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The warning shot that condemned Orville Lee Wollard to prison and changed Florida

SNEADS — Lee Wollard's life slowly spirals away, following the trail of the gunshot he fired into a wall.

He feels as if he already has died, but he's very much alive in a Florida prison, where to many he's a symbol of the injustice in America's justice system.

Orville Lee Wollard III is serving 20 years for firing a warning shot.

Eight years ago, in a flash of fear and rage, he grabbed his gun. He says it was not to kill anyone but to scare away his teenage daughter's live-in boyfriend.

The boy was violent and abusive, court documents and family members say. He had punched Wollard's daughter Sarah in the head and rammed his fist through a wall of their home in Davenport, a town in Polk County.

Wollard didn't know it, but the moment he fired, he became trapped in the web of a Florida law known as 10-20-Life and its minimum mandatory sentences for crimes involving a gun.

The law says that if he were found guilty, he must spend 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a firearm — even though nobody got hurt.

The case has attracted much public and media attention. Groups opposed to minimum mandatory sentences cite it as proof that Florida must change its law.

In fact, before Wollard's trial eight years ago, prosecutors offered him a deal: If he pleaded guilty to a felony, he would get five years probation and no prison time. He refused, and a jury found him guilty.

Even the judge who sentenced Wollard, 60, agrees that he should go free.

Wollard petitioned the state to release him. His fate would intersect with Gov. Rick Scott, the Cabinet and Florida's notoriously secretive clemency process.

• • •

Apalachee Correctional Institution is in Sneads, a small town about an hour west of Tallahassee. The prison stands alone on a desolate stretch of U.S. 90 at the end of a long driveway. Inside, it feels as if time stopped long ago. A dated-looking pay phone hangs on a lobby wall.

This is where Wollard has spent most of his sentence, each day reliving the moment when he fired the warning shot.

Wollard wears No. 248834 on his faded blue prison shirts, but he's anything but a typical inmate.

He spends his days reading books on two favorite subjects: physics and chemistry. He sketches and listens to National Public Radio.

In an interview, he name-dropped famous philosophers Rene Descartes and Friedrich Nietzsche. A favorite book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, written in the 1970s, about the human spirit.

"I look at it as an independent studies program," he said of prison life.

Not long after Wollard arrived at Apalachee in 2008, he got into a fight. Other inmates jumped him and punched him, demanding that he give them the snacks he had just bought at a prison canteen.

He refused and lost several teeth.

"We're talking honey buns and Twinkies," Wollard said. "I fought for what was mine. If it was mine and you tried to take it, I came with it."

Wollard is slightly built at 5 feet 8 and 145 pounds, and his vision is getting worse. His forearms have lesions that he blames on a soy-based product in prison food. The state said it stopped using the product last fall, and Wollard said the food was better.

Wollard's disciplinary record is spotless, with no reports for bad behavior.

A cellmate is serving 20 years, like Wollard, but for second-degree murder. During Wollard's time at Apalachee, four inmates have died under mysterious circumstances.

"This is a terrorist training camp," Wollard said. "By the time you leave here, nothing fazes you. Your human emotions are gone."

It was not the life he envisioned.

Wollard grew up in Tarpon Springs, the son of a Baptist minister, and was raised in a stable, respected home.

His father, the Rev. Orville Lee Wollard Jr., was pastor of First Baptist Church of Holiday in Pasco County for 30 years.

A boyhood friend was Steve Martin, who grew up in St. Petersburg and now lives in Virginia.

"We met in Tarpon Springs at a motorcycle shop. Lee and his dad would stop by often over the years," Martin said. "He is really a good guy."

As a teenager, Wollard liked motorcycles and driving to the beach in a rusty Chevy Bel Air sedan. He was in the class of 1973 at Tarpon Springs High School, where he was one of a small group of spacecraft enthusiasts who belonged to the school's Rocket Club.

"Charles, it's been a great year and a lot of fun," he wrote to a club member in the senior yearbook. "Although the Rocket Club didn't quite make it off the ground, we had a lot of fun trying. Good luck in the future. Your good friend, Orville."

