Last week, the Dade County Sheriff’s Office listed Steven Wooten, 35, as wanted after deputies on Feb. 27 raided an alleged Sand Mountain chop shop. They arrested two other men at the scene on Porter Road, where they found stolen vehicles, a stolen camper, cutting tools and torches, but Wooten fled the scene. He was apprehended shortly thereafter, on March 7.
But during that period Wooten was at large, The Planet received an angry call from the suspect’s prospective stepfather, Ellis Johnson, who said he’d been trying doggedly--and in vain--to get Wooten arrested since he and his fiancée, Tammy Cavitt, Wooten’s mother, observed him stealing Wooten’s prized 2006 Audi convertible in September 2017. “They had a chance to arrest Stephen and they wouldn’t do it,” he said. “They railroaded me so Steven could walk free.”
Johnson said he’d reported the car stolen, Steven’s mother had seen him drive away in it and was willing to say so in court, and that when it was finally recovered months later, badly damaged, the person found in possession of it had told police he’d gotten it from Stephen Wooten. What else was needed?
But, said Johnson, no one from the sheriff’s office had questioned Tammy or any of the other potential witnesses, much less arrested anyone, including the individual his car was eventually recovered from. “They did absolutely no investigating at all,” he said.
It wasn't the first time The Planet had heard that complaint—Why won’t the cops investigate this crime? Why can’t they get my stuff back?—though in fairness, it must be said it was the first time during the current sheriff’s administration. In any case, for whatever reason, and for what it’s worth, The Planet agreed to write up the particulars of Johnson’s beef, to ask the Dade County Sheriff’s Department about it, and to report the response. The results are below:
First, Johnson’s story: Ellis Johnson is a dental technician engaged to Steven Wooten’s mother, Tammy Cavitt. Johnson spends a lot of time working out of town. He describes Steven Wooten as a problem child, always in and out of jail, and he says Steven had always wanted his Audi convertible. Johnson says that three weeks before the September 2017 incident that started this story, Steven had tried to get him to sign a bill of sale for it and, when Johnson refused, had hit him.
Around this time, Johnson was pretty sure the younger man had stolen the key he kept in his and Tammy’s bedroom, because he missed the key and Tammy told him she’d seen Steven in there rummaging around. Johnson says the car was at this point stored in the yard of Tammy’s brother, Jeff Wooten, on Highway 136 West.
Johnson says that on Sept. 29, 2017, when he was back from Texas for his brother’s funeral, he drove with Tammy after the burial to Jeff Wooten’s house to check on his Audi, only to find it gone. He says he called the sheriff’s office and reported it stolen.
Then, he says, he and Tammy drove over to 1433 Porter Road, which had been Tammy’s mother’s house, and in which the couple had themselves lived for awhile, acting on the gut feeling Steven and/or the car might be there. There they did not find the car but did find Steven as well as Tammy’s father, Charlie Wooten.
From all subsequent accounts, there was then some kind of hostile confrontation. In a statement Johnson made to the Dade Chief Magistrate’s office, he says after he and Tammy had checked the yard to see if the Audi was there: “When we returned to the truck Steven was in it trying to steal it,” he wrote. “His mother told him to get out of the truck and when he did he took my keys with him so I called the police again. Before the police could get there Steven threw my keys on the ground and ran to the house next door, which is his grandmother’s house.”
That, said Johnson in his account to The Planet, is where Steven must have had the Audi, “because just minutes after running over there Tammy saw him take off in my car.”
Johnson says he got in his truck and followed, and a brief chase scene ensued, with Charlie Wooten in between the Audi and Johnson’s truck. Then, he says, the police arrived, and Johnson gave up the pursuit and made his case with them instead.
This, from what Johnson says, appears to be where things started going wiggly between him and the SO. Earlier, in reporting the car stolen from the Highway 136 house, he had admitted he hadn’t seen Steven take it. But he says Tammy did see Steven drive it away from his grandmother’s house after the scene at 1433 Porter. “The detectives started saying I was changing my story,” Johnson told The Planet. “My story never changed. It was two different events at different times but they refused to look at it that way.”
