Right from the start when I had to literally hoist myself up into the giant Ford Super Duty F250 Extended Cab to begin my ride along with Deputy Brian Aguiar of the Ranch & Grove division of our IRC Sheriff's Office, I knew I was in for a completely different experience.
"This truck weighs around 6,500 pounds and so when you go to high speeds in something this heavy, you don’t stop on a dime," says Deputy Aguiar as we leave the Sheriff's Office and head due west. "You can’t take curves like a patrol car can, so you really have to be careful about how you approach pursuits."
Deputy Aguiar has been with the IRCSO for over 20 years. He served in the Marines and the Air Force, including a tour in Iraq. He is a sniper on our IRCSO SWAT team, and is known as "AG-1" on the Ranch & Grove division. At first I think it is because of his last name, but he explains it is for 'agriculture.'
I already had a great overview on Ranch & Grove from Sgt. Brad Fojtik from my time at Citizen's Academy (see that here), but as we ride I ask Deputy Aguiar to explain their functions in detail.
"As with all areas of the sheriff's office, our duty is to protect and ensure the safety of the public and their property. When you get west of I-95, basically 2/3 of the county is undeveloped. It is agricultural or protected lands. The average road patrol officer has no idea what is out there. All the little trails, dirt roads, accesses. We are the experts as to how to access these areas."
As we continue west, I am beginning to see exactly what he means.
"When we get out to Keenansville Lake, you will see the remoteness of it. We’ve done a lot of airboat recoveries out there. I have pulled many airboats out and back on land using the winch on the truck. Also people come out and get disoriented and lost. They are in the middle of nowhere and may have medical issues as a result. Our road patrol supervisors ask us hey do you know how to get out to them? Yes, we know how to get to them – we are on our way out there!"
I mention the lost hiker who was just recovered in the Fort Drum Area this past June. (Read here).
"He didn’t plan properly and by the time we found him he had suffered from exposure to the elements and was dehydrated. Plus you have the wildlife that’s out there. I don’t think there are many vicious attacks on humans, but in that area of Fort Drum you do have alligators, coyotes and wild hogs. And of course you have poisonous spiders, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes. At night when you can't see anything that’s the time you don’t want to travel! We used our K-9 units to establish a track on him, and our helicopter and ATVs to find him. So it was a good ending." On the ride that day, we sure do see plenty of alligators, hogs and coyotes!
"When you are out west, there are no street names," he says. "What we get is a latitude-longitude to locate somebody. We get those from cell phone pings, and we triangulate them which will minimize our search area. We have an equipment pack – I call it my survival pack – with red engineering tape, compasses, extra water, and glow sticks in case we get caught out at night. We can mark the trail with the tape and the glow sticks to find our way back out. We also use laminated maps."
"If their phones are working, they can tell me what they see around them, and I will have a pretty good idea where they are at because I have been out here so many times. A few years ago we had an airplane go down in a section of Blue Cypress. R&G Deputy Luke Keppel was on that day and he knew how to get to it. We also work closely with the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers. They probably know the area better than we do!"
He tells of another call. "I think it was earlier this year, there were two gentlemen in their 70’s out in a little John boat and it was starting to get dark. They had about a ½ gallon of fuel left and they were lost. The cat tails were very tall and they couldn’t see over their boat. As I approached on the air boat, I asked if the men could hear me and from what direction."
He asked them to put a bright life jacket up on an oar and hold it up.
"That was how I found them – I saw the life vest. I said, OK, I am on my way - I am coming to get you!"
As we travel through the Weir Flood Control Zone and the Stick Marsh area of the county, I can only imagine how frightening it would be to be lost out here, especially at night.
"Once in the Sebastian River Buffer Preserve I got a call – a guy was out there with his wife and two daughters horseback riding down a trail and the horse kicked him and broke his leg. It was partially flooded back there so I talked to the daughter and she gave visual guidelines and we found them. I had three paramedics on the back of the truck because the ambulance could not get back there. You need a four wheel drive and it was underwater. So they put the backboard and their emergency equipment on the back of the truck. They road on the tool box and we went in. I almost got stuck a couple of times, but we got them and we brought them out."
"So we also protect property out here," he says. "We have several people that live out here that we patrol. We look at their ranches, their homes, and do welfare checks. There is a group of people who live out at Middleton Fish Camp on Blue Cypress Lake. We check on them. They like seeing the police presence. We are out here patrolling looking after property and homes just like our regular road patrol deputies do in town."
As we pull into Middleton Fish Camp, everyone there is waving at us, happy to see Deputy Aguiar. He tells me how the camp is named for Joe Middleton, who started it back in 1962. Joe passed last October, and his wife Jeanne continues to run the camp and manage the rental units. She greets us on the front porch, along with family friend Sarah Stiriz and Princess the dog.
"Joe didn’t meet any strangers," says Jeanne with a gleam in her eye. "I was very blessed. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. And he taught me so much about life and how different it is here. Early in the morning when it is very, very quiet out here, you can just sit and reflect on things that you did or you wish you'd done or whatever and it is so tranquil and so peaceful. But unfortunately nowadays, everybody has such a busy agenda that they don’t do that. You have to remember that God put this here and he is in charge of all of us. At night, the only thing you are going to hear is maybe an owl hooting, or a fish flopping. It's just a different life out here."
As Sarah sits on the swing across from Jeanne in her chair, Deputy Aguiar rocks in the rocking chair, and the dog pants from her spot in the middle of the floor, I can't help but feel I have gone back in time to early days, like Mayberry, where the sheriff sits right on the front porch with you and really KNOWS you. And maybe that is not such a far stretch. After all, I learn that our former sheriff Roy Raymond was best friends with Joe, and in the early days used to try to catch him poaching, which Joe would never admit doing.
