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The Florida Times-Union

FBI arrests Nassau sheriff's sergeant, Jacksonville trooper in DEA investigation

By Anne Schindler, Atyia Collins and Tobie Nell Perkins,

2023-03-14

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Two law enforcement officers who worked on a Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force have been arrested in an extensive investigation involving multiple agencies. One was a DEA Co-Investigator of the Year in 2019 and the other a Florida Trooper of the year in 2009.

Nassau Sgt. James Darrell Hickox was arrested Friday by the FBI on a charge of possession with intent to sell controlled substances. On the same day, the FBI arrested Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Joshua Earrey on a charge of being an illegal user of narcotics while possessing firearms. Both involved confidential informants and obtaining drugs.

Earrey and Hickox worked as DEA Task Force agents at the same time, but the criminal complaint documents do not specify if their arrests are related.

Hickox, 37, of Callahan is a 17-year veteran of the Nassau County Sheriff's Office assigned to the DEA Jacksonville office in 2014, according to the Sheriff's Office.

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“I believe we must make sure law enforcement officers who break the law are held accountable," Nassau Country Sheriff Bill Leeper said. "I was shocked, disappointed, disgusted and beyond angry when I heard the allegations against Sergeant Hickox. He has let down his co-workers, our community, thrown away his career, as well as embarrassed his family. ... Although law enforcement officers are human and humans make mistakes, his actions are unforgivable. We will do whatever it takes to ensure we are holding ourselves accountable. That means we will be looking at our policies and procedures to review anything that could be changed to prevent anything like this from happening again."

The Highway Patrol has not responded to repeated requests for comment about Earrey, 44, of Jacksonville. He had been with the FHP about 22 years and was assigned to the DEA Task Force in 2020, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Both officers have been fired from their respective agencies.

First Coast News crime Analyst Mark Baughman, a former DEA agent, said active criminal cases are likely to be thrown out in situations like these.

"Any involvement where he was either handling evidence, giving statements, testifying, something that would be directly related to a defendant where his integrity or the case could be called into question would definitely be called into question and probably reviewed," Baughman said, initially only referring to Earrey's known arrest.

The case against James Hickox

The complaint against Hickox was released late Monday. It says Hickox should be charged with one count of possession with intent to distribute illegal drugs including cocaine, MDMA (ecstasy) and more than 40 grams of a substance containing fentanyl.

The complaint says the FBI probe began after a confidential law enforcement source told agents that Hickox and another officer routinely stole money and drugs from suspects. The source said the officers frequently allowed the source and a criminal associate to take a portion of confiscated drugs and cash seizures "off the top." (The complaint does not name the second officer.)

The complaint says after taking some of the confiscated cocaine for themselves, the pair would cut the remainder with other powdery substances, "later submitted to the DEA to retain the original weight of the drug buy." The complaint says they sometimes did this "outside the DEA office with the consent of Sgt. Hickox and the other officer."

A search warrant executed March 10 at Hickox's home yielded large quantities of drugs, imitation drugs and cash in a detached garage with a sign reading "Gator's Man Cave." The complaint says FBI agents found "three shoeboxes containing cash," estimated at about $100,000, in a bedroom closet.

The complaint says bank records from 10 accounts linked to Hickox, his wife and child showed cash deposits of $86,962 from January 2020 to October 2022. Investigators also found the Hickoxes "ran up credit card bills in the amount of approximately $260,000" and that at least $238,000 of that was repaid in cash "at physical ATMs."

When investigators asked Hickox about the money, he said he didn't recall where it all came from. He also said he had a gambling problem and borrowed money "from a lot of people," though "he did not recall it being that much money."

Hickox was booked Friday and placed in the Duval County jail. In federal court Monday, he elected to return to custody, rather than asking for an immediate pretrial hearing. His attorney said they would wait until an indictment is filed, telling the judge there were still a lot of things "going on behind the scenes" in the case.

“I believe we must make sure law enforcement officers who break the law are held accountable," Leeper said. "I was shocked, disappointed, disgusted and beyond angry when I heard the allegations against Sergeant Hickox. He has let down his co-workers, our community, thrown away his career, as well as embarrassed his family."

Hickox is in federal custody and could not be reached. Hickox’s attorney George Fallis declined to comment.

The case against Joshua Earrey

According to the federal complaint, the FBI found probable cause to arrest Earrey on Friday for being an "unlawful user or addict of controlled substances" in possession of a firearm.

Attempts to reach Earrey, who is out on bond, by phone were unsuccessful. Messages left for his attorney were not immediately returned.

The criminal complaint says a confidential informant told the FBI that Earrey had been addicted to oxycodone since 2021. The man he was buying the drugs from is a confidential source for the DEA, the document says.

Earrey had been the source's "handling agent" at various times from January 2021 to June 2022, according to the court filing.

The source told the FBI Earrey was buying seven to 10 pills at a time and paying $30 a pill, according to the complaint. The source said Earrey began using the pills due to chronic back pain. He said he worried that Earrey was an addict and warned him to "slow down."

In addition to illegal drug buys, the complaint shows that from May 2018 to January 18, 2023, Earrey was written 43 legal prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone and extended-release morphine.

Evidence against Earrey includes exchanging 4,572 phone texts and 3,164 calls with the confidential informant.

At one point, investigators say, Earrey's exchanges with the confidential source comprised 27.4% of his phone activity.

Earrey appeared before a federal judge in Jacksonville Friday and had his bond set at $50,000, court documents show. The judge ordered that he not contact any DEA or FHP employees without court approval, undergo mental health treatment and drug addiction treatment, as well as submit to random drug tests.

Crime analyst Baughman worked with Earrey on cases through the years.

"Always knew him to be a team player, a good worker, always there for us, did a good job, never questioned his integrity," he said.

Baughman said he was aware of Earrey having back issues and hip replacements.

"That's not uncommon for not just police officers, but anyone in a profession or line of work where they're injured and somehow they end up abusing an opioid of some sort," Baughman said. "It's sad."

The Florida Highway Patrol and DEA have not yet responded to requests for comment.

This story first published on First Coast News.

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: FBI arrests Nassau sheriff's sergeant, Jacksonville trooper in DEA investigation

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