Johnson says the police put out a bulletin for the Audi but didn’t find it, didn’t interview witnesses and didn’t arrest Steven. So in February 2018, he went to the Dade Magistrate Court, filled out a complaint and tried himself to have Steven charged with stealing the car. At this time, he said, Steven was back in jail for probation violation on some earlier offense.
The magistrate court accepted his complaint, said Johnson, and in June 2018 he heard from a district attorney’s investigator that the Audi had been spotted by accident in someone's driveway by a Jackson County (Ala.) detective named Tony Baker on his way home. Johnson told The Planet: “He asked where did he get the car and Detective Baker told me that he bought it off a man named Steven Wooten.”
The car, said Johnson, had been found in March, but he wasn’t alerted of that until June. By then the Audi had been sitting in an impoundment lot accruing fines and fees so that it would have cost him $2000 to get it back. He didn’t bother, because, he said, the car by then was so battered and abused it would have cost thousands more to get it in running order.
So Johnson didn’t get his car back and neither did he get any sense of justice: In September 2018, the complaint he’d taken out in magistrate court went before a grand jury, but apparently it was presented without enough evidence to convince the jury a crime had been committed and it was “no-billed,” or thrown out.
During all this, said Johnson, he’d been calling the sheriff’s office and complaining, talking to Don Hicks, the lead investigator, and even once to Sheriff Ray Cross. It got him nowhere, he said, and Hicks had finally told him to stop calling.
“I was robbed twice,” Johnson told The Planet. “Once by Steven Wooten and then by the detectives’ office.”
Now. For the other side of the story. The Planet presented Johnson’s story to Sgt. Chad Payne, public information officer. Sgt. Payne interviewed the senior officers and replied as follows:
After speaking with the Detective's Division at the Sheriff's Office, they advised that Mr. Johnson did file a stolen vehicle report with our agency. They advised that they began to investigate the incident, just like any other stolen vehicle. While conducting the investigation, they advised that they spoke to Mr. Johnson, who ended up providing the detectives with conflicting statements about the theft. They also advised that they were never given the information that a female witness saw the suspect drive away in the vehicle.
A case file was created, and all the evidence was provided to the District Attorney's Office, as well as a Dade County Grand Jury. The Grand Jury decided that the case would receive a "No Bill."
Finally, anyone who would think that the Dade County Sheriff's Office would "protect" a suspect, and "railroad" a victim, is absolutely mistaken. Sheriff Cross and his Deputies have a seamless reputation of providing excellent service to our citizens, and we feel like the citizens of this county would support that statement.
It seemed a bit bare bones, so The Planet looked at the actual police report, provided by the DCSO. The first entry was written by a Deputy S. Crag, who had responded to Ellis Johnson's stolen-car call to the Highway 136 address on Sept. 29, 2017.
Upon my arrival, Mr. Johnson told me that he had been in Texas for the last several weeks and when he returned, his vehicle was missing. Mr. Johnson said the vehicle had been parked at Jeff Wooten's house ... while he was out of town. He told me that he believes Steven Wooten may have taken the vehicle without his permission. Mr. Johnson said that Steven knew where the key to the vehicle was and that it could only be driven with the key. The vehicle was later entered into the NCIC computer system as stolen.
The next entry was written by B. Irwin, the detective who interviewed Johnson about the stolen car a couple days later, on Oct. 2, 2017. He wrote that Johnson told him about looking for the car at the Porter Road address and about the skirmish with Charlie and Steven Wooten. Then, writes Irwin:
Mr. Ellis then says that he saw a car pullout of the other residence and it had a tail light out and he thought it could be his car. I asked Mr. Johnson if he saw who was driving and he said, “No, but I think it was Stephen [sic].” I then asked if he got a clear look at his car and he said, “It had to be my car.” I told him that I would be looking for his car and would try to speak to Stephen Wooten but that I did not feel comfortable getting a warrant with this information. I advised Mr. Johnson that I would let him know of any activity.
On October 12, 2017 I, Detective Irwin received a phone call from Ellis Johnson and he re stated his account of events and then said that he always stated that he saw Stephen Wooten clearly driving his car both to myself and to the deputy that responded on the 27th of September 2017. I advised him that I did not feel comfortable with him changing his account…”
Detective Irwin then writes he advised Johnson he was free to go to magistrate court and swear out a complaint there. He wrote that Johnson got angry, demanded to talk to his superior and accused the SO of trying to protect Steven.
