THE HONOR OF MY LIFE: singing "Amazing Grace" for slain hero Garry "Kool-ade" Chambliss this past February at his funeral. He served the IRC Sheriff's Office for his entire life and grew up right here in Gifford, where he first got his memorable and happy nickname. He and I graduated the same year of high school, although I did not know him. I first met him only a few months before his death, when I photographed him. That turned out to be the head-shot used everywhere upon his death, and each time I see it I remember those few moments with him..... he was relaxed, smiling, friendly. He stood out to me out of hundreds of head-shots taken in that project. A real beam of light. Good person. I am grateful.
I just want to give out shout out of support to IRC Sheriff Deputy Jake Curby. Last week while attempting to arrest a man for battery on juvenile, he had his eye gouged! I met Curby a while back on one of my first ride alongs with Jonathan Lozada and Benjamin Buffington, and found him to be very dedicated. All three of these guys grew up here in the area and now put thier lives (and vision!) on the line to protect our community. Here are some photos from that ride along. Curby also risked his life alongside Michael Dilks to save a family from drowning in a cold, dark retention pond last year. HEROES!
Here is the official media release: April 8, 2017
On Friday evening, Deputy Jacob Curby responded to South County Park, 800 20th Avenue SW, in response to a call of a man beating a juvenile. When Deputy Curby arrived, he encountered a large crowd that had gathered. As he approached, he was informed that the suspect was attempting to flee on a bicycle. He called out for the man to stop, who refused. Deputy Curby tackled the man and they both went to the ground. The man, later identified as 22 year old Jontavius King of Vero Beach, began gouging at Deputy Curby's eye causing him to temporarily lose vision. As they struggled on the ground, King gained control of both of Deputy Curby's arms. Deputy Curby head butted King in an attempt to free himself. Shortly thereafter, other deputies arrived and King was taken into custody.
Deputy Curby was transported to Indian River Medical Center was he was treated for injuries to his eye and his nose. King was taken to the Indian River County Jail where he was booked on charges of battery (on the juvenile), resisting arrest with violence, and aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer. King was given a $55,000 bond, which he posted. Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar stated, "Acts of violence against law enforcement are becoming all too common. We are glad Deputy Curby wasn't injured any worse than he was trying to take this dangerous man into custody. We know that there were a number of people filming the incident Friday night and we encourage them to bring that evidence forward in our case against King. Justice will be served in this case." Deputy Curby was treated and released from Indian River Medical Center. He is home resting and recovering until he is cleared by attending physicians.
I cannot believe that only one week ago, slain Deputy Garry "Kool-ade" Chambliss was laid to rest. I had the unfathomable honor of singing AMAZING GRACE at the funeral on February 25. That is a story unto itself which I will save for another post. There is no doubt that this was one of the saddest days in the history of the agency and our town. The service was also an uplifting experience and a feeling of coming together.
Then, only a few days later just this past Wednesday March 1, the agency celebrated its favorite day of the year, the Annual Sheriff's BBQ which raises some $40,000 each year for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch. It was good timing because everyone once again came together, including Deputy Chambliss' family, leaning on each other, looking toward the future and facing it together, while enjoying food and friendship. Many of the food servers are our 'front line' road deputies. To me, this says that those are giving hearts.
Speaking of friendship and front lines, man's best friend the K-9 made a dramatic point to everyone watching that they are fully prepared to come between us and danger. They can sniff out a bomb like nobody's business and take down a crazy clown like they were born doing it.
The SWAT demonstration sure had everyone's attention, and I think it is safe to say that regardless of any political or philosophical position you may have on the militarization of police, my guess is that we probably all feel a whole lot safer knowing that if/when an active shooter and/or terrorist comes to threaten us in our town, that these SWAT team members along with ALL law enforcement officers, who are our neighbors in our community, stand ready to defend us... Holy Cow ! I am thankful people are willing to be this ultimate front line defense. Someone willing to take a bullet for someone else...That's pretty serious Hometown Hero stuff, I'd say!
Of course now I am going out of order, but the Opening Ceremony was such a treat with the Color Guard, the Horses (Lake County Sheriff's Office), Michael Hyde on bagpipes, and Edmund Nalzaro singing the National Anthem.