In a photo with club members, the caption says: "Rocket Club members today — U.S. astronauts tomorrow?"

• • •

Nearly two decades ago, during a violent crime wave, the Florida Legislature passed the 10-20-Life bill, and then-Gov. Jeb Bush signed it into law. To show how tough on crime they were, they promoted the law in TV ads.

"Pull a gun, 10 years. Fire a gun, 20 years," the ads said, amplifying the point to the sound of steel prison doors slamming shut. Injuring or killing someone with a gun would get you 25 years to life.

Those TV ads ran on Tampa stations, and Wollard remembered seeing them. He had had scrapes with the law, but he never suspected he might spend the rest of his life behind those locked doors.

• • •

Opponents of minimum mandatory sentences portray Wollard as a virtuous family man, but the truth is complicated.

Wollard was a student at USF in the early 1980s when he met Sandra Sorenson in an archaeology class.

"He sat behind me," Sandy recalled.

They married in 1983.

Wollard transferred to Upper Iowa University, where he got a business degree. He received his master's degree in management and organizational behavior at Silver Lake College in Wisconsin, where Sandy grew up.

He taught physics for two years as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin's Wausau campus.

Wollard acknowledged using drugs earlier in life and having run-ins with the law, but he had no felony convictions before his 2009 trial.

He pleaded guilty to DUI in Hillsborough County in 1982. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office arrested him on a drug charge in 1988, but it was dismissed.

When Wollard was living in Wausau in the late 1990s, he had two run-ins with police, incident reports obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show.

Wollard's wife called 911 in September 1998, saying he had threatened to harm her parents, who lived nearby. He soon came home, then locked himself and his two young daughters inside their house. Police smashed a lock and charged Wollard with disorderly conduct.

Wollard's in-laws told police that Lee "is a manic depressive and is very unpredictable," and had once pulled a gun on them. Wollard's wife said he was distraught over financial and health problems.

"We've been very worried about paying our bills and not having enough income to cover them and still feed ourselves — especially the kids," Sandy Wollard wrote in a statement to the police.

Nine months later, an informant told police that Wollard wanted to make anthrax, a deadly poison. Police arrived and found four guns in the house and a sandwich bag containing marijuana seeds.

Wollard gave a long statement to police and said he mentioned anthrax to someone because it was in the news.

"I wouldn't even have a clue how to make it," he told police.

Wollard paid a fine of $268.50 for jumping bail, a misdemeanor, court records say, because police said having guns in his house violated a bond on the disorderly conduct charge.

"Our financial situation is critical and we are on the verge of bankruptcy," Wollard told the police.

• • •

Wollard and his family moved back to Florida in 2001, and their fortunes seemed to improve.

For more than eight years, he worked in human resources at SeaWorld in Orlando, where Sandy also worked, as a photographer.

A family photo circulated widely on websites shows Lee, Sandy and their daughters, Sarah and Heidi, all smiles as they hold a dolphin in a pool.

After Sarah turned 16, she began seeing Austin O'Hara, a 17-year-old classmate at Ridge Community High School in Davenport.

The boy ran away from home to escape his abusive mother, the Wollard family stated in court testimony.

Austin said she punished him by hitting him over the head with a frying pan. He was living in the woods when the Wollards took pity on him and let him stay at their house.

They told him he could sleep on their living room couch, a decision a state prosecutor would later cite as an example of Lee Wollard's history of making "bad decisions."

"He was putting on, but he seemed like a nice enough kid," Wollard said.

That soon changed. Sarah and Austin began drinking and doing drugs, and they would disappear for days at a time.

"We were terrified," Sandy Wollard said in an interview. "We pictured her dead on the side of a road."

The stress added to both parents' medical problems. Lee had had knee, kidney and gall bladder operations, and Sandy had heart problems. Their house was full of prescription drugs, some highly prone to cause dependency.

"We were a pharmacy," Wollard said. "We had Percocets and methadone, Fiorinal and Valium. You name it, we had it."

