ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. -- Brandon Stephens said his Boston Terrier, Pepsi, can be an escape artist, but when Pepsi snuck out of his Covington home last April and roamed the streets with reckless abandon, words exchanged with a neighbor about it carried consequences for Stephens.
St Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith fired Stephens over it less than 24 hours after Pepsi’s escape.
While Smith has the legal right to fire Stephens without cause, the ouster raises questions about whether the sheriff has been even-handed with discipline, as another deputy, who was caught fudging the probable cause on DWI arrests, was allowed to resign, opening the door for him to secure law enforcement employment elsewhere.
Stephens hasn’t been so lucky.
“I get in an argument where voices weren't even raised about a 12-pound lap dog -- where someone threatened me and I stood up for myself, and, fired. So, I mean, it's kind of disgusting,” Stephens said about the termination that ended his 15-year law enforcement career.
Stephens was off-duty and out of uniform at the time, but Lynn Blossman, a member of one of Covington’s elite families, knew where he worked.
Blossman said she walks around the Covington Country Club Estates neighborhood daily, but on April 5, 2017, her walk led her to cross paths with Pepsi.
While the 12-pound terrier isn’t large in stature, Blossman said she is afraid of dogs, and that Pepsi ran up to her in an aggressive manner.
“I was scared to death,” Blossman said.
She said she threw her cell phone at the dog to make it back away and a neighbor came over and picked the terrier up to take it back to Stephens’ home.
Meanwhile, Stephens had driven to the gas station with his brother to buy a pack of cigarettes and said he was unaware Pepsi had gotten out. Blossman flagged him down on his way back home, angry about the dog running loose.
“I was real apologetic about it. I said, you know, I'm sorry dear. She's not aggressive, but I understand she's supposed to be on a leash and not running loose. I'll make sure it don't happen again,” Stephens recalled.
But Blossman said she felt Stephens was mocking her, not taking her concerns seriously that Stephens was violating the parish leash law by allowing Pepsi to escape.
“He wasn't gonna do anything about it and so I said, well, I'm just gonna go call the Sheriff's Office and he said, he used very foul language to me, he started flipping me off with both hands and he got so angry that I thought maybe he was going to hit me,” Blossman said.
Stephens describes a similar set of circumstances, but said neither of them raised their voice, and he denies ever waving his middle fingers at her.
“I said are you really threatening my job over my dog barking at you? I said go f&*k yourself lady and I pulled off,” Stephen said.
But Blossman didn’t just say she was going to call the Sheriff’s Office, she told Stephens she would call Deputy Chief Jeff Boehm, Smith’s right-hand, a man she describes as a close family friend.
“He’s the only person I knew at the Sheriff’s Office,” Blossman said.
But Stephens said in an interview and in his written response to his termination that Blossman made it clear she was threatening his job.
High-ranking internal affairs investigators paid Blossman a visit the day after her encounter with Stephens to take her statement.
“They said is there anything else you want to add? I said yes. A man like that, the last thing he needs is to carry a gun. His temper is way too bad to carry a gun,” Blossman said.
Stephens was called in to internal affairs that day and fired.
“He should have shut up. All he had to have done that day was to apologize and say this will never happen again. I'll do my darndest to keep the dog locked up,” Blossman said.
Smith officially terminated Stephens for unbecoming conduct, immoral or criminal conduct and willful disregard of agency rules.
“He was very out of line and I made the decision in the internal affairs investigation to terminate him,” Sheriff Smith said.
The Sheriff’s Office policy manual allows disciplined deputies to ask the chief deputy for a hearing before an internal review board to try and get their punishment overturned.
Stephens asked for one, submitting a six-page response to his termination that is so detailed he even disputes which profane words he used, pointing out deputies swear at suspects while in uniform regularly and are never disciplined let alone fired for it.
The Chief Deputy at the time, Fred Oswald, was supposed to grant or deny Stephens’ review.
But records show the office human resources manager sent Stephens an email that said Oswald was denying him a hearing, something Oswald, who has since separated from the STPSO, denies.
“That's simply a lie. Not only did I not deny his appeal, I was never given the opportunity to grant his appeal, because he was denied before I even could respond back,” Oswald said.
He has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Smith, alleging he was terminated for trying to get Smith to prosecute a deputy who had allegedly committed a crime.
But Smith said he stands by Stephens’ firing.
“This wasn't the first, wasn't his first rodeo with complaints with citizens,” the sheriff said.
Oswald said he checked Stephens’ jacket at the time and he had no citizen complaints against him.
Records obtained from the STPSO do not show any citizen complaints in Stephens’ file, but it does include citizen letters commending him for his sympathy and compassion on the job.
The sheriff's office did investigate Stephens and another deputy for putting their hands on a drug suspect who, according to a use of force report, was passively resisting arrest. No one was hurt and Stephens and the other deputy were cleared of wrongdoing.
A month before he was fired, Stephens' performance review rated him ‘consistently satisfactory.’
“The policy at the Sherriff's Office is quite clear. It calls for progressive discipline, and I was shocked that Deputy Stephens was terminated, for an incident that occurred off-duty, not while in uniform, not drinking, that occurred as a neighborhood spat I would call it. So, I was shocked when I learned he was terminated for that reason,” Oswald said.
As chief deputy, Oswald was also supposed to sign off on all terminations.
“[Stephens] went on to say, I don't care who you know, and cussed her out and used the f-bomb with the word off behind it. Unacceptable. Unacceptable behavior, I don't care who it is that works for me,” Smith said.
A termination often prevents law enforcement officers from getting work elsewhere. In Stephens' case, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office declined to hire him because of it.
“I think he hung himself and he's trying to blame it on somebody else, I guess me. But he hung himself by his mouth,” Blossman said.
Stephens said he has cashed out his retirement to pay the bills, and even though he earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice while working full-time with STPSO, he's currently working.
“I shouldn't have said it, you know, we all say things sometimes that we shouldn't and I could have handled it differently,” Stephens said.
Blossman said she received a “nasty” Facebook message about the incident from Stephens' now-ex-wife.
“You don't go around flipping old ladies off and cursing them out,” she said.
In the end, the f-word cost a deputy his 15-year law enforcement career.