Debra Jo Hunter was charged with misdemeanor assault after the incident last June was captured on viral video

By Jeff Truesdell
March 25, 2021 04:05 PM
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Debra Jo Hunter
Debra Jo Hunter
| Credit: Jacksonville Sheriff's Office

A Florida woman faces up to 60 days in jail after admitting she intentionally coughed on and threatened a mask-wearing shopper during a scuffle last June in a Jacksonville store caught on video that went viral.

The target of the woman's assault, Heather Sprague, later identified herself as a brain cancer patient and said she was on a rare public outing during the coronavirus pandemic because her treatments left her immunocompromised.

On Monday, Debra Jo Hunter, 53, of Fernandina Beach, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of Sprague in the June 25 incident at a Pier 1 Imports store at the Town Center mall, reports News4Jax.

Sprague, who filmed and posted the video of the incident, said she began recording after watching the unmasked Hunter become aggressive with store employees, and continued to film as Hunter turned toward her with a two-handed obscene gesture.

"I think I'll get really close to you and cough on you then," Hunter can be heard saying on the video. "How's that?"

"I was a little shocked to have her really kind of weaponize the threat of the virus," Sprague told Action News Jax. "It was an act of aggression, and so I was really surprised."

Hunter entered her plea after Judge James Ruth told her he was ready to move ahead with jury selection for a trial. Hunter had agreed at two previous hearings to plead guilty, but because neither of those pleas included the option for jail time, the judge rejected them, according to News4Jax.

A sentencing hearing that began Wednesday is due to resume next month, reports First Coast News.

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The incident and its social media aftermath generated a backlash that turned Hunter into a pariah, according to a three-page letter from the mom-of-three to the judge in which Hunter tried to explain her actions.

In describing the incident, she wrote: "My daughter was alarmed when she noticed a stranger recording the three of us with her phone. Admittedly I was immediately infuriated and demanded this customer to stop filming my kids. In the heat of the moment, I over reacted in an over protective manner which ultimately led to my retaliation on this stranger, the victim. And that highly regrettable, split second, knee jerk reaction has cost my family dearly." 

Hunter included another 23 pages that documented harassing texts, emails, letters and social media posts targeting her and her family.

"Despicable, vile skank," said one. "I hope your whole family gets COVID and suffers immensely, then dies."

Hunter wrote, "We no longer take family bike rides around the neighborhood. We no longer wave at neighbors passing by."

"I realize this all may sound like a bad movie script," she added. "I assure you, I never thought I would be playing a starring role in a social media feeding frenzy."

Hunter dismissed any effort to portray her letter as a request for "mercy, empathy or understanding," she wrote. "I have been so incredibly humbled by this ordeal that I do not feel right about asking for anything. My guilt consumes me daily as I watch how one poor decision continues to chip away at my undeserving family."

But she concluded: "I often wonder what it would be like if every one of us, as the flawed human beings we are, had their worst moments reduced to a short video for all the world to see and judge."