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Man in viral Florida video apologizes in person to teens, families: ‘I take total responsibility’

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

WELLINGTON -- In a step toward healing between two families, a man seen yelling at teens in a viral video apologized to them Wednesday evening.

Lee Jeffers, 60, wrote a letter and spent about an hour talking with Breonna Nelson-Hicks and Madison Charette, both 15, along with Breonna’s family and Jeffers’ wife, Debra.

[Scroll down to read Jeffers’ letter to Breonna.]

The group was joined by The Palm Beach Post and Wellington Village Manager Paul Schofield, who served as a facilitator at the meeting.

The apology and discussion came in the wake of a June 14 incident in the gated Grand Isles neighborhood off Lake Worth Road. A confrontation between Jeffers and the teens was recorded by Madison, then posted to social media, where it quickly went viral.

The video appeared to show Jeffers directing his comments at Breonna, who is Black. The other two girls with her are white.

The video sparked a discussion about race and tolerance in Wellington. Jeffers insisted in his letter to Breonna and in the meeting that his actions were not racially motivated.

“We came here to listen to you,” Jeffers told the teens. “It’s very important. It’s incredibly important.”

Breonna and Madison declined to speak during the meeting. But Jeffers and his wife let them know they will be available to listen, when they are ready.

“Someday I wish that we could all meet together and break bread and have a meal together, and get this behind us,” Jeffers said.

Jeffers said Wednesday he had been concerned about the teens, who had been riding in a golf cart. Jeffers said he had almost hit the cart as he came around a corner in the neighborhood.

But, he said, his reaction was inappropriate.

“I am greatly sorry,” he said, adding, “I just feel horrible that I hurt both of you.”

“I take total responsibility,” he said.

Jeffers and the Nelson family live on the same street.

An effort to grow and learn

Breonna’s grandfather, Tony Nelson, has been speaking with Jeffers since the incident. The pair met last week with two pastors from Christ Fellowship Church’s Royal Palm Beach campus and Wellington Mayor Anne Gerwig.

Jeffers has committed to getting involved in an internship program for underprivileged and underserved youth that is run by Wellington’s Community Services Department, Nelson said.

Jeffers told The Post on Wednesday that he also has told Nelson and village officials he is willing to be part of any future roundtable discussions, whether about the incident, community policing, racial stereotyping or any other topic.

“We just want to fix this,” Jeffers said. “Not for us, but for the kids.”

Jeffers is an analyst for U.S. Citizenship and and Immigration Services, working at the agency’s office on Belvedere Road.

In a statement last week, the agency said it has placed Jeffers on leave.

Nelson told The Post on Monday that he does not want Jeffers to lose his job.

“Should Mr. Jeffers continue with his promises, he can help heal this country by example,” Nelson said in a text message to Joseph Edlow, deputy director of policy for USCIS.

A letter from the heart

Since the video went viral and Jeffers was identified, he and his wife have faced death threats, hate mail and harassment, he said.

Now, he said, it’s time to move forward and work to bring change and healing to the community.

“We need to be an example for everyone involved in this,” he said.

Below is the full text of Jeffers’ letter to Breonna, shared with the permission of Jeffers and Breonna:

Dear Breonna,

I’m sorry. Please let me start there. I am deeply sorry or having scared you and your friends. When I saw the golf cart driving quickly down our street, I was concerned for the safety of the many occupants on board. When I rounded the corner and almost hit the cart, which had stopped in the middle of the road, I was scared -- not of you, but for you. I wanted to speak with a parent to alert them to the driving I had witnessed. I should never have left my car. I should never have spoken with you all. I should never have lost my temper. I am so very sorry for my actions: they do not represent who I really am.

It is impossible to discuss this situation without a consideration of perspective. I am an older man who is aware of white privilege and who does not see color first. When I spoke with you and your friends, I was speaking to all of you, not to you alone. My words were in response to being told that your group did not live in our development. With my adrenaline flowing, I did not hear you when you later said that you did live here. I can imagine that my words would seem as though they were racially motivated, but they were not. If this situation had a theme, it would be age vs. youth, not age vs. race. I hope and pray that the pain I have caused you will be lessened by knowing this.

I have followed the recent events in our country with deep grief, horror and outrage. My wife and I have wept together many times while watching the news and wondering how our generation could have dropped the ball so hard when it comes to systemic racism. If there is any sort of purpose to the murder of George Floyd and so many other men and women of color, it may be that there is change coming at long last in their names. I have been waiting to see the promise of civil rights translate to true equality for all since I was a child. I have tried always to live my life by the precept I was taught: that all men are indeed created equal. I believe to my heart’s core that until Black lives matter, no lives can matter. Please know that I will continue to work toward that goal.

I wish we have been able to discuss this situation when it happened and work it through, as neighbors do. Instead, the part of the exchange that went viral will forever define me as a racist in the eyes of those who do not know me. We have received death threats and hate mail. My livelihood is in jeopardy. I am paying dearly for my choices. The hardest part is knowing that I have caused you pain. In time, I hope that you will be able to forgive me. You and your family and friends are in my prayers.

I would give anything to be able to take back my words and actions. Since that is impossible, I will continue to work to earn your forgiveness and to restore our sense of community. Wellington is a wonderful place to live, and there is no room for intolerance of any kind. I will do everything I can to help repair the damage and to help ensure equality and equity for all. I won’t let you down again.

Wishing you peace and every happiness, now and always.

Sincerely yours,

Lee Jeffers

kwebb@pbpost.com

@kristinawebb