"Oh yes, Roy chased him all over the place trying to catch him," laughs Jeanne. "He never caught him, but he tried. He really tried. Joe tells stories about Roy sitting in the bushes over in east Cypress when the mosquitoes were as big as he was. He told Joe, he said, 'if I ever catch you I will put you in jail.' But they remained the best of friends."
On the wall is a poem about the two men called "The Warden and The Woodsman" written by Charlie Sembler II. It reads:
Sarah, now 27, first came to Blue Cypress when she was four, and considers Jeanne to be like a grandmother. I ask her what she has learned from Jeanne.
"LOVE," she says. "Anything you need, she is always there for you."
As we leave, Deputy Aguiar tells me when Joe was alive and he would pay his regular visit, he would say that he had to be on his way, and Joe would often say, "Son, where are you going? Grab an ice cold coke, and have a seat. Visit." Deputy Aguiar would answer, "Yes, sir."
All along the way we see lots of cattle.
"We also get a lot of calls for loose livestock. Cows, goats, horses. We have a livestock program so most of the pastures around here we have cataloged with the owners’ names. So we will call them to let them know they have cows out, and work with them to get them back in. I have been on calls along with other officers from the unit where we have driven 40 head of cattle that got out. We will drive the cattle back in there using our trucks or on foot. Sometimes too we have animal abuse cases involving malnourished cattle and horses. I have a case now – it is not criminal now because I gave him 30 days to show improvement on his cattle. But if I don’t see improvement on it then I am going to do a criminal case on it."
"Now why would somebody neglect their animals like that?" I ask.
"Well, usually it is not the big cattle owners you see. If you see 400 head of cattle and all healthy but one or two are skinny- that’s not because the owner is neglecting it. It's usually because of disease or old age. The cases we have that involve animal abuse are usually those people that own 5 or 10 head of cattle because they want the Ag exemption. They are not really cattle people and don't know how to care for them."
Now we are on our way to check in on Pete Marks.
Pete has been a reserve deputy with IRCSO for 27 years and has spent his life in law enforcement.
"One lieutenant used to joke I have been around since we had blue lights on dinosaurs," he says with a hearty laugh.
Pete oversees the property owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida Inc.
The group has recently been there to celebrate their annual Corn Dance. I get the rare privilege of seeing their authentic Chickee huts, and Pete lets me know I can look, but not photograph. I happily oblige!
We get in Pete's truck and head through the wilderness toward the sacred ceremonial grounds. Along the way he stops and shows me a roadway through the woods.
"That is the original Okeechobee Railroad Grade," he says. "It was abandoned in 1951."
Once on the grounds, Pete explains the Corn Dance and the set up of the Chickee Huts.
"The Corn Dance is a four-day religious ceremony. They do it on the New Moon in June at end of corn harvest. It is a secret affair. No photos."
The huts are made from palm fronds and wood.
"A good Chickee roof will last about 7 years. When they were ready to be replaced I used to burn them but then some of the elders decided I was burning up the spirits. So now I pile them in another area and let them naturally decompose. These huts are all laid out by the clans. This is the Panther Clan. That is the Deer Clan over there. The road curves right around to the Snake Clan. And so on. Go on the internet and look up Seminole Indian Culture – it is very interesting reading."
We slowly drive by the huts and come upon a more open area.
"What you are seeing right here now is the actual stomp ground. This is where the dance is held. The lone stick in the middle out there – that is where the women play a game. There is a ball on a rope and they hit it and see if they can hit the pole and get a point. Over here is where the Medicine Man sits. And then this stick right here is where they hang the Medicine."
I am ASTONISHED. An actual Medicine Pole. My imagination is going wild!
"And on the last day the men get scratched. The women get to do it."
I shout, "So be nice to your woman!"
"Yes, it all depends on how bad they want you to bleed," he laughs again. I am not sure if he is serious or kidding.
I ask, "What do they scratch you with?"
"They go out in these woods and get those vines with the prickers on them and they scratch your arms. That lets out all the bad spirits."
I jump right on that one. "And of course the women don't have any bad spirits?"
He tops my joke with, "No, they do, but we don’t want to let any of those out!"
I ask him how he got involved with them.
"I got tied up with a tribe way back in the 60’s. I used to sell them bulls for their cattle herd."
In conclusion, he explains that the only other time they use the grounds are for a Last Smoke, which is the ceremony after a traditional funeral.
"If you remember reading history, they had the platform they would lay the body on for the spirits to take them. That’s what it's all about."
It's time for us to leave Pete, and we make our way into more vast country, where we see an Indian Burial Mound and an authentic Cracker House, which the owner requests I don't photograph. Of course I wish I could have to show you here, but I also am completely grateful for the opportunity to see these in person and I respect everyone's wishes!
It made me literally sad when the shift ended and we made our way back into town where everyone seemed to be moving at such a fast, noisy pace and the landscape was now blotted with buildings and power lines.
Possibly my greatest thrill was seeing a most unusual version of my favorite insect - the dragonfly. This one was BRIGHT RED.
Thanks to IRCSO Ranch & Grove for letting me ride along and share these little-known facts about our county and the role our law enforcement plays out there!
I am an official, fully vetted volunteer with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office (Citizen's Academy, background checks, fingerprinted, etc.). Since my expertise is photo-journalism, producing these stories is one way I give back to my community.
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