SARASOTA - Last April, a veteran Sarasota Police homicide detective went to the courthouse and tried to secede from the United States of America.
The detective, Tom Laughlin, filed a convoluted document declaring himself a "sovereign citizen." The filing included a thumb print on each page and a photocopy of 21 silver pieces — the price to become a "freeman."
In doing so, Laughlin, 42, joined a small but growing group of U.S. citizens who claim they are not subject to federal law, that they no longer have to pay taxes and that their homes are their embassies.
Last week, he was fired for it.
In what department insiders are calling one of the strangest internal affairs cases in recent memory, Laughlin has gone from a decorated and respected investigator to the subject of office jokes.
Laughlin has handled some of the area's highest profile cases in recent years. His work led to the conviction of Deandre Tunstall for gang-related murders. He solved the cold-case killing of John Allaman, Jr. on Bird Key, and he teamed with U.S. Marshals to track down Willie James Kimble, a Sarasota man accused of beating a woman to death in New York nearly 40 years ago.
In his personal life, though, Laughlin was growing increasingly frustrated with the direction of the city and the country. He privately worried that "Obamacare" was bad for his family, that Sarasota leaders planned to lay off police officers, and that the city might take his pension.
His brother, also a "sovereign citizen" who recently was charged in St. Johns County with trying to extort two Florida Highway Patrol troopers and later with bilking a Sarasota bank of $50,000, convinced Laughlin that he could declare himself a "freeman."
So Laughlin headed to the courthouse in April to legally renounce his citizenship, telling local, state and federal officials that he would only communicate with them in writing.
"What the paperwork was done for, was basically to get back to the roots," Laughlin told internal affairs investigators. "The Constitution. You know. And under God and back to the meat of what it really is."
About the same time, investigative reports show, Laughlin's colleagues saw his behavior change around the office. He talked increasingly of a "straw man account" that allowed government to hide millions of dollars from citizens.
Colleagues told internal affairs that Laughlin wanted to pay off personal debts through the straw man account and that he made strange statements about a global financial conspiracy.
According to internal affairs documents, Laughlin believed freeman-based ideas that the red numbers on a Social Security card were clues to finding the account, and that birth certificates were related to secret ships berthed in a port that held access to millions of straw man dollars.
"It was one of those things where, as he's trying to explain it to me, I'm looking at him thinking, 'You're crazy,'" Detective Charles Riffe said in a statement to investigators. "I mean, what the hell? It didn't make any sense to me."
Colleagues soon discovered Laughlin had declared himself a freeman — many officers viewed the public records on the court's website — and concerns grew that his status could jeopardize criminal cases he worked because he felt he was no longer a citizen, reports state.
Laughlin's beliefs put him directly at odds with his superiors, who had begun to watch out for sovereign citizens.
The FBI listed those calling themselves sovereign as a domestic terror threat following a series of violent attacks by members, including Terry Nichols of the Oklahoma City bombing, Joe Stack, who flew his plane into an IRS building in Austin, Texas, and Jerry and Joseph Kane, the father and son who fatally shot two Arkansas police officers last May.
The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates there are about 300,000 sovereign citizens in the U.S., and the radical movement has a huge presence online — from websites that provide the documents to file for sovereign status in court, to YouTube videos in which members openly threaten law enforcement officers.
The movement came to the Sarasota Police Department's attention last year, when an intelligence officer sent a bulletin warning officers to be wary of their interactions with "sovereign citizens."
In an interview this week, Laughlin said he began to have second thoughts about the movement in June, during a vacation with his brother.
The two were pulled over on a North Florida interstate and Laughlin's brother, James, berated a trooper, saying state laws did not apply to him.
James Laughlin later mailed documents to the trooper saying he should drop the citation and pay him $150,000 for violating his rights or he would sue for $32 million.
"That's when I knew this was something that I didn't want to be a part of," Tom Laughlin told the newspaper. "I filed those documents without really reading them. All I wanted to do was make a political statement about the way things are going in this country. I didn't want to be involved in any kind of extremist movement."
Department officials began an internal affairs case in July. Prosecutors determined that Laughlin had not broken any laws, but city attorneys openly fretted he may have violated his oath of office.
By then, Laughlin says, he had already taken steps to make the court records invalid. While the paperwork has no legal value, Laughlin found that they cannot be redacted and cannot be removed from a public website.
After a lengthy internal inquiry, supervisors accused Laughlin of associating with a hate group that advocates violence, not answering questions honestly, and using department computers to search websites on straw man accounts and sovereign citizens.
A review board recommended he be suspended for four weeks and transferred out of the criminal investigative division. The suspension would have cost him about $6,000.
But he was fired instead by Chief Mikel Hollaway, who was on vacation this week and could not be reached for comment. City Manager Bob Bartolotta said Hollaway conferred with him before the decision.
"The honesty issue was very, very important to the chief," Bartolotta said. "He has to rely on his officers to be honest at all times, and I think that was the biggest factor in his decision."
Laughlin has hired a private attorney and plans to appeal the firing. Laughlin now says he made clear that the freeman paperwork was a mistake and that he realizes there should be consequences.
"I screwed up and I deserve to take my lumps," he said. "I know what I did was stupid. But I don't think I deserve to lose my job over it. I have been a police officer since I was 19 years old. This is all I know."
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