An FBI agent checking out a complaint about police corruption in Franklin County ended up handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car after running into deputies who doubted his true identity.
The ordeal unfolded after Special Agent Alexis Hatten traveled from Panama City to Carrabelle to ask about a citation the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office gave to a prominent businesswoman but later pulled back from the courthouse.
It escalated into a roadside confrontation — all caught on bodycam video —between Hatten and the deputies. During the six minutes Hatten spent locked in the cruiser, he cried out for cool air and demanded to be released.
"I can't believe this is happening," the veteran FBI agent said. "You think this is funny, but it won't be funny after today."
The hour-long incident, now under review by the FBI, happened Dec. 20 in a parking lot off U.S. 98 in the coastal fishing community.
Hatten hastily scheduled an interview with Deputy Rolf Gordon to talk about the ticket, which he'd issued a few weeks earlier. But the conversation went sideways after Gordon began to suspect Hatten wasn't really a federal agent.
The agent’s vehicle tags didn't trace back to the government agency deputies expected. After a check of his driver's license, his name popped up on a terrorist watch list, according to bodycam footage and Sheriff A.J. Smith in a subsequent interview.
The story, which has been making rounds in Franklin County political circles, came to light after the Tallahassee Democrat obtained the body cam footage, police reports and other documents through a public records request.
The records exposed normally secretive movements of the FBI, whose recent public corruption investigations in North Florida have led to numerous guilty pleas from government officials, including former Tallahassee City Commissioner Scott Maddox.
They also highlighted the FBI's interest in the sheriff’s office, though it’s unclear whether that goes beyond a mere traffic ticket. Smith, who's running for a second term, said his opponents likely complained to the FBI to score political points in an election year.
"They must have told them there’s some kind of corruption or the sheriff is corrupt," he said. "That’s all I can figure. It’s certainly not true."
Smith said he’s not aware of any broader federal probe involving his office. The FBI was characteristically tight-lipped, saying it could neither confirm nor deny an investigation.
Incident raises 'blue on blue' concerns
The tense standoff could have spiraled even further out of control, potentially putting officers in danger. At one point, after Gordon detained Hatten, the agent held his hands up in surrender and refused to put them down even after the deputy said he could.
"I don’t want to be shot out here," Hatten said.
"I don’t want to be shot either," Gordon replied.
James Dooley, a retired New York City police captain and adjunct professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the incident could have escalated into an unintentional act of "blue on blue" violence.
"There could have been an emotional, visceral reaction by any of the parties," he said. "There wasn’t, thank God. But any time you have a confrontation between a uniform officer and a plainclothes officer whose identity is not immediately established, there is a potential for a tragedy."
The FBI declined to comment in detail but acknowledged it is reviewing the incident.
"The FBI remains committed to full coordination with all of our law enforcement partners," a bureau spokesperson said, "and we will continue to work together with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office to strengthen the relationship between our agencies and ensure the safety and security of this community."
‘Something going on in Carrabelle’
Hatten went to Carrabelle to ask about a traffic ticket Gordon gave to a prominent local businesswoman for leaving the scene of a Dec. 3 crash. And while the FBI isn't known for its interest in traffic matters, the ticket in question wasn't handled ordinarily.
After the ticketed driver complained to Smith, he asked for an internal review. Deputies picked the ticket up from the courthouse before it could be logged into the Clerk of Court's system. The sheriff's office eventually handed it off to prosecutors, who dismissed it for lack of evidence.
On the day of the incident, Hatten rang Gordon on his personal cell — something the deputy found odd — and identified himself as an FBI agent. He wanted to meet with Gordon to talk about "something going on in Carrabelle," the deputy later wrote.
At the meeting spot, Hatten flashed his FBI credentials and said he had spent the last 31 years investigating police corruption and civil rights violations. He said he wanted to talk about the traffic ticket.
Gordon called his supervisor, Sgt. T.J. Carroll, to tell him what was going on. Carroll advised the interview would have to be rescheduled through the sheriff’s office.
"(The agent's) demeanor appeared to change as if this agitated him," Gordon said. "Mr. Hatten told me he wasn’t going to do that, he said he would have the U.S. attorney contact me directly to take care of this."
That’s when the deputy — convinced the mystery man may be a fraud after all — activated his body camera.
‘There’s something fishy with this’
Hatten, visibly perturbed, identified himself again and asked Gordon to turn the camera off. But Gordon declined.
"I don’t know how legitimate you are at the moment," the deputy said.
Gordon asked Hatten for his business card, but the agent said he doesn’t give them out.
"I don’t believe this," Gordon said over his radio. "There’s something fishy with this right here."
Hatten’s Ford Taurus came back to a business called Advanced Wiring Company in Jacksonville, a dispatcher said. Gordon asked Hatten whether he worked for the company. Hatten said curtly it was "a covert vehicle."