Later, some of the kids got to meet the horses. The connections made seem to make an impact, at least in the moments of the photographs.
The motorcycle deputies, including Deputy Doug MacKenzie whose dad was the first motorcycle cop in our area, gave an awesome demonstration of how they can turn on a dime (to the sounds of AC/DC!).
There was a ton more to see. I am only giving you part of the picture. People were touring the Jail and the 911 Center. The many different divisions had displays and discussions going on. Everyone had a good time, and one of my favorite parts was when some of the deputies saw that the crowd was thirsty, and so they began handing out free water. Now that is front line service! Giving your brother a glass of cold water to drink. A beautiful moment in a tough week for everyone.
A prayer vigil was held February 24th for Deputy Garry "Kool-ade" Chambliss in Gifford, Florida, the town in which he grew up, served, and was senselessly killed on February 17, 2017. Below are the photos and a video of Freddie Woolfork inspiring the crowd. These photos and video are currently going 'viral' on Facebook. Click here to see the Facebook album and read all the beautiful comments.
It's 9:35 pm on a Saturday, December 31, 2016. New Year's Eve!
I am all geared up - body armor, cameras, audio recorder, batteries and coffee. I am nervous, as I usually am right before a ride, about to jump into another world like this. I have just come from singing a New Year's Eve concert at Indian River Estates.
I went from "Sparkles & Pearls" to "Kevlar & Blue Jeans" in no time - a good skill to have in law enforcement, I am finding. You never know what the next call will bring and you have to be able to change, adjust and adapt quickly. It's usually not what you expect and could land anywhere on the broad spectrum of human emergencies.
I wait at the end of my driveway for Indian River County Sheriff's Deputy Michael Dilks to pick me up as his ride along for the rest of his shift, which ends next year in 2017 at 2 am! Tonight the air is thick with humidity, and it's cold. Cold for Florida anyway! At first guess, there is a heavy fog settling in over the town. But soon from the sounds of explosives echoing from all directions, I realize the fog is actually smoke from fireworks.
"Nice to meet you," Dilks says as I get into the patrol car.
We shake hands. This is one of those instances that is becoming prevalent as a result of social media, because technically we have 'known' each other for some time now through Facebook. In fact I 'met' him through another person I have never been in the same room with, but someone I interact with frequently, know quite a lot about and consider a friend, and that is his fiancé Heidi Kramer. Kramer is herself a Hometown Hero who dedicates her life to saving others as a Paramedic! She and Dilks met in the Emergency Room while both were on shift.
Her father Ron Kramer started in law enforcement in 1969/70, and served IRC Sheriff's Office for 20 years, Metro-Dade for 4 years, the Secret Service for 4 years, and was Director of a Regional Criminal Justice Unit in Indiana for about 5 years. I hear he and well-loved IRCSO Deputies Roberta Barker and Teddy Floyd go way back, and we plan to all get together in one room to hear those stories for an upcoming Chunky Chat! Meanwhile, Heidi is on duty tonight also, all the way in Jupiter, and here is a photo her work partner Kelly Ruggles Gale posted of the two taking a moment to celebrate the new year with sparkling grape juice together:
Now properly introduced, we drive into the night to await a call for help.
"A guy just got shot in the leg with a shotgun," he says as he turns up the dispatch radio. "He was walking through Gifford when he says someone shot him, and now he is at the Emergency Room. Here..."
A male voice, the 911 dispatcher, has come on the radio: "Male was walking on 29th Avenue. Says a vehicle drove by, shot him, and then he was loaded into another vehicle in front of (gives a house address) and then taken to the ER."
I start trying to figure out scenarios. "So it could be totally random, or gang-related. Or..."
Dilks is reading the details on the call report. "He is not being very forthcoming with information which we do find alot with shootings. Other than that, it has been pretty quiet for a New Year's Eve," he says, moving on. "We have had some noise complaints and some fights. We did have a Domestic early on in the shift where a daughter hit her mom in the head with a beer bottle."
"I know," he says, shaking his head. "Last night was busy! We had a foot chase. Deputy Lacy Thomas and I caught him. He had warrants out for his arrest."
