When that storm heads your way…
I have wanted to write this story for so long. Over the past eight years, I have sat down many times and attempted it. I just couldn’t do it. It was still too difficult to let my mind go to all of the painful crevices of our experience. I read an article with advice for a person who wants to write about a traumatic experience. It was filled with good advice. It stated that you need to wait until you can write it in a way that is going to be helpful to the readers. That is what I am attempting here.
I want the readers to know that my intention is to give hope to any person who is going through or has gone through a storm: one that has brought them to their knees in anguish; has left lasting scars; caused them to go through the stages of grief; made them feel betrayed by close friends; made them realize how many great friends that they do have; that traumatized them; that opened their eyes to the evil that exists but doesn’t control us; and, has changed their life forever.
I have to begin at the beginning for it to make sense, so bear with me. I am going to tell the story first and then I will try to share some personal thoughts. Again, my goal is to help someone find hope, not to drone on and on about my life. I pray that I reach that goal.
We were in our thirties. Ray was serving on the Okaloosa County Commission, and we had a very young family. Jessica was six, Carlee was 19 months, and Julia was three months. It was early October when we were awakened by the phone ringing in the middle of the night. Ray was told that Hurricane Opal was coming our way and that he needed to send his wife and children away to safety, and for him to plan to go to the county’s Emergency Operations Center in Shalimar. And the caller added, “Oh, by the way, plan to stay a few days.”
Ray was the Chairman of the County Commission at the time, and the chain of command dictated that the Chairman would work with the Sheriff and other county departments to make decisions regarding evacuations, bridge closures, shelter openings, road closures and staging locations just to mention a few. We quickly looked at the weather channel and, to be honest, it looked like a monster was headed right toward us. We packed everyone up and went our separate ways. I headed north with my parents and our children. He headed to work.
Now, at this point, I must back up a little further and say that Ray was accustomed to spending time with emergency personnel. Just before he was elected to the County Commission, the Emergency Management Services (EMS) department was under a grand jury investigation for mismanagement. At his first meeting, Ray was sworn in and elected to be the Chairman by the other Commissioners. One of his first responsibilities was to appoint Commissioners to work with different departments. Ray appointed himself to work directly with the troubled EMS department. As a way to understand the job of an Emergency Medical Technician, he would sometimes ride along with a shift. He saw firsthand what they had to know, how hard they worked and how passionate they were about their jobs. He also gained understanding about how important it was for them to have excellent administrative support and professional accountability. He worked with the department to build a new, award-winning team.
Ray used to talk to me about how much he enjoyed riding along and spending time with the EMS crew. He even branched out to spend a few night shifts at several fire stations. I can remember attending the annual class field trips with our girls to the Destin Fire Station. Some of the fire fighters would laugh and tell me how they had pranked Ray by putting a giant stuffed bear on his pillow and short-sheeting his bed linens.
I share all of this only to state that Ray took a real interest in the EMS department from the start. He became well aware of their challenges. He knew that they needed the best training, the best equipment and the highest standards possible. He loved diving into a problem and working to make it good again. He was young, but he was not afraid to tackle tough stuff.
Now, fast forward to Hurricane Opal in October of 1995. Ray found himself sitting in an elementary school cafeteria listening to calls coming from Destin. The heartbreaking part was that the EMS personnel could not get across the Mid-Bay Bridge to help them. The truth is, research shows that only about fifty percent of people leave when given the evacuation orders. The chief for the Destin Fire District was there and told Ray that if he were ever in a position to get this fixed, he needed to do it. He said that they needed a building in Destin that could withstand Category 5 winds and could house all of the emergency vehicles, equipment and personnel as well as utility trucks for power.
It makes sense. Let’s say that, in a perfect world, every single person evacuates from the barrier island. If the roads and bridges wash out, which we have seen in Northwest Florida, planes could fly in personnel, but there would be no vehicles and equipment that could do the essential jobs of restoring power and clearing roads, just for starters, to make it safe for people to return to their homes.
As one can imagine, this experience made an impression on Ray. He never forgot the calls and how unprepared they all felt. Who would have ever guessed that twelve years later Ray would have the opportunity to actually fill this need?
I must pause here and insert some facts. In the years 2004 and 2005, Florida was hit by eight hurricanes. Katrina hit New Orleans in August of 2005. During this time, the State Emergency Management Director for Florida was advising areas in Florida to be prepared with “boots on the ground” on barrier islands. The EMS must be able to buckle down for the hurricane in a Category 5 proof building and then emerge with rescue and supplies for the people who stayed and for people to safely return home. Everyone can remember the horrible scenes on the news about the long wait for rescues in New Orleans.
In 2007, twelve years after Ray sat in an elementary school hearing calls that could not be responded to, he was serving as Speaker Designate and the Budget Chair for the Florida House of Representatives. In the 2007 legislative session, the City of Destin passed a resolution asking the legislature for an Emergency Operations Center for Destin, one that could do just what the fire chief had talked to Ray about: withstand Category 5 winds and house emergency personnel and their equipment. During that same session, the legislature funded numerous EOCs, some owned and operated by colleges.
Through the budget process, the legislature passed a budget item for an Emergency Operations Center and Training Facility to be owned and operated by Northwest Florida State College and located on county property at the Destin Airport. The funding for this project would be managed by the State Department of Education. It would be allocated from there, straight to the college. The NWFSC Board approved the project to come to the college and to be owned and operated by the college.
Ray was sworn in as the 84th Speaker of the House of Representatives in November of 2008. Just days after, our world began to shake with a different kind of storm. The accusations that were hurled at Ray stated that the Emergency Operations Center that was included in the budget a year and a half before, and not yet built, was not what the budget item said that it clearly was.
