardaway for a drive-by shooting of farm animals.
Barnes told Coffee or Die that it’s not unusual for police to know neighbors who might be involved in the drug trade, partly because so many deputies moonlighted on security details at local parties.
Barnes said he slipped up with the informant because he was a friend of his for more than two decades and he was trying to “show him what would happen if you do something stupid.”
He wishes now he’d never talked to him.
Federal authorities say that Gadsden County, a rural community in Florida's panhandle, is plagued by violent gangs and narcotics, like these drugs seized in late 2015. Gadsden County Sheriff's Office photo.
Authorities said Barnes had the chance to come clean about his help for the informant and others allegedly tied to the drug distribution syndicate, but he instead concocted a series of lies.
“Law enforcement officers are given incredible power to enforce the law and ensure justice," said Sherri E. Onks, the special agent in charge of FBI Jacksonville, in a prepared statement. "The FBI and our law enforcement partners will always work together to stop abuse of power to insure the public's continued confidence in law enforcement. Any officer who tarnishes the badge by taking advantage of their position for personal gain must and will be held accountable.”
Barnes told Coffee or Die he never made a penny off of his relationship with the confidential informant. Instead, he says, cops should look at his fate as a cautionary tale about trusting dicey friends, even those they’ve known for many years.
“Stick to your rules and follow your instincts,” he said. “If you’re exposed to people who have bad habits, stay away from them.”
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Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
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