St. Johns County sergeant responds to arrest

Catherine Payne writes lengthy Facebook letter, speaks to media

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – A St. Johns County Sheriff's Office sergeant arrested Tuesday night on a charge of interfering with child custody after picking up her 6-year-old son and driving to Fernandina Beach broke her silence Friday.

Sgt. Catherine Payne, 37, a former public information officer and homicide investigator with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office who was placed on administrative leave two months ago, was taken into custody by the Fernandina Beach Police Department after an Amber Alert was briefly issued for Payne's 6-year-old son, Reid.

Payne and Reid's father, who is a Florida Highway Patrol trooper, are going through a civil court issue, and Payne does not have custody of Reid. The couple has been separated since July 2013.

After being hospitalized twice -- once at Flagler Hospital and once in Osceola County -- after panic attacks this August, Payne returned to St. Augustine to find that her husband had obtained a court order giving him sole custody of Reid, giving her no rights to see her child. She wrote in a three-page letter on Facebook on Friday that "that court order never existed in my world because it was not signed" until Tuesday.

According to the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office, that's the day Payne picked Reid up from school in St. Augustine without permission. School officials quickly contacted the father, Phillip Payne, and he notified the Sheriff's Office, which began a search and after four hours issued a statewide Amber Alert. The alert was canceled within minutes when Reid was located with his mother.

Catherine Payne, who also spoke to the media Friday, said that she believes she removed Reid from school Tuesday with full legal authority at the time, but her estranged husband's attorney said that's not true.

"I'd been in my attorney's office that morning and said if there was an issue, let me know," said Catherine Payne, who is facing a third-degree felony charge.

The court order limiting custody and ordering supervised visits for Catherine Payne is dated Sept. 4. But Catherine Payne said she never saw the order until after the Amber Alert on Tuesday.

"She absolutely knew about that order," said Brandon Beardsley, Phillip Payne's attorney. "Absolutely knew the terms of that order, and absolutely knew the conditions she was under because of that order."

While the couple works out terms of the divorce, Beardsley said the intention has never been to strip custody from a loving mom.

It's been to protect Reid, after a string of medical issues where Catherine Payne reportedly showed erratic behavior.

"She's been a great law enforcement officer. She's just had -- some health issues we'll say lately," Beardsley said. "When that happened, I had to protect the child. As Mr. Payne's attorney, I had to protect him. I have to protect his family."

Catherine Payne said she only wanted some one-on-one time with her son and never intended to leave the state, as her husband's attorney suggested. 

DOCUMENT: Letter posted on Facebook on Friday

Catherine Payne's grief and heartbreak at the situation seemed evident Friday.

"Phillip was the love of my life. It devastated me when we separated," Catherine Payne said through tears. "But for this to happen, I don't even know who that is, who that person is and why he would do this."

Catherine Payne's Facebook letter Friday explained her actions, saying she was "carrying a huge burden as a trained law enforcement official and a Public Information Officer," adding she was "put in a position of choosing between the two things I loved the most: my profession and my child."

"I could not stop the train that was coming down the tracks," Catherine Payne wrote.

Catherine Payne said she tried several times to resign the week of Aug. 11, but she was told that she was too valuable to the agency. During that same week, she said personnel with the major crimes unit "made serious allegations about my work ethic."  When she was suspended, "My heart literally broke."

Catherine Payne wrote that she suffered a panic attack that night and was taken to Flagler Hospital, where she was held for evaluation, then released "with a prescription of rest, relaxation, and complete avoidance of stress." When she suffered a second panic attack, she was admitted to a hospital in Osceola County, and again released and told to rest and avoid stress.

"This is my official rebuttle (sic) to your claims about me being mentally unstable. YOU ARE 100% RIGHT ... I am crazy about a little boy who fell into my arms 6 years ago," Catherine Payne wrote. "I would fight to the ends of the earth for him. I would sacrifice everything material, every relationship, and my life for his safety and happiness. If that makes me crazy, then I will take the diagnosis and any prescription that follows."

Catherine Payne said she has resigned from the Sheriff's Office and submitted for a medical retirement, based on a heart condition. A Sheriff's Office spokesman said Friday she remains on administrative leave.

"As I move forward with the next chapter of my life, I have absolutely no regrets about my decision," Catherine Payne wrote.

Catherine Payne make a first appearance in a Nassau County courtroom.
Catherine Payne make a first appearance in a Nassau County courtroom.

Events leading to arrest

On Tuesday, after the Amber Alert was issued for Reid, someone reported that Catherine Payne posted a Facebook status update saying she was at a downtown Fernandina Beach restaurant. Police found Reid safe about 7:50 p.m., only a few minutes after the alert was issued. Reid was released into the custody of his father.

Catherine Payne was booked into the Nassau County jail and held on $5,000 bond, then transferred to St. Johns County, where she was ordered confined to house arrest with a GPS ankle monitor.

In September, Phillip Payne, was given sole custody of Reid. The FHP, where the husband works, issued a statement saying, "This is a personal matter, and it's being handled appropriately through the courts."

According to the child custody court order, at 4 a.m. Aug. 28, Payne was putting beer bottles in neighbors' flowerpots. She also tried to climb onto a firetruck and was babbling, not speaking in full sentences.

Payne was taken to Flagler Hospital and Baker Acted. She told hospital workers she was going to have a baby, which was false, according to the order.

Payne was released on Aug. 29, traveled to friend's house in Osceola and started acting strange, according to the order. The Osceola County Sheriff's Office Baker Acted her, saying she became a threat to herself, according to the order.

On Sept. 3, Payne went to her son's school and took him home at the end of the day, according to the order, prompting her husband to request supervised visits.

Payne was considered mentally unstable and unable to care for her child without supervision, according to the court order.

In Payne's annual evaluations at the SJCSO, she met the standard in everything. She had no previous discipline and had dozens of accolades from citizens and people within the Sheriff's Office.

According to her Facebook page, Payne started a public relations firm called Positive Influence on Oct. 18 in St. Augustine.

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