At night, Sandy Wollard said, after she and Lee went to sleep, Austin would sneak into Sarah's bed for the night.

Sarah said Austin taught her to use kitchen knives to enter her parents' locked bedroom to steal prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet.

"About 3 in the morning, we would see this big long blade slip through our French doors," Wollard said. "It was Sarah and Austin, trying to trip the latch to get into our room."

Wollard said the teens traded prescription drugs for street drugs. Calling police was not an option, he said, because of a fear that Austin would run away and take Sarah with him.

Austin O'Hara, now 25, does not have a state criminal record as an adult. He lives in Kissimmee and did not respond to requests for an interview.

The day of the shooting in May 2008, big trouble was brewing. Wollard said he tried to separate his daughter from O'Hara, and the boy lunged at him and tore his stitches from a hernia operation.

"It was a full-fledged war between them," Sandy Wollard said.

Later, Wollard said, his wife told him O'Hara had struck Sarah in the head after the boy found out Sarah had talked to an ex-boyfriend. Sarah had suffered a concussion years earlier when she accidentally was kicked by a student.

Wollard ordered O'Hara to get out. He shoved bullets into his .357 Magnum and remembered telling himself, "You know what? This ends now."

He walked into his living room and ordered O'Hara to leave.

"You got four seconds to get out of my house," Wollard said as a bullet from his weapon whizzed past the boy and lodged in a living room wall.

Police wouldn't learn about it for more than a month.

• • •

Weeks after the warning shot, Sarah and O'Hara still were dating, drinking and doing drugs. Sarah wanted to be out of her parents' house for good, and she believed that if police found out about the shot, she could become "emancipated," as she put it, and live on her own.

Polk County Deputy Sheriff Jeffery Blair went to the Wollard house on the evening of Friday, July 18, after Sarah called police to complain about an act of corporal punishment. The deputy discovered the bullet hole.

"The suspect did intentionally and wantonly discharge a firearm which caused a metal projectile (deadly missile) to exit the firearm at a high velocity, within his residence (a dwelling)," Blair's report said.

On April 15, 2009, it took a jury less than a day to convict Wollard of aggravated assault with a firearm and two other counts, including child abuse because the shot had placed his daughter in danger.

O'Hara was the key witness for the prosecution.

Wollard asked for a new trial so he could call as witnesses two neighbors who said they saw O'Hara's violent side.

Circuit Judge Michael Raiden denied the request in 2013, noting numerous inconsistencies in the trial record.

Wollard had lost again.

• • •

DON MORRIS | Times

The case of Lee Wollard weighs heavily on the mind of Donald Jacobsen, the judge who sent him away for 20 years.

"I had no discretion," Jacobsen said in an interview. "The law required me to impose the sentence that I did."

Jacobsen, 64, is a University of Florida law school graduate who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1997.

He has tried dozens of murder cases and is currently chief judge for the 10th Judicial Circuit in Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.

He has consistently been rated the best judge in Polk County in polls of local lawyers done by the Ledger of Lakeland.

Five years ago, Wollard filed the petition for commutation of sentence, asking the state to release him.

That request set in motion an investigation of his past that included asking the sentencing judge for his views.

"I announced at sentencing that the minimum mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison was excessive," Jacobsen replied in a handwritten letter. "I would have imposed a much different sentence if I was not duty-bound to apply the law as enacted by the Legislature. I would recommend that Mr. Wollard receive a commutation of sentence based on the circumstances surrounding his crime."

Jacobsen said he has never written such a letter in any other case he has tried.

He gave the Tampa Bay Times a copy of it in response to a public records request. The letter had been a secret because it was part of a file that a state investigator created for the clemency hearing. The investigator's report went to Gov. Rick Scott and the three Cabinet members: Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. State law exempts the report from public disclosure unless the governor chooses to release it.

The four statewide elected officials, all Republicans, sit as the Board of Clemency. In any commutation of sentence case, the governor must be on the prevailing side, which means Scott's vote matters more than the others.