Later on, by the way, we will meet Thomas, who is much smaller than I am currently imagining her to be, what with her ability to take down fleeing criminals in a single bound and everything! It's all in the attitude.
"We also had to arrest a guy who was making a huge scene at the bowling alley," he says, again shaking his head.
As we drive through his zone - which encompasses just south of 17th Street around K-Mart to 8th Street, from Indian River Boulevard all the way to 43rd Avenue - I ask Dilks to tell me about his background.
"I have been a cop here for 15 years; 12 with the Sheriff's Office. I worked Gifford for years and was in Undercover Narcotics for 6 and 1/2 years. It was 2006 and they picked me, Eric Flowers and Chris Rodriguez to go undercover. That was a crazy period. When you get in that field, you are only dealing with criminals. And I stayed on maybe a year or so too long. I think to thrive in this line of work, you have to keep things fresh and change."
Me: "Like now for example."
Dilks is getting ready to move from night shift to day shift, and he has also taken on new responsibilities as a Field Training Officer.
"Yes, I am looking forward to it," he says. "It's a lot of work too. You are training them, you are responsible for them. You pass them on to the next guy and they are representing you in the next phase - what did this guy teach you? Now that I am the 'old guy' I can help pass on what I know to the next generation."
He goes on to explain how he was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey. When he was about 17 years old, a junior in high school, his mom took a job here and moved the family. An extracurricular activity put him together with someone who would greatly influence his life.
"I played on a softball team with Jim Gabbard," he says. "He was the Chief of Police for Vero Beach then. I was kind of lost at that time and didn't really have direction and he inspired me. I applied to work with Vero Beach Police when I was only 19. He said to me, 'Go into the military and I will hire you the day you get out.' I served three years with the Army. I was Airborne Infantry, a regular fighting soldier who jumped out of airplanes. When I came back, he kept his word and hired me. In February of 2001 - the day Dale Earnhardt was killed in the Daytona 500 - I started on road patrol."
Me: "Do you have anyone in your life with a law enforcement background?"
"Not one. It was completely Jim Gabbard."
I grew up in this town and I remember those days when Gabbard was Police Chief, and my impression of him is just like that of our county's legendary Alma Lee Loy: They both remember your name and make you feel special and that you matter to them.
I am not sure what I expected, maybe drunken mayhem on the streets, but the town and its roads are mostly empty, and everywhere we go the air remains thick and smoky. For the first hour or so, we play the role of back-up. Sadly, now there is always the threat of AMBUSH, so it's good to have back-up.
"You never know these days what could happen at a traffic stop, so when I see that one of my Zone Partners is on a stop, I will come and be a presence just in case extra help is needed," he says as we drive. "Also, because it's New Year's Eve, there are extra detail units on the road, especially near the bars. Oh hey, there's Doug MacKenzie right now."
Dilks rolls down the window and I lean out to take a photo, making MacKenzie laugh with great surprise.
Me: "See - the paparazzi is everywhere!"
MacKenzie was born and raised in Vero Beach and grew up riding dirt bikes in the rural areas of the county. 'In 1967, my dad became the first motorcycle cop here on patrol,' he told me when I was in Citizen's Academy.
First we come to give a hand to Deputy Chris Luther, who is on the side of the road speaking with the driver of the car he has just pulled over for speeding.
"So I look for certain little things, like for example this car has a Fire Rescue sticker on it, so most likely they won't be a danger to Luther," says Dilks. "But you never know."
His instincts are good, as it turns out they are teenagers who were speeding to meet curfew and their mom is MAD they are not home yet. Luther explains they live only a few blocks away, and no one has been drinking, so he gives them a warning and hopefully a wake-up call.
Next we go to back up Deputy Lacy Thomas and plain-clothed Detective Ish Hau. They are already on the scene for a Drunk/Disorderly and Trespassing call. Thomas is small in stature but huge in presence and command of the situation. The smoky air and darkness distort the photo but I didn't want to use a flash on the subject, a drunk lady now sitting on the street. She looks to me like she has a whole host of problems and I felt like TMZ with a flash, exploiting her condition.
Later on I ask Thomas to tell me about herself.
