Why wasn’t Albert Shell in jail instead of at the Paddock Mall on Dec. 23?
File photo: Marion County Sheriff Billy Woods speaks during a County Commission Capital Improvement Project Workshop in the County Commission auditorium at the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Monday, March 21, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
With the arrest early Monday of Albert Shell Jr., the suspect identified by the Ocala Police Department in the Dec. 23 shooting at the Paddock Mall that left one person dead and another wounded, among the many questions for authorities is why such a violent criminal, wanted on several warrants, was at the crowded mall and not in the county jail.
Shell, 39, is accused of shooting to death Ocala tattoo artist David Barron, 40, and wounding a woman bystander in the leg, He was arrested on one count of premeditated first-degree murder and one count of attempted premeditated first-degree murder.
Records show Shell has had numerous interactions with local law enforcement, and was wanted on a county warrant.
OPD said of Shell, “We show 145 contacts with Albert Shell in our database – dating back many years. More than one of those contacts were warrant arrests.”
Walter Forgie, spokesperson for Fifth Circuit State Attorney Bill Gladson, emailed the “Gazette” that “Shell has a lengthy criminal history, which has resulted in numerous convictions, jail sentences and prison sentences by our office. The defendant was most recently released from prison on 7/15/21.”
Two criminal cases against Shell were dropped in February and March of 2023 . Why?
One of the charges, for aggravated battery with great bodily harm, “was not prosecuted because the victim failed to cooperate with prosecution,’’ Forgie wrote the “Gazette.” “Our office sent several intake notices and personally served the victim with a subpoena; however, the victim repeatedly refused to appear or participate in any way with the prosecution.”
The second case, involving charges of grand theft and burglary of a structure, “was not prosecuted at the request of the family because they were not 100 percent sure the defendant was the person who committed the crime,” according to Forgie.
In July and September of 2023, Shell would be charged with other violent offenses. He failed to appear in court in October, and County Judge Thomas “Tommy” Thompson signed a warrant for Shell’s arrest.
That warrant, likely written by a court clerk or the state attorney’s office, had an address within city limits that does not exist.
There are more than 7,000 active warrants in Marion County, according to a spokesperson for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, the agency responsible for managing active warrants.
When the “Gazette” initially asked how many warrants were active, the MCSO put the number at a little over 2,000. Sources, however, told the newspaper there are at least three times that many active warrants. When pressed, the agency provided the larger figure and said there had been a misunderstanding when the list was first requested.
Of the 7,256 active warrants identified in a list provided by MCSO on Jan. 4, at least 1,471 are from 2023. Almost 2,500 warrants on the list were dated before the current Sheriff, Billy Woods took office.
There was some other apparent confusion around Shell’s status.
In answer to a question from the “Gazette” about what attempts had been made by the MCSO to arrest Shell in the months leading up to the mall shooting, the agency indicated there had been none because the address on the warrant was within the Ocala city limits.
An MCSO spokesperson explained that when warrants come in, they are entered into a national crime database so that law enforcement anywhere can search to see if there are any outstanding warrants for anyone they stop.
According to that same spokesperson, unless there is a search for a high-profile fugitive such as Shell or a suspect who is being sought by MCSO or OPD’s task forces, alerts don’t go out that there is an outstanding warrant for a person.
Most striking is that there no longer is an active warrants department in the MCSO proactively working through warrants as they are signed. There hasn’t been an active warrants department since Sheriff Chris Blair was in office in 2016.
An OPD official said the system is not set up to alert officers when new warrants are issued for suspects within the city limits; however, internally they communicate with each other to watch for certain suspects.
OPD wrote the Gazette, “If you’re referring to the active warrant that existed at the time of the shooting, this request should go through our records section which would have to perform the research. However, officers searching for subjects with warrants do not necessarily give the name(s) of the suspects over the radio. If they fail to locate the offender, no report would be required, and we would therefore have no record of those specific attempts.”
In the case of Shell, there was no alert to the State Attorney’s Office of the warrant issued after he failed to appear in court. Forgie confirmed that MCSO does not regularly send a list of active warrants to Gladson’s office, and MCSO indicates it does not send any updated lists to other local municipality law enforcement agencies.
Possibly because MCSO said it can’t print the list of names with open warrants, it can only provide a list of case numbers where there are active warrants. Anyone wanting to know who the warrants are for must search each case number to find out.
After a new arrest warrant for Shell was issued following the mall shooting, his last known address was outside the Ocala city limits in unincorporated Marion County. When a “Gazette” reporter visited that location on Dec. 29, they found a card from the MCSO stuck on the door.
In response to a question about whether it would help law enforcement, and public safety, to reinstate an active warrants section, OPD explained: “We currently have over 200 sworn members with about 140 of those being assigned to nonsupervisory roles within the agency. Many of those officers search for subjects with active warrants on a daily basis while conducting their normal police functions. In 2023, OPD made approximately 1,179 warrant arrests. Having a ‘Warrants Division’ may not be the best approach for us because tracking down wanted individuals can oftentimes prove to be an ongoing, time-consuming process, as the offender’s last known address may not be current. This could consequently reduce an officer’s overall effectiveness, especially since they could be handling other crucial police services. In particular instances, such as a homicide arrest warrant, we may adjust our resources accordingly. However, it’s essential for our officers to have the ability to conduct normal police functions, as it increases their chances of encountering and apprehending wanted suspects.”
The number of active warrants was a hot issue in 2004 when Robert Douglas ran against incumbent Sheriff Ed Dean. According to an “Ocala Star-Banner” report, Douglas criticized Dean for dismantling the active warrants division and a backlog of more than 10,000 active warrants at the time.
Douglas now serves as the deputy chief under Sheriff Billy Woods.
A spokesperson for MCSO would not provide any context for why the sheriff’s office is unable to provide a list of outstanding warrants to the public; however, he pointed to the name search option on the sheriff’s website.
The “Gazette” tried search a few names from cases on the active warrant list and the search returned no results.
Under former sheriff Blair, when there was an active warrants division, a group of law enforcement actively organized and pursued open arrest warrants. They were also actively published their requests to the public.
Today, the only public calls for help in finding fugitives is the online video series, “Wanted by Woods Wednesday” published on the sheriff’s social media channels and sporadic social media posts identifying suspects in high-profile cases.
The MCSO spokesperson cited the lack of “manpower” as being the reason why an active warrants division has not been resurrected.
The “Gazette” has obtained a list of active warrants provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about a year and a half ago that includes names. The paper has requested from FDLE an updated list of active warrants in Marion County but has not received a response. FDLE has filed sworn statements in court that they are backed up almost a year in responding to records requests.
During the press conference announcing the arrest of Shell, Balken said, “Albert is responsible for one of the more heinous acts that we’ve seen in Ocala in a long time. His criminal history alone tells me that he should never have been on the street to have been able to commit this crime and we’re going to see to it that he stays behind bars.”