• • •

Wollard hoped that Scott, a fervent supporter of gun rights, would be sympathetic.

A few months before the governor decided Wollard's fate, Scott voted to commute the sentence of a high school football coach in Manatee County who had crashed his pickup while he was drunk, killing his best friend.

The coach's sentence for DUI manslaughter was 10 years.

The victim's family, friends and a state legislator lobbied in support of the coach's release in three years. But each case is unique.

• • •

Scott and the Board of Clemency met the morning of Sept. 30 in the Cabinet meeting room in the basement of the Capitol.

"This is a court of mercy," the governor told a restless audience as a staff member called the first case on the list.

Orville Lee Wollard.

"He shouldn't have to serve another day, much less 13 more years, for trying to defend his home, himself and his family from what he perceived was an imminent physical threat of force," said one of Wollard's two pro bono lawyers, Thomas Means of Washington.

Means assured Scott and the Cabinet that Wollard had sworn off drugs, alcohol and guns. He noted that Austin O'Hara had written a letter supporting Wollard's release.

Then a poised Sarah Wollard, 23, stepped forward, clutching notes and at times fighting back tears.

She spoke of how she and O'Hara had abused drugs and alcohol, and broken into her parents' locked bedroom to steal prescription drugs. She said she and O'Hara had laughed about the two Amber Alerts police issued when her parents twice reported her missing.

Sarah said she resented that her father had tried to break up their relationship and that she told police about the warning shot a month after it happened, believing it would allow her to live on her own.

"The last thing I remember seeing is my dad, with police behind and in front of him, being led out of the house in handcuffs," she told the Board of Clemency.

"I know I was a horrible daughter back then and that I can't change anything. But what I can do is now take responsibility and tell the truth in hopes that he won't have to spend the next 13 years there."

"Nothing is your fault," Bondi told her. "You were a child when this happened. Your father was doing cocaine before you started doing drugs. … Don't live that way, thinking this was your fault."

Wollard's side of the story proved no match for State Attorney Jerry Hill of Polk County.

The prosecutor whose office had offered Wollard probation eight years earlier used courtroom-style theatrics to urge that he stay behind bars.

Hill criticized Wollard for allowing O'Hara to live in his house and to stay there, even after knowing both teens were doing drugs.

"The bad judgment started long before this incident occurred," Hill said. "We're here for one reason. The defendant has shown a history of making bad decisions. That's why we're here."

Hill held a photographic blowup of O'Hara's canvas shoulder bag and its frayed strap, which Hill said was caused by the bullet from Wollard's gun.

Records show that the strap was not tested for gunpowder residue.

"If (the bullet) had been in the ceiling, if it had been in the floor, I wouldn't be here today," Hill testified. "It's not a murder charge by probably 3 or 4 inches."

A second enlarged photograph showed the bullet hole above a couch, near a light switch.

"That's a bullet hole, folks," Hill said.

As Hill stepped away from the lectern, Scott said: "I deny commutation of sentence."

With those five words, it was over. It took 18 minutes.

Sandy Wollard sobbed quietly as she left the hearing room.

• • •

Scott has never explained in detail why he opposed Wollard's release from prison.

"These cases are often difficult to decide, and Gov. Scott takes them very seriously," a spokeswoman said. "All the facts on these cases are closely evaluated, and he makes the best decisions to keep families safe."

Scott said he relied on the secret report in denying Wollard's request. By law, the governor has the discretion to release it. The Times asked him to. He declined.

But Bondi's words to Sarah Wollard might have offered a clue. Wollard's lawyer, Means, said the report was "decades-old hearsay and rumors, and even some half-truths and allegations."

That sounded like a reference to Wollard's problems in Wisconsin. But the lawyer gave no details, and he declined to release the report.

Wollard's 86-year-old father, the retired minister whose testimony might have made a difference, did not attend the hearing. Wollard's brother Mark wrote a letter opposing his release, Sandy Wollard said, but its contents are secret.

She said Lee and Mark had a violent argument years ago that ended their relationship.

"An argument ensued, and it got physical," she said.

