Veteran who fired on Okaloosa deputies gets further reduction in 48-year sentence

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

FORT WALTON BEACH — Aaron Wanless, the local Air Force veteran serving time for a 2017 conviction for assaulting his father and Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies in 2015, received a second reduction in his sentence in Tuesday proceedings in Okaloosa County Circuit Court.

Wanless, who has been in confinement for six years, now will serve a total of slightly more than 21 years in prison, with credit for the time he already has served. Tuesday's court proceeding cut Wanless' original sentence in the case by more than half.

Aaron Wanless, shown here during a 2017 court proceeding, got a further reduction Tuesday in Okaloosa County Circuit Court in his sentence on a number of charges connected with a 2015 incident in which he attacked his father with a knife and shot at Okaloosa County sheriff's deputies. Originally sentenced to 48 years in prison, Wanless' sentence subsequently was reduced to 28 years, and a Tuesday ruling dropped his sentence to slightly more than 21 years. Wanless has already served six years in prison.

Wanless originally was sentenced to 48 years in prison, but that sentence was cut to 28 years following a 2019 hearing in Circuit Court. That hearing was conducted following a 2019 decision from Florida's First District Court of Appeal regarding the application of the state’s “10-20-Life” law governing gun-involved crimes.

Background:Air Force vet who attacked father, Okaloosa deputies seeking additional sentence reduction

Florida's "10-20-Life" law, which had impacted Wanless' conviction, had mandated a 10-year sentence for crimes in which a gun was displayed, a 20-year sentence for crimes in which a gun was used, and 25 years or more for crimes in which someone was wounded.

In the 2019 hearing, reflecting the repeal of the "10-20-Life" law, some of Wanless' initial sentences were changed to run concurrently rather than consecutively, dropping 20 years from the time Wanless had been set to spend in prison.

Last year, Wanless' attorney, Robert Malove of Fort Lauderdale, began an effort to have Wanless' sentence reduced even further, asking the State Attorney's Office to allow Wanless to be resentenced without imposing mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, or by allowing an eight-year sentence handed down on one of the charges against Wanless to run concurrently with the other sentences, effectively reducing Wanless' total sentence to 20 years.

A hearing was set by Circuit Judge William F. Stone on a motion from Malove for the further reduction in Wanless' sentence. In a subsequent court filing, the state Attorney's Office argued that the court had no discretion in Wanless' sentencing and that prosecutors would have to agree to any departure from state mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

From the files:Prosecutors reject move to lessen Air Force veteran's sentence

Later, however, the assistant state attorney handling the Wanless sentencing issue reached out to Malove with a proposal that would reduce the sentence on one of the aggravated assault charges to slightly more than a year in prison, bringing Wanless' full sentence down to slightly more than 21 years.

Wanless accepted that offer in court Tuesday, according to Peter Armstrong, a paralegal in Malove's office who also is a friend of Wanless.

In a Tuesday email to the Daily News, Armstrong expressed gratitude for the State Attorney's Office action in the case. But, he added, efforts to get Wanless' sentence reduced even further also are planned as part of "post-conviction relief" efforts.  

"Wanless has done his best to become involved in positive activities in the faith-based dorm of his prison," Armstrong wrote in the email. "He is teaching a Bible study in his dorm on Saturday morning and coaching softball ... ." 

Aaron Wanless, shown here leaving an Okaloosa County courtroom last year in a hearing that resulted in a 20-year reduction in his sentence on aggravated assault charges, is seeking a hearing to have his current 28-yeer sentence reduced even further. [DAILY NEWS/FILE]

The 2015 incident that sent Wanless to prison began at a Yacht Club Drive home where his father, David, told deputies responding to a 911 call that his son had threatened him with knives. As David Wanless was talking with deputies, Aaron Wanless came out of the house and fired a gun in the deputies’ direction. The deputies drew their firearms, took cover and ordered Wanless to drop his gun.

Wanless fled from the home through the back door, beginning a 12-hour manhunt that ended when he surrendered at his home on Kepner Drive. The charges filed against him initially had Wanless facing as long as 85 years in prison rather than the 48 years to which he was initially sentenced.

At the time of the 2015 incident, according to court filings, Wanless was under treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses at the local Department of Veterans Affairs. Those issues, according to the filings, stemmed from injuries Wanless suffered in a non-combat motorcycle accident while on active duty with the Air Force — almost losing a leg — and his subsequent honorable discharge.

"Upon return to civilian life, (Wanless') mental health steadily spiraled downward," Malove noted in a court filing in the case. That filing described the incident that landed Wanless in prison as "a mentally ill veteran’s failed attempt to commit 'suicide-by-cop.' ”

His case, however, went through the regular court system rather than the local Veterans Court designed to consider the special circumstances of some veterans charged with crimes.

David Wanless said during an interview following court proceedings last year that he had not wanted his son to be charged for threatening him with the knife, but prosecutors nonetheless proceeded with an aggravated assault charge.