Florida Keys

Florida Keys deputy arrested after road rage incident. He says he was late for work.

Deputy Jatavi Wendall Lee
Deputy Jatavi Wendall Lee

A Monroe County Sheriff’s Office jail deputy who pleaded no contest last year to misdemeanor domestic battery in Miami Gardens was arrested in the Keys Tuesday on charges he confronted a civilian driver following a road rage incident in March.

Deputy Jatavi Wendall Lee, 35, was booked into county jail Tuesday morning on charges of reckless driving and obstructing a highway. He was released later in the day after posting his $15,000 bond. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The arrest stems from a sheriff’s office internal affairs investigation into a March 29 incident in which investigators say Lee was speeding southbound down U.S. 1 in Key Largo and aggressively passing other drivers. Footage of the incident was filmed by the dashboard camera inside one of the cars he passed, according to a sheriff’s office arrest report.

The sheriff’s office would not release the video Tuesday because it “is still part of an investigation,” agency spokesman Adam Linhardt said.

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The driver with the camera provided a copy of the video to the sheriff’s office the day of the incident. It shows Lee’s black Chevrolet using the exit lane on the Jewfish Creek Bridge as a passing lane to get around traffic, according to Detective Scott Ward’s report. He swerved back onto the highway directly in front of the Toyota with the camera, causing the driver of that car to slam on his brakes.

The Chevy then drove between a Ford F-150 pickup truck and the concrete barrier that separates northbound and southbound traffic on the bridge and passed the pickup, then Lee slammed on his brakes, according to the report.

Lee got out of his car wearing his green sheriff’s office uniform and gun belt, according to the report. The driver of the pickup truck, Brian Oppenheimer, 52, told police he was not sure if Lee was wearing his gun. Oppenheimer, a retired firefighter, told deputies he moved his truck to the right when he saw the Chevy illegally pass to try to make Lee slow down.

“Mr. Oppenheimer, who retired as a firefighter, has observed far too many tragic motor vehicle accidents,” Ward wrote in his report. “Once he observed the black Chevy passing on the right in the merge lane, he moved his vehicle over to the right in attempts to slow the vehicle down.”

The move angered Lee, who Oppenheimer said screamed expletives at him and told him never to do that again.

Linhardt said that as a detention deputy, Lee “was not trained to make traffic stops.”

“Lee had no legal basis for the driving patterns displayed, nor for stopping traffic on U.S. 1,” Linhardt said.

Lee, who lives in Miami, told detectives during an April 26 interview that he was late for work at the jail on Stock Island, which is about a two-hour drive from where the incident happened. During the interview, detectives showed Lee the video.

“Lee stated he was late for work and was in a hurry. He was wearing an issued Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Class B uniform, duty belt and firearm,” Ward wrote. “He admits that his driving actions were indeed reckless and that he could have hurt himself and others. He further stated that it was a bad mistake and bad decision.”

The sheriff’s office placed Lee on leave without pay Tuesday. He will have a chance to argue against the accusations at a “pre-termination” hearing. If he does not, he will be fired May 13, Linhardt said.

This is not the first time Lee has ended up on the wrong side of the law. Last year he pleaded no contest to domestic battery and theft of a license plate over an April 6, 2018, incident in Miami Gardens. Police there said he slapped his ex-girlfriend in the face and then followed her new boyfriend to a gas station, where he removed the other man’s license plate from his car. Police say he also threatened to shoot both of them. He was picking up a child he shares with the woman at daycare when the incident happened.

He told Miami Gardens police that he did argue with the woman and took the license plate because he said it belonged to him.

Linhardt said he could not immediately answer why Lee remained on Monroe’s force after he pleaded no contest to the charges.

“I can’t answer that right now. I just don’t know yet,” he said.

Monroe County Sheriff Rick Ramsay said in a statement that he is grateful to the witness who provided the dash-cam video.

“When our employees commit crimes or make mistakes, they are held accountable and the Sheriff’s Office will always be transparent regarding those matters,” Ramsay said. “I expect the highest level of professional conduct from Sheriff’s Office staff. This type of behavior will never be tolerated under my leadership as reflected in the actions we have taken.”