Every Tuesday night for the past seven years, a Florida sheriff’s Facebook page has blasted out a set of ten faces plastered on a giant spinning wheel, all to a soundtrack of rock music. But instead of spinning for a cash prize, Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey picks a “fugitive of the week” for citizens to keep an eye out for.
“You know how it works, all ten people up here have warrants for their arrests, we want to get them off the streets and safely behind bars where they can’t victimize anybody else,” Ivey told viewers on this past Tuesday’s episode.
There’s just one problem. Over the span of about a year, many of those faces weren’t fugitives at all, according to a new lawsuit filed against Sheriff Ivey in Brevard County court on Wednesday. David Austin Gay, one of the people repeatedly featured on the show in January and February 2021, is suing Ivey for defamation and demanding damages for emotional distress and loss of employment, according to the complaint, which was obtained by The Daily Beast.
According to Gay’s complaint, he was first featured on the Jan. 26, 2021 episode. At the time, court and police records show, he was in the county jail for an alleged violation of probation that was ultimately dismissed. Gay, who was originally sentenced to a withhold of adjudication and three years probation, was arrested in Dec. 2020 for a misdemeanor charge when he allegedly struck his father who was “in a physical altercation with [his] mother,” according to the lawsuit.
His probation officer filed a violation over the incident and, even though it was dismissed in court on Jan. 19, 2021, the warrant remained active, and Gay was taken into custody on Jan. 25, 2021.
Gay, who according to Ivey’s own agency booking records was sitting in the county jail at the time, was featured again on Feb. 2, and again on Feb. 9 and finally, a day after his release, one last time on Feb. 23.
But the popularity of the Sheriff’s show, posted on a prominent Facebook page and YouTube channel, meant that Gay found himself unable to move on with his life, he claims.
“After his release, Mr. Gay was hired for a new job. As he drove to his first day of work, his new employer informed him by phone to not bother showing up as he had seen Mr. Gay in Ivey and/ or BCSO’s ‘Wheel of Fugitive’ videos; therefore losing his job,” according to the lawsuit.
The complaint says Gay suffered emotional distress such as depression and anxiety and avoided going out over fear the police or the public would harass, physically threaten, or arrest him. Neither Sheriff Ivey nor a BCSO spokesperson immediately responded to a request for comment.
The lawsuit comes nearly two years after a FLORIDA TODAY investigation featuring Gay found that 60 individuals were incorrectly labeled as fugitives over 45 episodes of Ivey’s show between Feb. 25, 2020, and Feb. 23, 2021. In fact, just four episodes in that time accurately portrayed 10 out of 10 fugitives, with one episode featuring a whopping seven people who were either already in jail, were legally free, or had no active warrants at the time, the report found.
But Sheriff Ivey is no stranger to the limelight. The far-right lawman recently made headlines for spearheading a vague but controversial new school discipline policy in his county. His penchant for show business has drawn jeers for years, dating back to an episode of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show in 2016, when host Trevor Noah highlighted “Wheel of Fugitive” on a segment by Hasan Minhaj.
“I don’t understand. Why don’t police try and catch all the criminals instead of picking one per week?” Noah remarked.
Jokes aside, Sheriff Ivey, a self-styled “Constitutional Sheriff” and “American Patriot” on his Facebook page, reportedly has ties to the anti-government extremist group the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA).
His office has also faced a number of civil rights lawsuits and criticism for the agency’s culture in recent years, notably over the death of a Black U.S. Army combat veteran Gregory Lloyd Edwards in 2018 at the county jail, and the shooting of two Black teenagers, Sincere Pierce and A.J. Crooms, in Cocoa by a sheriff’s deputy in 2021. However, he did reportedly plan to fire one of his own lieutenants, Bert Gamin, after public outcry in response to Gamin’s social-media posts in which the cop called on officers in Atlanta and Buffalo who were disciplined for their violence against protesters to apply for a job. (Gamin resigned before any discipline.)
The training standards of the BCSO have also been called into question following the accidental shooting of a deputy last month by his roommate—a fellow deputy.
While the Sheriff’s unconventional media tactics have drawn praise for their creativity and public engagement, they have also riled up a number of critics. Even Brevard County Public Defender Blaise Trettis, who endorsed the Sheriff’s most recent re-election bid, said that Wheel of Fugitive “seems to be more showbiz than actually effective law enforcement.”
For David Gay, that showbiz may have come at a price.
“There’s no reason for me to be on Wheel of Fugitive…. It’s keeping me from going further with my life and trying to make things better,” Gay told me in 2021. “I’d like to get back to welding or doing some kind of mechanic work, (but) it’s kind of troublesome to find something like that because people are looking at me like I’m some kind of monster when I’m not.”