Man pleads guilty in 2021 fatal shooting of Nassau County deputy

Patrick McDowell admits to killing Deputy Joshua Moyers during traffic stop

NASSAU COUNTY, Fla. – Patrick McDowell stood before a judge in Nassau County court Friday and pleaded guilty to killing Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyers in 2021.

McDowell, who was charged with first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, also pleaded guilty to injuring a police dog and eight counts of aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

McDowell shot Moyers twice during an early morning traffic stop on US 301 on Sept. 23, 2021. Moyers, 29, died from his injuries on Sept. 26, 2021.

The other charges stemmed from an encounter in the woods during a manhunt for McDowell, which ended after five days when McDowell was found hiding out in a bathroom building at the Kirsten Higginbotham Sports Complex on Sept. 28, 2021.

In October 2021, the Attorney’s Office said it would seek the death penalty if he was convicted of the murder of Moyers. McDowell’s defense team filed 20 motions in June 2022, one of which included asking the judge to block prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, declaring Florida’s death penalty law unconstitutional and declaring lethal injection cruel and unusual punishment.

After Friday’s hearing, the State Attorney’s Office released a statement saying it is still seeking the death penalty against McDowell.

“McDowell’s guilty plea is a testament to the exceptional work of law enforcement. This a positive step toward justice for Deputy Moyers, his family, and Nassau County,” the statement said. “Today’s plea does not alter our course — the State will continue to seek the death penalty for this heinous crime.”

Judge James Daniel told McDowell on Friday that he will face a sentencing hearing on the injuring a police dog and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer charges, and that a penalty phase will be set for the first-degree murder charge. That penalty phase will include a jury that will decide whether to recommend the death penalty for McDowell, or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Daniel stressed to McDowell before he entered his plea that those were the only two options on the charge. McDowell said he understood.

Daniel also made sure McDowell understood that changes under consideration in the Florida Legislature could affect his case. Under Senate Bill 382 a jury would not have to be unanimous in order to recommend death. That would change to a minimum of an 8 to 4 vote.

During Friday’s hearing, McDowell asked for a moment to sit down, saying he felt faint. Daniel took a 5-minute recess, and then made sure that McDowell understood everything that had already been said in court and the pleas he had entered.

Nassau County Sheriff Bill Leeper had strong words for the case after court Friday, saying he thinks about Moyers every day and he believes no sentence but death is suitable for McDowell.

“This is a death penalty case, and that’s exactly what he should get,” Leeper said. “Even though it won’t bring Josh back — this evil, cold-blooded cop killer deserves nothing less than what Deputy Moyers has received. He stuck his arm out, pulled that trigger, and took a life. He was brave enough to do that, he should be brave enough to stick his arm out, take that needle of death and give up a life.”

The defense said they are working on reaching people for mitigation, or the people who will help reduce the severity of this situation on behalf of Patrick McDowell. The state said they have experts and are conducting an extensive background investigation on McDowell based on what they think the defense will present.

Attorneys will do a status conference on May 18. Jury selection for the penalty phase is set for September 8.

The traffic stop

According to McDowell’s arrest affidavit, he told a woman who was in the van with him when Moyers pulled him over: “It’s either me or him.”

McDowell told the woman when he saw Moyers lights that he wasn’t going to stop: “I’m not going to jail.”

But McDowell did eventually stop, pulling off US 301 onto Sandy Ford Road, and stopping just short of the railroad tracks — a decision that would later prove fateful for Moyers.

According to the reports, McDowell gave Moyers a false name and didn’t have a driver’s license. Moyers also learned the tag on the burgundy-colored minivan belonged to a different vehicle. Investigators later learned the vehicle had been stolen from Jacksonville.

RELATED: Prosecutors release recording of Nassau County Deputy Joshua Moyers when he pulled over his accused killer Patrick McDowell

The woman with McDowell told investigators later that when Moyers approached the van asking for their IDs, McDowell reached behind his seat for his handgun. Moyers asked McDowell if there was a gun inside the van, and he said no.

The woman told an FDLE agent that when Moyers asked for their IDs, she showed Moyers a photo of it on her phone, and McDowell handed over what she thought was an ID.

Just then, the railroad crossing arms activated with the bells ringing and lights flashing. Moyers turned to look at the crossing arms for just a moment, and when he turned back, McDowell had a gun in his face — and pulled the trigger, shooting Moyers just below his eye, investigators said.

