On February 3, Dominic Jerome "DJ" Broadus II, a 31-year-old resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was killed after being shot in the head three times — once in the mouth and twice in the neck — in Macclenny, Florida, on the property of Southern State Nurseries, Inc.
Broadus' parents, Del Swain and Dominic, Sr., describe their son's death as an "execution-style" shooting conducted in broad daylight.
According to a Baker County Sheriff's Office (BCSO) report, only one other person was on the property at the time of the shooting: 29-year-old Gardner Kent Fraser, the son of recently retired Baker County Deputy Sheriff Ryan T. Fraser. Though a section in the report titled "Person: Other Person" was redacted from the publicly released version, Gardner Fraser was the only person "escorted" to the Sheriff's Office on the day of the killing.
This raises questions as to why another person's presence would be reported and redacted if they weren't on the scene of the shooting and presumably of no relevance to the incident. The heavily redacted report also notes that there was a firearm on the scene. It doesn't seem to have belonged to DJ: the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), which now heads the investigation, revealed that DJ's body was found lying outside the main building of the nursery with no weapon on his person.
With one man alive, one dead after being shot three times in the head close range and with only one weapon found, this would appear to be an "open and shut case." Why, then, was Gardner Kent Fraser not arrested or charged with DJ's murder after being escorted to the police station? Why was he instead quickly released?
The Fraser family's background may shed some light on what happened next.
In 2009, something rare happened in American policing: Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford fired an officer for shooting an unarmed civilian despite the officer claiming "they feared for their life."
On October 27, 2008, Officer Fraser, Gardner's father, shot unarmed 19-year-old Jerrick Hall, who was allegedly stripping copper from inside a Jacksonville home. According to Fraser, Hall, who is African-American, fled from the home doing a "tuck and roll" maneuver and began running towards the officers with one hand on his waistband. Claiming to "fear for his life," Fraser shot Hall, wounding but not killing the teenager. At the behest of Fraternal Order of Police attorney Paul Daragjati, Sheriff Rutherford fired Fraser for the incident.
While Fraser's firing was rare, what happened next is not: soon after being fired from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Department, Fraser was hired as a deputy sheriff by the Baker County Sheriff's Office, just 30 miles west of Jacksonville.
According to Philip Stinson, associate professor at Bowling State University's Criminal Justice Program, this isn't merely a common practice in Florida, but part of something much larger:
"We see this all over the country, in a variety of different contexts, and it is really hard to get a handle on how often officers move around from department to department. We see it with large agencies and we see it even more with small agencies. When you're dealing with a small agency, there's a lot of costs involved in many places to send a recruit or a new police officer, a rookie police officer, to the police academy and sometimes those charges get charged back to the municipality or actually to the agency. So in those types of scenarios, in those states where they have those types of systems, there's an incentive to hire somebody who already has state certification, who has been to the academy. Somebody else has already paid for it."
The decision by the BCSO to hire Fraser could well have been driven by financial incentives, given the size of the agency. Another reason for the hire could be the Fraser family's deep history in the area: Fraser's grandfather, Edwin ‘Ed' Fraser, lived in Baker County and was a Florida state senator in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and served in the Florida House of Representatives from 1937 to 1940. Macclenny's main hospital, the "Ed Fraser Memorial Hospital," bears his name. The nursery, the scene of the early February shooting, where DJ was found dead, was well known for giving many in the town their first summer jobs as young teenagers.
Ryan T. Fraser remained employed by the BCSO until his retirement in October 2017, so when BCSO arrived at the family nursery on February 3 to find their former colleague's son with DJ Broadus' dead body, they found themselves at a crossroads, with the legacy and reputation of an important local family at stake.
According to one of Gardner's elementary classmates, much of his father's anger and racism was passed down to his son:
"I've also known Gar, like, since we've been in elementary school. I've always known he kinda didn't like black people, but it was easier to deal with him ‘cause I personally didn't like him like that; like, I wasn't trying to be his friend because you know he wasn't very kind to my kind of people. Other folks have told me that they have heard him use the n-word like, all the time, like it was nothing. So, it was funny, ‘cause after it happened, I have a friend that moved from Florida and she was telling me, she was, like, ‘he [Gar] has always been racist and angry.' She was like, ‘so I just hope they say something ‘cause that's how he's been since elementary school,' so that was a long memory to remember that's someone doesn't you know like black people."
Covering Up a Murder?