Prosecutor Hill said in an interview that he was not aware that one of his employees, Assistant State Attorney Amy Smith, had offered Wollard five years probation as an alternative to prison.

"I'm taking an ass-kicking over this thing," Hill said. "I firmly believe that I took the right position. If the full story could be told — and it can't — I think many others might agree. This guy was far more out of control than people realize."

• • •

As Wollard sits in prison, his name echoes through the walls of the state Capitol in Tallahassee, where Republicans cite his case as a reason the 10-20-Life law must be changed.

One of Wollard's supporters is Rep. Neil Combee, a Republican from Polk City, one of the Legislature's most conservative members and a staunch proponent of gun rights.

Combee is sponsoring House Bill 135, which would eliminate the crime of aggravated assault from the list of crimes that carry mandatory sentences and would reduce the maximum sentence for that crime to three years.

Combee said he was troubled by the secrecy surrounding Wollard's case. He was shocked to discover that people were receiving such long sentences for cases in which no one was injured.

The Department of Corrections said 167 other inmates are serving 20-year terms for aggravated assault with no intent to kill.

"We're sending people to prison for 20 years for aggravated assault?" Combee said in an interview. "Something's wrong here."

Combee and a co-sponsor, Rep. Katie Edwards, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, noted that the change was proposed by a task force Scott created four years ago to review Florida's controversial self-defense law known as "stand your ground."

"We should have done this years ago," said Edwards, a lawyer. "It's a consequence of 10-20-Life."

Their bill has powerful forces behind it that suggest it is likely to pass and land on Scott's desk.

The proposal is supported by sheriffs, police chiefs, state attorneys, public defenders, criminal defense lawyers and the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which has championed Wollard's cause on social media.

Former Gov. Bush, who signed 10-20-Life into law and is running for president, remains a strong supporter of it.

"Gun violence in Florida is down because we have severe laws that penalize people that commit crimes with guns," Bush told a student who asked him about the issue at an event in West Palm Beach in December. "That's the path to create a safer community, to pass laws like 10-20-Life and others, where if you commit a crime with a gun, there is going to be certainty that you are going to be in prison."

Combee's bill would not be retroactive, so it would not apply to Wollard. Combee said he had a private conversation with Scott in which he urged the governor to release Wollard from prison.

The legislator said he was troubled that the report on Wollard's background that played such a key role in Scott's decision has never been made public.

• • •

At Apalachee Correctional Institution, Wollard arrived for an interview holding three possessions: a photo of his two daughters, a copy of the U.S. Constitution with the Second Amendment highlighted, and handwritten notes in which he posed a question: "How can I be too dangerous now and not seven years ago?"

Wollard's scheduled release date is July 13, 2028.

He would be 73 years old.

Wollard asked the Department of Corrections to move him to a prison in Lake County, north of Orlando, to be closer to his elderly parents. But in December, the state moved him to a prison farther away, the private Blackwater River Correctional Facility in Milton, near Pensacola.

Corrections spokesman McKinley Lewis said the prison in Lake County is for inmates needing mental health services and that sending Wollard to Blackwater River was based on its "availability of services," but he did not elaborate.

In prison, Wollard is prohibited from having any contact with Sarah because she was a victim.

He does not know Sandy's phone number back in Wausau, and she said she can't afford to drive from Wisconsin to visit him.

He has never seen a Facebook page. He refuses to leave his cell during exercise periods, saying it's too dangerous.

Wollard's parents are in their mid 80s. He wondered if he'll see them again before they die.

"This isn't so much about me getting out of here anymore. It's too late for any of that," Wollard said. "Even if I got out tomorrow, that's nice. But the career's gone, the house is gone, everything's gone. The family's split all over the four winds of the earth.

"I've already died," he said. "I just haven't fallen over yet."

Times/Herald staff writer Amy Sherman and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or at (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet on Twitter.

The warning shot that condemned Orville Lee Wollard to prison and changed Florida 02/04/16 [Last modified: Friday, February 5, 2016 10:02am]
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