That was the moment when a South Florida newspaper, the Leon County State Attorney and the Florida Democratic Party lied about this critical facility for Okaloosa County. This, unbelievably, led to a criminal trial two and a half years later. After the prosecutor finished presenting his case, the judge denied his motion for the case to continue, proving that this budget item was done correctly, above board and honestly.
A few years later, another judge in Tallahassee ordered the state to reimburse all of our legal fees.
Facts worth noting:
- The accusations started with a reporter from a South Florida newspaper.
- The reporter quoted Ray in an article that ran the day after Thanksgiving even though Ray had not spoken with the reporter to give him a quote. That quote lived on for the next two and a half years. Other newspapers joined in, and there it began, a lie. Hundreds of days of one article after another annihilating my husband’s character. In our country, we no longer have public hangings, but this felt like one.
- Ray practically begged the publisher of our local paper at the time to go to the Destin Airport with him and look at the site to see it for himself. The publisher told Ray that he was too busy.
- It was discovered by our attorney that the Democratic Party had sent a complaint about Destin’s Emergency Operations Center to a lady in Tampa, Florida, who was a registered Democrat. She stated to our attorney that the Democratic Party had asked her to sign the complaint and mail it to the State Attorney in Leon County (also a Democrat). She stated that she did not know Ray Sansom or anything about the budget item.
- The judge actually dismissed the case six months after the indictment, citing separation of powers. The State Attorney appealed. Three months later, the Appellate Court upheld the judge’s dismissal. It was New Year’s Eve in 2009. The State Attorney was quoted as saying that he was done and that he had nothing left but crumbs. A weekend went by. Strangely, on Monday, he did a complete about-face on a radio show. He was brainstorming about all of the things he wanted to charge Ray with on his own, without a Grand Jury. And that’s just what he did. He charged Ray, on his own, without a Grand Jury. We sometimes wonder who called him and encouraged him to continue the case.
- The State Attorney communicated to the press almost daily, telling them how guilty Ray was. He worked hard to taint the jury pool, all the while, we knew that the State Attorney was violating his profession’s code of ethics.
- The state attorney started the trial with a lie by telling the jury that the City of Destin had never requested the building. Our attorney stood up and showed the jury the City of Destin’s resolution requesting the building from the legislature.
- The fact that the budget item was going to the college via the Department of Education, meant that neither Ray nor any other legislator could control the project. So in reality, even if a legislator wanted to try to change something, it would be impossible. In our first meeting, Ray told our attorney, “They are accusing me of something that is impossible to do.” Ironically, this was in the closing statement of the trial.
- To solidify Ray’s innocence, Judge Angela Dempsey stated that what happened in this case was no different than any complete acquittal. She ordered the state to pay all legal fees directly to Ray’s attorneys.
This March 25th marked eight years since the judge put a stop to an abusive State Attorney. As I write this story now, such abuse seems so much more common with everything that we have seen over the past few years in Washington, D.C. We thought that our justice system would protect people from abuses like this.
We have relied on our faith many times, but when something is so wrong, such a lie, such betrayal, so painful and so degrading, you come face to face with the person who is down deep in your core. Do you really believe that Christ will see you through traumatic experiences? We cried many tears as Ray struggled to catch his breath after the indictment. He looked as if he would die of a broken heart, of a broken spirit. How would people treat him? Would we have to move away? What would happen to our daughters? Could they stay in school? Would they be able to function?
Our daughters were supposed to be in a play at Fort Walton Beach High School the night after the indictment. They were scared to go, but they did. When they arrived, the drama teacher had a group of students waiting at the door to greet them and reassure them. We had planned to go see their play with my parents and some of Ray’s family. Ray wanted to get to the auditorium early so that he would not have to walk by people to get a seat. He found a seat and then I went back to the entrance to watch for my parents. When we walked back in the auditorium, what I saw brought me to tears. I could see the back of Ray’s head. He was still seated, but there were people all around him. They were hugging him and patting him on the shoulders and comforting him. Some were crying. I got my answer. Christ was, is and always will be there. He is faithful to bring out the best in people if they will allow it.
This story is not really about us. It is about how so many people in a community did not allow the constant barrage of degrading lies to tell them what to think. We believe that it was God who placed that insight into people. Our nourishment came from kind words from people and in cards, letters, texts and emails. The Bible says that words can bring life or death. We know that to be true. A stranger at a gas station says she has been praying for us. One friend offers to play golf once a week and just listen. Another friend just hugging Ray and crying for him. For years, the former staff member and amazing friend summarizes and softens the harsh words of the media in a daily text to Ray, so that he would not read the poisonous words. The family that prayed over us. Only recently did we learn of a group of people who were sitting in the back of the courtroom praying silently. A Tallahassee friend walked around the perimeter of the courthouse, praying during the trial. Our amazing, kind-hearted Attorney, Steve Dobson, allowed himself to emotionally walk this journey with us. Overly and abundantly above anything that I could even ask for, grace flowed toward us. We would still hurt, and it was sickening and scary every day, but God is real, and He is the reason that we stand today.
Ray has had many opportunities to answer the question, “How did you and your family make it and come out healthy?” His answer is simple. Ray and I strive to be as constructive and confident as possible and SEE the goodness that is placed in front of us, even when everything is falling apart. Also, he tells people that our family learned to be tough, and we held very tightly to each other.
From the early days of serving on the County Commission, to his leadership roles in the Florida Legislature, to managing dropout prevention schools across three counties, we believe that Ray is uniquely prepared to serve our school district as Superintendent. However, we believe that for this season in our school district, Ray’s greatest strength was forged by the story that I have shared with you.