Sheriff Leeper said McDowell fired again and hit Moyers in the back as the deputy fell to the ground. Then he slammed on the gas and sped through the railroad crossing just as the arms were coming down, investigators said.

The encounter was captured on dashcam video from Moyers’ patrol car.

Leeper said the backup deputy that Moyers had called for arrived about 30 seconds later and found him lying in the road.

That’s when the “Officer Down” call went out.

The aftermath

Moyers had been shot in the face and back and wasn’t breathing.

The first four deputies to arrive at the scene after the Officer Down call took turns with Deputy Barnes, administering CPR to Moyers until paramedics arrived.

RELATED: Traffic stop to trauma scene: Desperate efforts to save Deputy Joshua Moyers revealed in reports

Deputy Hall said he ran back to his patrol vehicle at one point, frantically throwing things from the trunk to get out an AED and other medical supplies. Deputy Cone said once they had the AED, he cut Moyers’ shirt open so the AED pads could be applied.

Once paramedics arrived, Hall directed them to Moyers, explaining his injuries, and then the deputies helped move Moyers onto the stretcher.

Deputy Holmberg, who had also been helping with CPR at the scene, gave the ambulance an emergency escort to prevent delays in arriving at UF Health Jacksonville’s trauma center.

Despite their efforts, Moyers’ injuries were too severe. He died days later at the hospital.

The manhunt

The woman in the van with McDowell said he yelled, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I had to! I had to!,” as he sped away from the shooting scene, and the woman answered, “No you didn’t!” and demanded to be let out of the van.

She said McDowell drove a short distance away and told her they had to hide. She said once out of the van, she ran back toward deputies, and he ran the other way -- sparking the five-day manhunt.

Records show McDowell served in the U.S. Marines, and a former colleague described him as a “survivalist” and trained shooter.

In a video released as part of discovery material in the case, K-9 Chaos can be seen picking up McDowell’s trail in the woods in the hours after the shooting. After the dog starts barking, gunshots can be heard and the dog yelps in pain. Multiple officers then fire their rifles in unison into the darkness.

But McDowell remained on the run for days and hundreds of law enforcement personnel searched for him in the Nassau County woods.

More than 200 local, state, and federal law enforcement officers had focused their search efforts on a 5-square-mile perimeter southwest of Callahan while a statewide Blue Alert was out for McDowell.

Also included in the evidence were texts back and forth from McDowell and his mother while he was on the run and interviews with McDowell’s girlfriend, Brieana Tole, who tried to help McDowell escape capture. She is not the woman who was in the van with him during the shooting.

Despite dozens of shots fired in the woods by law enforcement during the early encounter, McDowell was found days later hiding out at a Callahan sports complex with only two minor flesh wounds.

Tole is accused of driving to the sports complex where McDowell was hiding out in an attempt to get him out of the area and escape arrest, according to an arrest report. She pleaded guilty to being an accessory and is awaiting sentencing. Her next court date is May 4.

The capture

In drone video of McDowell’s capture at the Kirsten Higginbotham Sports Complex off Ball Park Road, McDowell can be seen crawling out of a concession stand and then being subdued by K-9 Huk.

Moyers’ handcuffs were used to arrest McDowell, Leeper noted.

McDowell was treated for a dog bite wound and then transported to UF Health Jacksonville in a Nassau County rescue accompanied by several deputies in cruisers.

After his arrest, McDowell’s father, Richard, issued a statement to News4JAX.

“I would like to say that I’m glad no one else got hurt and I hope that it will help Deputy Moyers’ family knowing he’s not still at large,” Richard McDowell said.

RELATED: ‘My deepest regrets’: Father of man accused of shooting Nassau County deputy issues statement

He also said his son was diagnosed with PTSD, depression and other ailments and “turned to drugs” but had been through Veterans Treatment Court and “was doing very well” until the COVID lockdown.

“I had resigned myself to the fact that he might overdose or take his own life. I never dreamed he would take someone else’s life,” Richard McDowell wrote.

About the Authors:

A Jacksonville native and proud University of North Florida alum, Francine Frazier has been with News4Jax since 2014 after spending nine years at The Florida Times-Union.

A Florida-born, Emmy Award winning journalist and proud NC A&T SU grad