SEBRING — As a science teacher at Sebring High School, Evan Rees, at least until recently, stayed under the radar of a large media market.
But during the last two months, Rees has appeared on Tampa television news broadcasts, as well as having his name in the print media because of a supposed road rage incident involving a former Hillsborough County deputy.
“This isn’t the 15 minutes of fame I wanted,” said Rees, who has taught in Highlands County schools for more than eight years, adding that he never approached the media.
Rees, who said he feels that Hillsborough County officials have showed favoritism to Thomas Pettis, who was a detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s during the incident on Feb. 15, 2014, wants Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor. He said he got his idea from the Trayvon Martin case. The governor appointed one after the local prosecutor would not charge George Zimmerman, the man who fatally shot Martin. Zimmerman was tried and acquitted of the charge.
Rees wants people to send letters to the governor seeking the appointment of the special prosecutor.
He said Pettis should have been charged with more than just misdemeanor battery.
But Mark Cox, spokesman for the Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors there have followed the law.
“We feel like we did the right thing,” he said. “We don’t have a legal conflict. We have no intention of getting off the case.”
Neither Pettis, who since the incident left the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
What led to all this, Rees said, began on the evening of Feb. 14 when he, his wife and his niece, who was driving, were leaving the State Fair. When they got on I-4, it was stop and go traffic, Rees said.
A driver in the back rear-ended the vehicle in which Rees was a passenger, he said.
Rees was surprised, he said, at the temperament of Pettis.
“He was yelling and irate,” Rees said. “I was baffled because he hit us.”
During the entire incident, Pettis never identified himself as a law enforcement officer, Rees said.
When Rees and Pettis met up after the accident, Rees recalled, “He started chest banging and grabbing me by the throat and pushing me out to the median.”
Rees, a wrestling coach, said he used a “foot sweep,” a maneuver that got Pettis to the ground.
They were on the ground until “witnesses pulled us apart,” he said.
At that time, he said, Pettis pulled out a gun.
“I got up and turned around and I saw the gun and after that I saw the badge and realized he‘s a cop,” Rees said.
Not long after that, Rees said, Pettis’ daughter started yelling at him and saying obscenities.
At some point during that incident, Pettis “came through the crowd and punched me in the face,” Rees said. “I didn’t defend myself because I knew he was a cop and he had a gun on himself.”
Despite all that, the favoritism continued, Rees said. While he had to stay at the scene for five hours for questioning, Pettis was allowed to go to a McDonald’s, Rees added.
Rees said Pettis has claimed self-defense, but he fails to understand that because Pettis was the aggressor the whole time.
He’s learned, he said, Pettis was charged with a misdemeanor and will be able to enter a program and after a certain amount of time his record will be wiped clean. Rees said he believes the charges would have been more severe for Pettis.
Cox said he can’t comment on that because an arraignment for Pettis has yet to be held.
In a letter explaining why more serious charges were not filed, State Attorney Mark Ober said that witnesses were divided with family members supporting their family member and neutral observers offering differing views of what happened.
He also wrote that both men claimed they were acting in self-defense.
Ober wrote that while Pettis admitted to pointing a gun at Rees for a very short period of time, he cannot charge Pettis with aggravated assault.
“Therefore, in order to charge Pettis with aggravated assault, the evidence would not only have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pettis intentionally threatened to shoot Rees, but would also have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Pettis did not do so lawfully in self-defense.”
“We find the evidence does not refute a claim of self-defense as to a charge of aggravated assault,” Ober wrote. “Pettis pointed the gun briefly while in a vulnerable position and the video and neutral eyewitness testimony indicate that after standing up he held the gun at a downward angle until putting it back in the holster.”
But Rees said he disagrees with the overall conclusion and believes Pettis deserves more of a punishment.
In looking back at the situation, he said, “It was surreal. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve been involved with my entire life.”