The parents of Seth Adams are sure Sgt. Michael Custer is lying about why he fatally shot their unarmed son in the parking lot of the family's nursery business nearly five years ago, even though the sheriff's deputy was cleared by investigators.
The family will get a chance to prove its allegations when a federal civil rights trial against Custer and the sheriff's office begins Monday with jury selection. The Adams family and their attorneys say ballistics tests, contradictions in Custer's statements and observations by his Palm Beach County colleagues undermine his account of Adams as an immediate and persistent aggressor in the confrontation.
The family said the May 2012 shooting was unjustified and that the investigation was flawed. They are seeking unspecified damages.
Custer, then a 15-year sheriff's office veteran, and the sheriff's office have denied wrongdoing. Custer, who had no previous complaints of brutality or violence in his personnel file, said he shot Adams because Adams attacked him for no reason and he feared for his life. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation cleared him of criminal wrongdoing.
This will be the second time in a year the sheriff's office will be in federal court defending itself in the shooting of an unarmed man. Last February, a federal jury awarded Dontrell Stephens $22 million after finding that Sgt. Adams Lin unjustifiably shot him when he mistook Stephens' cellphone for a gun. The shooting paralyzed Stephens.
The agency also settled at least three other lawsuits in the last year over questionable shootings, totaling $2.7 million.
Both the sheriff's office and Wallace McCall, the family's lead attorney, declined to discuss the pending trial.
Some facts about the two-minute confrontation are undisputed. Custer, wearing civilian clothing, pulled into the nursey parking lot about 11 p.m. on May 16, 2012. He parked his unmarked black Ford SUV, but left the motor running and turned off the lights. He was supervising a team trying to capture a gang of ATM thieves, all of them white males in their 20s like Adams. The Adams family said Custer, who is also white, ignored signs banning afterhours parking.
Adams, who lived with his brother and sister-in-law on the property, returned home at about 11:40 from Boonies, a bar about 3 miles away. Employees told investigators he played beer pong with friends and chatted amiably with the waitress. He pulled his blue Ford pickup into a space about 15 feet from Custer. An autopsy showed his blood-alcohol content was 0.13, well over Florida's .08 percent legal limit for driving.
What happened next is where the trial will be fought.
According to court records, Custer said Adams began yelling profanities at him "as loud as a person could" and demanded to know who he was without identifying himself as a resident. Custer said he identified himself as a sheriff's deputy, but Adams again cursed him, said he had no right to be there and started walking quickly toward him.
Custer said he showed Adams his sheriff's identification, but that "seemed to make him worse." He said Adams grabbed him by the throat, but he broke free and punched Adams in the chest. Then he pointed his Glock .40-caliber handgun at Adams and ordered him to the ground. Instead, he said, Adams began circling "like a wrestler looking for an angle."
Custer, who is 5-foot-8, said he radioed for help and warned Adams, who was 6-foot-4, he would be shot if he advanced.
He said Adams went into his truck as if retrieving a weapon. He kicked the truck's door shut and grabbed Adams around the neck, warning he would be shot if he didn't comply, but Adams kept fishing around. He said Adams spun toward him, so he fired four shots, hitting Adams twice in the chest and once in the forearm. Adams died two hours later at the hospital.
McCall alleges in court documents that Custer's story doesn't match the evidence. He said Palm Beach Sheriff's Agent Kevin Drummond, a surveillance team member, told investigators he drove past the nursery and saw Custer exiting his SUV and Adams standing motionless near his truck about a minute before the shooting. He didn't think Adams posed a threat or notice any screaming, so he didn't stop.
When confronted with Drummond's statement, McCall said, Custer changed his story to say Adams briefly listened to him but again became enraged as he explained why he was there.
The attorney also said an officer radioed that he heard shots fired before Custer radioed for help. Custer's neck also had no redness or bruising and gunpowder burns to Adams' forearm, ballistics evidence and a blood trail indicate Custer's shots were fired several feet from Adams' truck, the attorney said.
The trial is expected to last four weeks.