TAMPA — Evan Rees drove two hours to Plant City on Thursday morning to look his attacker in the eye after a judge handed down his punishment.
But the 44-year-old high school teacher never got the chance.
Thomas Pettis, a former Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, did not make an appearance at his court hearing Thursday, following a roadside altercation with Rees in February.
The pair got in a scuffle after the off-duty deputy rear-ended Rees' car on I-4. During an ensuing fight, Pettis pulled out his gun and pointed it at Rees before quickly putting away the weapon.
The misdemeanor battery charge against Pettis will be dropped once he completes the county's Misdemeanor Intervention Program and does community service with The Salvation Army.
That sentence is too lenient to satisfy Rees, who took the day off work and drove with his wife from their home in Sebring to be at the hearing.
“I feel genuinely ripped off,” he said afterward.
Cindy Vervuurt, Rees' wife, said she was stunned when neither the former deputy nor his lawyer showed up in court.
“I feel like the victim has a right to see the sentencing,” she said. “Even if it's something light, that's our only form of justice.”
Pettis' lawyer, Norman Cannella Sr., said neither he nor his client were required to be at the hearing because Pettis and prosecutors had already agreed on his participation in the intervention program.
The sheriff's office suspended Pettis without pay on Feb. 17 after the altercation with Rees. He worked for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's office from May 1999 until March 24, when he retired as a detective, records show.
The incident began on Feb. 15, when Rees and Vervuurt, along with his sister and niece, were driving home after spending the day at the Florida State Fair. Pettis accidentally rear-ended their car, and both drivers pulled over to the side of the road.
Rees said Pettis was shouting and swearing as he approached his car, and he got out to meet him. An argument ensued, which escalated into a physical fight.
Rees, a wrestling coach, pinned Pettis to the ground until family members and passersby pulled him off, records show. As Pettis was getting up, he pulled out his gun and pointed it at Rees for about a second before pointing it at the ground. He then flashed his badge, records show, and put the gun away a few seconds later. The arguing continued, and Pettis punched Rees in the face before the two men were separated again.
According to a written statement from State Attorney Mark Ober, Pettis said he drew his gun in self-defense. Pettis was charged with battery for throwing the punch, but there was not enough evidence to charge Pettis with aggravated assault — a felony — for pointing a gun at Rees, Ober wrote.
Rees said he believes Pettis received special treatment from prosecutors and said he has written to the governor to ask that a special prosecutor be appointed to review the case. He also called the state attorney's office in Hillsborough County to discuss a potential conflict of interest, he said.
Pettis was shown favoritism, Rees said, calling it “a terrible message to be sending the citizens of Florida.”
“The system is broken in our case,” she said.