It's not just the individuals in Macclenny that hold racist beliefs: Baker County and its Sheriff's Department carry a similar reputation in the view of Reverend R.L. Gundy of Jacksonville's Mt. Sinai Baptist Church:
"Baker County is one of those counties where you know it is a ‘good ole boy' system back up in there: they protect one another and unfortunately you can't get everything out of there that you need for people to have equal justice in the county. All you gotta do is look up arrest rates, look up the sentencing rates… the numbers speak for themselves in Baker County and that is very important when you start trying to see what is really going on in the community like that. But I just found it strange, as they well know how something like this could happen and then all of a sudden it appears like it was some type of cover up and so you gotta get to the bottom of that… In Baker County it's gonna be deeper, because you got an entrenched law enforcement component down there in Baker County that is going to cover [for] one another."
At the time of publication, it had been 26 days since DJ's suspicious death, without any arrests or charges being filed. The following information must be parsed to determine whether or not a cover-up is taking place.
The first action taken by BCSO Sheriff Scotty Rhoden was to hand the case over to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). Rhoden, a Republican elected to office in 2016, stated, "I felt it would be in the best interest for all parties for FDLE to investigate this incident."
This appears appropriate. However, a former BCSO employee and current Jacksonville Sheriff's Office employee told Sputnik News that the tiny BCSO does not actually have the proper lab equipment or resources to investigate a murder such as this, and therefore couching the decision to turn the case over to the FDLE as a means to ensure transparency is just a political ploy. So the question is: how reliable is Rhoden?
Rhoden was elected in 2016, replacing longtime Sheriff Joey Dobson and beating Dobson's handpicked successor, Gerald Gonzalez, in a three-person race by a margin of 44 percent to 38 percent. Sworn into office in 2017, Rhoden took over a sheriff's office facing serious challenges.
A dual audit by the FDLE and the BCSO discovered that seven.40-caliber Glock Model 22 handguns — the standard sidearm issued to deputies — along with three Remington.870-caliber 12-gauge shotguns and one assault-style M-16 rifle belonging to the sheriff's office could not be found.
Of the guns the BCSO did have in their possession, a large number of them could not be traced to any records showing they belonged to the Sheriff's Office, including a.40-caliber Beretta, a.40-caliber Glock 27 model handgun, a.357-caliber Smith & Wesson 686, a.38-caliber Smith & Wesson, a Colt AR-15 fully automatic assault rifle and seven 12-gauge shotguns of various models and manufacturers.
The audit also found an unmarked box with an estimated two kilograms of cocaine in the evidence room and seven firearms submitted to evidence from a 2008 burglary case, all of which lacked associated case numbers or identifying information. In addition, there were containers where currency and drugs had been stored together.
Missing Cell Phone and Car
The BCSO's questionable handling of guns and evidence takes us back to DJ's case. As noted earlier, DJ texted his sister at 1:38 p.m., yet at some point between then and the responding Officer Mitchell Wight's arrival at the nursery at 3:45 p.m., DJ's phone had disappeared.
It's possible that DJ could have lost his phone before arriving at the nursery or that Fraser disposed of it after the shooting. It may have also been mishandled or destroyed by BCSO — to date, BCSO has given no statement on their efforts to locate the phone.
DJ's vehicle, a 1999 GMC Yukon, was also missing following the shooting. For three days the Broadus family was given no answers to whether or not the BCSO knew the location of DJ's car. It was not until February 6 that the family was notified that their son's car was available for pick up at Higginbotham's Towing and Recovery, Inc. in the neighboring town of Glen Saint Mary.
Upon arrival, Dominic Broadus, Sr., DJ's father, was notified that he'd have to pay a $339 fee for storing the car for two days, despite the BCSO claiming they did not know where the car was located on February 4 and February 5.
The items in the car were untouched and no fingerprint powder was observed on the steering wheel, the door handle or the passenger's seat, raising serious questions about how, if at all, a serious investigation was taking place.
Two weeks later, DJ's family found out that the Higginbotham family, which owned the towing company, had a family member on the Baker County Sheriff's Department. Stinson explains why this should raise alarm:
"Over the years, there have been a number of scandals where officers were actually charged with crimes for various improprieties related to steering business to various tow companies that may or may not have contracts with the various cities… It is unusual that a city would have a contract with a tow company that an employee's family has an ownership interest in — that just, that to me is an interesting thing and raises a flag with a lot of questions."
A Racist History
Many Baker County residents believe DJ's death is a case of foul play. One resident told Sputnik News that this kind of behavior is typical for the area.
When asked, local community activist Chris Davis had this to say about Macclenny and Baker County:
"It is a heavily prison industry community, it is pretty segregated, there's not a lot of black political presence. Like I said, it's the county with the mural with the image of the Klan on it in the courthouse — as soon as you walk in the front door, the first thing you see is that mural before you go into the halls of justice, so to speak."
Just inside the front door of the Baker County Clerk of Court, Sputnik News found the large mural with three Klansmen on horses riding into the distance. Despite one local resident saying the mural was painted "a long time ago," it was in fact only been painted in 2002.
