Now, Smith has resigned from her job, Daniels’s wife has filed for divorce, and the sheriff is the one who ended up behind bars. On Thursday, following a year-long investigation, Florida authorities filed four charges against him and booked him into jail.
Yet just days before he is up for reelection, the embattled 55-year-old — a tough-talking Navy veteran often seen in a white cowboy hat — insists he is “innocent.” On Thursday, Daniels refused to resign or drop out of the race, questioning the “suspicious” timing of the warrant and claiming the scandal does not affect his job performance.
“I want you to look past the smokescreen of dirty politics,” he said in a video released by his office Thursday evening. “One thing I take ownership of as a man is my failures as a husband. That has nothing to do with me as a sheriff.”
Daniels, who was released without bond, was charged with tampering with evidence, a felony, as well as three misdemeanor counts of giving false information to other law enforcement officials, the Florida Times-Union reported.
The year-long saga over his affair is merely the latest controversy for the embattled Republican sheriff, a camera-loving figure who has hinted at running for Congress and once filmed himself using a SWAT team for marijuana arrests. Earlier this summer, he threatened to deputize every gun owner in Clay County if violent protests erupted there.
He and Smith began their secret liaison in 2013, when he was the 48-year-old chief of Jacksonville’s jails, and she was a 21-year-old corrections officer undergoing her first week of job orientation, she told WJXX.
The two exchanged cellphone numbers and started meeting weekly for sex, she said, and at one point took a vacation to Costa Rica together. When she got married to another man two years later, Daniels reportedly gave the bridal toast.
Soon enough, Smith’s husband found out about the affair and alerted Smith’s new bosses in Jacksonville, in addition to confronting Daniels.
Daniels, who by then had been elected sheriff of Clay County, realized time was ticking on his own marriage, according to the Times-Union, and in May 2019, he confessed the six-year affair to his wife, Denise.
The following week, Smith got in her car to drive to the lovers’ regular meeting spot, near a planned community called Oakleaf Plantation. The meeting was supposed to be the pair’s first since Daniels’s confession to his wife.
But once he saw her vehicle, the sheriff allegedly radioed emergency dispatch, calling for backup.
Smith was held in police custody for six hours before officials decided that deputies had no probable cause to book her on stalking charges, the Times-Union reported.
Although Daniels publicly apologized for the affair a few weeks later, he did not directly address his alleged attempt to land Smith behind bars.
As Florida officials initiated a probe in June 2019, several local media outlets reported that an anonymous letter had been sent to a number of state officials, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), from someone claiming to be an employee in the Clay County Sheriff’s Office.
The anonymous letter urged DeSantis to fire Daniels, alleging that the sheriff had intimidated his staff from speaking openly to state investigators and threatened to “murder” anyone who leaked information about him on social media.
“He is losing touch with reality and appears violent, " it read. “We are concerned about not only our reputation of the Sheriff’s Office, but also our safety. … PLEASE HELP US!”
Daniels’s office told WJXX at the time that it was aware of the letter but would not comment on anonymous allegations.
DeSantis later reassigned the probe from Jacksonville prosecutors to Brad King, a state attorney in Ocala. Later that summer, Daniels abruptly stopped a public county budget meeting to apologize to his wife over the affair.
“You know how you say, ‘I want to say it before God and everybody?’ I want to make sure that everyone understands that,” he told the crowd, which did not include the intended target of his apology. “Denise Daniels? I love that woman.”
But she sought a divorce anyway. As the investigation slogged ahead, some sensed the scandal was an opportunity to replace him as sheriff. Five others filed to challenge Daniels in the Republican primary, and two — a local police chief and a prosecutor — have outraised him by at least $20,000, according to FloridaPolitics.com.
With a vote set for Tuesday, the sheriff’s lawyer, Matt Kachergus, suggested authorities had intentionally issued the warrant this week. “It would appear that the timing of this is designed to influence the outcome of that election,” he told the Times-Union.
DeSantis has the authority to suspend local elected officials who have been charged with felonies, the Associated Press reported, though no such order had been issued as of Thursday night.
To close his video on Thursday, Daniels made an appeal to voters in Clay County.
“The question that I want you to ask yourself, and I don’t have the answer to it, is this: Why today? Why couldn’t it wait? Unless there was some ulterior motive behind the decisions to impact a political race,” he said.