2018 Lakeland City Commission
Two of Dunn's colleagues on the 2018 City Commission wrote letters of support

Forty-nine people including elected officials and a retired FBI special agent submitted letters in support of former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn, hoping to convince Judge Donald Jacobsen to be lenient while deciding Dunn’s fate.

Dunn, who was initially charged with second-degree murder in the death of a fleeing shoplifter, pleaded guilty in March to manslaughter with a firearm, a first-degree felony.

On Monday, Jacobsen sentenced Dunn to three years in prison, along with 10 years probation and 200 hours of community service, something Dunn mentioned he enjoyed in his statement to the judge just before sentencing. Judge Jacobsen also prohibited Dunn from owning weapons, firearms, or ammunition, according to court documents.

“I'm not sitting here judging the character of this man, the soul and heart of this man. I am having to judge the circumstances of a crime,” Jacobsen said in his sentencing statement. “I have gone frame by frame of those videos ... and it's right, it took only a split second. But a gun was raised and a man was shot in the back as he was exiting the store ... There has to be consequences to people using their guns. Just because you have a concealed weapons permit doesn't permit you to shoot somebody.”

Under Dunn's plea agreement, Jacobsen could have sentenced Dunn to up to 17.5 years in prison.

On Oct. 19, 2018, a grand jury indicted Dunn on a charge of second-degree murder with a firearm in the Oct, 3, 2018, death of Cristóbal Lopez. Dunn suspected Lopez of shoplifting a hatchet from the store he managed, and he shot Lopez twice with a handgun as he tried to exit the store. The shooting at Vet’s Army Navy Surplus, was captured on surveillance video.

“As far as that day, I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that my reaction was based totally on fear without a doubt,” Dunn said on Monday when he stood before Judge Jacobson. “You see the man with the hatchet coming around to you and staring basically through you as fear I would almost say from that point you're almost on auto-pilot. I don't know how else to explain it.”

Dunn attempted to have the charge dropped by making a case for self-defense, but Judge Jacobsen denied that motion. Dunn later agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter with a firearm days before his trial was set to begin.

Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz and City Commissioner Bill Read are two elected officials who wrote letters to Jacobsen in support of Dunn.

The 2018 Lakeland City Commission. Bill Read, left, and Bill Mutz, fourth from left, sent letters in support of Michael Dunn, second from right.

Mutz told the judge he’s known Dunn for 15 years and called him a “moral person.” He wrote “the regrettable shoplifting event and deeply resulting tragic fatality are uncharacteristic of Michael’s typical sacrificing and supportive behavior,” while also mentioning that the behavior “aligned with the expectation to have had the customer put down the stolen item before leaving his store.”

“As to his character, Michael Dunn is a man typified by caring, kindness, and dedication to making the right choices,” Mutz wrote.

Lakeland Commissioner Bill Read testified in court during the sentencing hearing and wrote a letter to Judge Jacobsen stating he helped Dunn acquire property from his father-in-law and that he was a frequent customer of Dunn’s. He wanted the judge to know he and Dunn had spent countless hours together and never heard Dunn “make any disparaging remark about anyone, in reference to race, gender or ethnicity” as long as he had known him. Read asked Jacobsen for “leniency for [his] good friend Michael Dunn” in his letter.

Retired FBI Special Agent Brock Self, who is currently a loss prevention investigative consultant, wrote a short letter to the judge calling Dunn a respected businessman who was always serving the public. He said his “entire experience with [Dunn] has been positive.”

In his letter, former Polk County Commissioner Bob English said he’s known Dunn for 20 years and has collaborated with him on business deals. He characterized Dunn as a “kind and decent man” who was enthusiastic about making Lakeland a better place. He also testified in court on Dunn’s behalf during the sentencing hearing.

Former Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs had similar sentiments. He wrote that Dunn was dedicated to service, and he had never known “anyone who worked harder to consider and develop more ideas intended to craft a better city.” He called Dunn’s behavior that resulted in his guilty plea “poor judgment” but said Dunn had a good heart and asked for leniency.

Wiggs’ wife, Linda, said her heart was breaking for Dunn and his family. She told the judge the shooting stopped Dunn’s political career, cost him his job, and caused him to lose his home. Linda Wiggs described this as consequences of “wrong thinking” and “quick actions” and asked the judge to sentence Dunn to community service as a way to “give him back his dignity.”

According to the Polk County Property Appraiser’s website, Dunn sold his former home at 1928 Shawnee Trail in February 2019 for $385,000. He bought it in 2003 for $250,000.

The letters also revealed that Dunn had been working for Air Assault A/C & Electric since the shooting. During his bond hearing, Dunn was forced to quit his job as a manager of the Vets Army & Navy Surplus store since it sold firearms. Kevin Shinn, the owner of Air Assault A/C & Electric said they both supported each other’s businesses and he attended Dunn’s bond hearing. He offered Dunn a job right after the hearing ended. He said Dunn is now “an asset he can not afford to lose.”

“Not too much time passed before he started helping out on air conditioning installs and service calls along with electrical service calls and electrical installs. In a very short time, Mike has become very efficient at all aspects of my business to the point that I have considered bringing him on as a partner in my business,” wrote Shinn, asking the judge to put Dunn on further house arrest. Along with writing a letter of support, Shinn also testified on Dunn’s behalf during the sentencing hearing.

Retired Lakeland Police spokesman Gary Gross also wrote a letter of support for Dunn and testified in court. Gross told the judge he’s known Dunn for 20 year and called him a friend. He said Dunn was a big supporter of the Lakeland Police Department, having attended the monthly chief’s chats, anti-drug walks, and neighborhood cleanups.

“Michael is well respected by Polk County's first responders and was highly endorsed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association when he ran for Lakeland city commissioner,” Gross wrote. “As a leader in our community, he was truly an inspiration for many.”

Gross asked for leniency for Dunn, stating Dunn “has lost so much to date and for all practical purposes, is starting over after losing it all.“

Dunn’s wife, Brandi, spoke during her husband’s sentencing hearing and wrote a letter a little over two pages to Judge Jacobsen, explaining how her husband of 28 years was kind and giving, not violent. She told the judge Dunn respected life so much he wouldn’t kill a poisonous frog or snakes that had entered their property when she asked him to.

“Though his actions on that fateful day appear otherwise, Michael had no intention of taking a life and I can tell you that this incident has deeply affected him and weighs heavily on his heart,“ Brandi Dunn wrote.

She went on to say she had “thousands of examples of the kindness and helpfulness” he had shown to others over the years and included an example of the Lakeland Police Department calling Dunn to help them look for shell casings in a case of a Lakeland Police officer who was shot and killed, due to Dunn being an avid metal detector operator.

She revealed their only son, Lance, is expecting his first child in November and said, “I am so wanting Michael to be an active part of our grandchild’s life, right from the start of it. He is such a wonderful father to our son that I can only imagine what a fantastic grandfather he will be.”

She concluded her letter by stating the six nights Dunn spent in jail were the longest time she’d been away from her husband in 28 years and said she was “frightened” at the prospect of having him away from her.

In court, Dunn apologized to the Lopez family and said he's had many sleepless nights and emotional breakdowns since the shooting. He said his friends' and family's comments and testimony in court nearly brought him to teams and said it was akin to hearing his own eulogy.

Letters sent to Jacobsen on Dunn's behalf:

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Stephanie Claytor has been a broadcast and digital journalist in Lakeland since 2016, covering Polk County for Bay News 9 and currently free-lancing for Jazbablog. She is an author of travel and children's books.

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