Davis continued: "There's no political representation, even in the school system there are no black administrators, no black guidance counselors. There's a lot of state agencies out there and there is no black leadership in any of those state agencies or opportunities for employment out there — it's very 50-ish out there."
Founded in 1890 after the city changed its name from Darbyville to Macclenny, the town now has a population of 6,562 people, roughly 75 percent of them white and 21 percent black. Further, African-American residents, at a town hall observed by Sputnik News, testified they live in constant fear of retaliation for speaking out.
On Thursday, February 20, DJ's family, in coalition with local organizations including the Dream Defenders, Community Justice Project and the Jacksonville Police Accountability Council, held a town hall meeting in Macclenny to call on the community to join their efforts to find justice for DJ.
While 130 people showed up to the town hall, many only listened at the meeting, fearing they would be targeted if they spoke up against local law enforcement. One attendee sent a private message to Sputnik the next day, saying, "I saw you last night. A lot of people sat quiet, afraid of retaliation — they will target your kids or any family member, they will go pulling you over for no reason at all, just messing with you. Then, when you go to court, the judge already knows what to do: they write everything in the folders when you go court."
Another community member and a former classmate of Gardner said she was too afraid to come to the meeting until she saw how many people showed up and spoke out.
Arriving late, Fraser's former classmate said, "A lot of people probably, like, were scared to come out, just because of how the town works, especially being, like, a black person. Or even if like they are a white person and they are associated or affiliated with black people, it's very, like, you have to watch your back kind of because anything could happen. My motto has always been: for anybody black, if you grow up in that town, as soon as you turn 18, to leave, especially for black men."
Not only did those at the town hall vocally speak up on the troubled and racist past of Garner, another community member wrote a message to the Broadus family, saying, "Garner called his dad and girlfriend before he called the police. His girlfriend was fired from North East Florida State Hospital. She works for the Sheriff's Department. Allegedly, she stopped talking to him, Gar, because he was acting crazy and on drugs. The rumor is that there was no struggle. There are abuse allegations for beating up total care patients, where the patient suffered a black eye. Gardner quit before the investigation was over by DCF — Department of Children and Families."
As of the publishing of this article DCF has yet to provide documentation regarding Gardner's record at the hospital.
The Self Defense Argument
Given Gardner's questionable past and the fact that the FDLE spent a scant few hours on the ground, it seems unusual that within two days of the murder, on February 3, FDLE spokeswoman Jessica Carey would say "that the investigation was not a criminal investigation."
This early pronouncement seems to point to Gardner claiming self-defense, given Florida's Castle Law or defense-of-habitation law. Florida, along with Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Washington State have strong castle laws.
In Florida, law number 776.013 says that use of force is justifiable when "home protection; use or threatened use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm when (1) a person who is in a dwelling or residence in which the person has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and use or threaten to use: (b) Deadly force if he or she reasonably believes that using or threatening to use such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony."
Thus, in order to claim self-defense and justify the shooting, all Fraser has to say is that DJ was uninvited on his property or that he feared DJ was going to hurt him and that he had to shoot DJ since he feared for his life.
Rev. Gundy from Jacksonville had this to say on that line of defense:
"In Florida they typically claim self-defense and they know that a dead man can't talk — but that don't mean the dead man can't talk from the grave. That's why autopsies are involved, that's why you bring other people in, to find the whole story and put them down where they are sitting in front of feds and those questions they have to answer and they know, they say something that is wrong, you're gonna go to prison for it. So that's why. Florida, typically, when they kill a black man, they start talking about ‘it was self defense,' but typically when a black man kills a white man, all of a sudden it's a different story. So that has been the struggle in this white privilege justice in Florida. That's just bad. If it was self-defense, release all the documents, let everyone know what's going on. They just want to get to the truth, why is it taking so long to get to the truth?"
In a town willing to hire a police officer who was fired for shooting an unarmed teenage boy, where blacks are scared to even voice displeasure with law enforcement for fear of retaliation and where young white boys use racial slurs openly, it is a long shot that DJ will receive justice for his execution on Fraser property February 3.
The family continues to demand daily that the FDLE take steps toward transparency and that the state's attorney file charges against Fraser.
So far, the FDLE has hindered the family's process of finding answers and has yet to issue a cause of death, meaning the family is unable to receive an official death certificate allowing for DJ's 10- year-old son to receive social security and counseling.
While DJ's case is still unfolding, one local man said that the family should consider themselves lucky they were even able to bury the body, as other bodies in the area are rumored to have simply disappeared.
While DJ is now buried, the fight for justice has just begun.
Special Report by Bob Schluehuber