But the agent wouldn't say how he got the deputy's personal cell phone or answer other questions, prompting the deputy to detain him.
"I’m not cuffing you," Gordon said. "But you’re being very uncooperative with me."
'You don't need to be a deputy'
Hatten, outside his car with his hands up, asked Gordon to take his gun but then reversed himself, saying he didn't have permission to disarm him.
The agent radioed FBI dispatch to report what was happening. Later, on the phone with a supervisor, he explained the situation had "escalated" after he came to talk to Gordon.
"You’ve got to call the sheriff to let him know that his deputies have me stopped here and are holding me," the agent said. "He’s going to ask why and you’re not going to be able to tell him."
Gordon, waiting for his supervisor to show up, told Hatten he never showed him his badge. Gordon pulled it out and asked the deputy to take it.
"Do you not see a badge?" the agent asked. "Oh, good Lord. Well, you don’t need to be a deputy."
Nearly 20 minutes into the encounter, Gordon’s colleagues arrived at the scene with stunning news: Hatten's name came back "hot" on a terrorist watch list.
"Seriously?" someone asked.
"I swear to the Lord Jesus," Detective Matt Coleman said.
However, deputies later seemed to express confusion about the watch list. Carroll said one person advised Hatten's name was on the list and for law enforcement to "use extreme caution." But someone else told him "his name was completely different."
Smith said Hatten's name was linked to the watch list after the sheriff's office ran his license through the state's driver and vehicle information database. He said he couldn't release a document showing Hatten on the list because it's exempt under public record laws.
'I'm suffering in here'
Carroll handcuffed Hatten with his hands behind his back and removed a semi-automatic Glock handgun from his hip holster.
"Right now we’re running your name through multiple federal databases," Gordon said. "Nobody’s coming back with your name. You’re also coming back on a terror watch list. We’re going to secure you for your protection and ours."
They put him in the back of Gordon’s cruiser, its dark tinted windows rolled up. The agent started yelling for help a minute or two later.
"I need air brother," Hatten said. "I’m suffering in here."
"Alright, I'm turning it on now," Gordon said. "I've got the air on full blast."
"No you don't, brother," Hatten cried. "You're burning me up. Brother, I need air. God almighty!"
Moments later, an officer on the radio said he was on the phone with the agent’s supervisor.
"He is legit," the officer said. "He's down here on official business."
'They've had me smoking in the back'
Once Hatten was released, he repeatedly asked deputies to call 911, saying he needed medical attention. Deputies requested paramedics as he peeled off his sweater and radioed FBI dispatch.
"Jacksonville, I need 911," he said. "I’ve asked for help. I’ve been in a car. They’ve had me smoking in the back."
The agent sank into the driver’s seat of his car and complained about vision problems, a common symptom of heat stroke.
"I can’t see," Hatten said. "I’ve lost my vision."
Emergency medical workers arrived and loaded him into an ambulance. Hatten asked to be taken to a hospital in Tallahassee. But officers weren't convinced he was hurt.
"And the nominee for best actor ..." one officer quipped.
Hatten said Gordon had the heat on in his car, but the deputy denied it. Gordon said he initially had the defroster set on cool but turned the air conditioner on full blast after the agent complained.
It was 66 degrees outside at the time, Gordon noted in his report. Smith, in an interview, said "nothing was wrong" with Hatten when he was discharged from the hospital later that day.
The FBI, citing privacy concerns, declined to say whether Hatten was physically harmed. But the bureau suggested the sheriff may have overstepped in his assessment of the agent's condition.
"It’s important to note that only a patient’s condition is known to that patient and the medical provider," the FBI spokesperson said, "and only a patient can disclose that information."
'We need to have some training'
In the hours after Hatten was released, FBI agents and brass descended on Apalachicola, meeting with Gordon and the sheriff to find out what happened and why. Gordon, in his report, said he answered their questions truthfully.
Smith, who arrived at the scene moments before Hatten was released, defended the actions of his deputies. He said Gordon "erred on the side of caution."
"With the information and knowledge that he had, I think he handled it appropriately," Smith said.
Dooley, the former NYPD officer, said he didn't believe deputies did anything wrong at the scene. He said trouble could have been avoided if the FBI agent arranged for an interview in an office setting. But he added he couldn't speak to the agency's investigative techniques in the Carrabelle inquiry.
Smith said most of his deputies have never seen a name appear on a terrorist watch list or encountered FBI agents in the field.
"We don’t see them often in our county," he said. "That’s one of the things that I talked about with the FBI. We need to have some training, and we need to know who their people are. And they agree."
Larry Keefe, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, declined to comment.
The sheriff acknowledged his office didn’t have solid lines of communication with the FBI at the time of the incident. Now they do, he said.
We’re going to try to use this," Smith said, "to make both our agencies work together a lot better."
Contact Jeff Burlew at email@example.com or follow @JeffBurlew on Twitter.