Later, in February 2018, Irwin reported that he’d interviewed Steven Wooten about the Audi. Steven was then in jail for the probation violation, and Irwin reported he denied everything. He wrote:
Mr. Wooten states that he liked Mr. Johnson and he would not do such a thing to him and he does not understand why Johnson would accuse him of the crime. Mr. Wooten denies having the key for said vehicle and says that he hasn’t seen the vehicle since it was parked at his brothers’ house. Mr. Wooten denies any knowledge of the whereabouts of the Audi.
The next entry is:
On March 7, 2018 the Audi A4 VIN WAUAC48H76K010600 was recovered in Jackson County Alabama. Vehicle was towed to a facility for safe keeping. Jackson County Detectives have jurisdiction over vehicle currently. Investigation Ongoing Detective B. Irwin #24
And that’s where the sheriff’s office report on this case ends. As Johnson said, the report mentions interviewing no witnesses--Irwin made it clear he thought Johnson had changed his story and that, thus, Johnson’s account was not enough to go forward on. And as for interviewing anyone after the Audi was recovered, the sheriff’s office didn’t do that, either. If what Johnson said about the Jackson County detective learning that the recipient of the car had gotten it from Steven Wooten was true, it was not included in the report.
Lacking that, the earlier case seems to hinge around what Johnson’s fiancée, Tammy Cavitt, would have told the cops. Would she have given witness against her son for Johnson’s sake? Johnson told The Planet she would. For purposes of this report, The Planet didn’t ask her—but apparently no one else did, either.
Sgt. Payne’s response said the SO hadn’t known there was “a female witness.” Neither the Craig nor the Irwin accounts in the SO report mentions talking to Tammy Cavitt. In fact, neither mentions if she was even there with Johnson when the incident happened, though Irwin’s report in talking about Johnson’s encounter with Charlie and Steven Wooten clarifies: “Both men are related to his girlfriend. Stephen is her son and Charlie is her father.”
But in Johnson’s statement to the magistrate court in February 2018, which The Planet also obtained, he clearly attests that Tammy was on the scene and saw the crime. “That’s when Tammy saw my car and Steven was driving it,” he writes at one point. So detectives certainly would have had ample time to check with her before the case went before the grand jury in September 2018--if they'd seen any reason to do so.
Why was the sheriff’s office loath to investigate Johnson’s claim? The Planet can only speculate. But when the March 4 press release announcing Steven Wooten was wanted came out, it was not the first time the words “Wooten,” “Porter Road” and “chop shop” had come up in close proximity in this newspaper. Sheriff Cross had called a press conference at 1497 Porter Road, owned by Mary Ruth Wooten, on January 26, 2017, to announce the recovery of stolen property
at a suspected chop shop. Kevin Wooten, another child of Charlie Wooten, was arrested on that occasion on other charges, and later negotiated a plea bargain arrangement on those and previous drug charges; but Sheriff Cross at that point spoke of gathering evidence for a chop shop conviction.
(Photo: Right, Sheriff Cross and Detective Cyndi Thurman at that 2017 press conference. Click to read the archived story. Left, Kevin Wooten.)
Given that background, did Johnson’s complaint sound to the sheriff’s department like a messy Wooten family brawl it wanted no part of rather than a “real” car theft? Was that in fact what it was? Johnson has remained adamant as the months turned into years that he was robbed and that his prospective stepson was guilty. But men in that relationship—mom’s boyfriend and mom’s son—are not famous for getting along. And meanwhile, Sgt. Chad Payne and the SO insist they treat all citizens fairly, take all complaints seriously and give everybody an even break. Though one wonders why no mention is made in the SO's report of interviewing whoever ended up with the Audi.
And there we will have to leave it. Certainly it would be possible to request further records from Jackson County law enforcement and the D.A.’s investigator, but The Planet’s time on the earth is limited, enough facts are on the table for even the most avid reader, and after a certain point it becomes a matter of he says, they say, and what would she have said--if anyone had asked her.