"I have been working with the Sheriff's Office for just over a year and a half," she says. "I began working in Dispatch at another agency and decided I wanted to work on the road, so I went to the academy and got hired by the Sheriff's Office and am loving it! I have my Associates in Criminal Justice and my Bachelors in Organizational Management: Public Safety Administration. I really love working on the road. It's truly something different every day. Even if we encounter many of the same people day in and day out, it's still always different, which keeps it exciting! We truly are out here doing this job because we love it. I can't imagine ever being tired of it."
Oh, I hope so! We need good-hearted people like Thomas to continue to want to serve in law enforcement. Can you imagine if they stop because of the threat of ambush and all the hate? Who will come when you call 911? I think that's one of the reasons I appreciate them so much!
So, on New Year's Eve we often reflect on the past as we prepare for the future. With me in the car, Dilks has little to no choice! It's just after 11 pm now and as we drive, I ask him to tell me about the experience which started out the year 2016 for him, when he saved a woman from drowning in deep, freezing water.
"That was probably the one, of my career," he says. "I did CPR on a baby about two months before that, but I don't think the baby was going to die. It was a tub accident. I kind of knocked the water out of his stomach. That was pretty close. I mean, it was definitely life-saving, but I think someone else would have figured that out if I hadn't been there. But the pond was.. SERIOUS. I almost didn't make it. I am not a great swimmer, and it was freezing. The coldest day of the year. I left my boots on. I swam the girl back. It was pretty.... REAL."
He shakes his head, remembering and reflecting on his career. "I am at the point in my career now where unless we have an active shooter call, I am not going to get real excited about a disturbance. I will calmly assess the situation, but that was... that was FOR REAL. We jumped in that pond - it was Jacob Ursin and Jacob Kirby and Roger Jones. That was TEAMWORK."
Ursin is a 16-year-old Indian River County Sheriff's Explorer who lives in the neighborhood where it happened and was able to respond first and save the baby trapped in the car and cold water. Ursin's father is IRCSO Deputy Ruben Bermudez, whom I first met a few years ago when I was the victim of a crime.
Me: "So it's just another night, and out of the blue, you get the call."
"Yeah, so I was sitting in my car right down the road and heard the call that a car had driven into a pond, and I knew the area, so I knew it was that little pond in that neighborhood," he explains. "So in my brain, I am thinking the car is going to be barely in the water right on the edge of the pond. I flew down the road and was the first one (deputy) there, and I remember Curby pulling behind me, and the first thing I saw was the car waaaaaay out there. I look down into the water and here comes Jake Ursin emerging with the baby in his arms, and he is gassed. So I jump in, take the baby and hand the baby to a girl from the neighborhood who is now standing behind me. I pull Ursin out of the water and then I see that it's actually a very big retention pond and that the car is a good 30 yards or so out."
The car is sinking and the male and female passengers are outside of the car now and they cannot swim.
"Before I can think it through, I see Curby jump in the water and that was my cue. We swim out there and I am thinking this pond is not deep and what's going to happen is when we get there, we will be able to rest on the car as we hold them and wait for back-up to arrive. So we get there and..... I feel the car go under. I mean, I could see the lights, and I am touching it. And then it's GONE. Literally gone."
Me: "And you were COUNTING on that car being there for you to rest!"
"SO now I am like, HERE WE GO. We have to swim back. She kept saying, 'I can't swim! I can't swim!' And I told her don't panic and kick your feet. As we got closer and closer to the shore, I could feel myself get exhausted. I work out and go to the gym every day, but after that, I was ONE-HUNDRED PERCENT GASSED! If I had to swim another 5 seconds I don't think I would have made it back. I was DONE. I had sucked in water. I was freezing and cramping. I was coughing up dirty water. I didn't get transported but I sat in the back of an ambulance wrapped in a blanket just FREEZING for about 30 minutes. It was.. FOR REAL. That was REALISTIC."
Curby also tried to save the male who panicked and was thrashing and drowned before that could happen. I try to put myself in Curby's shoes. That's got to be.. TOUGH. Below is a photo I took of Curby back in April 2015 (behind him is Ben Buffington).
Later, when I was researching this story to link to here, I found a photo taken by Scott Boileau of Fire Rescue teams pulling the man's body out and there I see none other than David Dangerfield, the IRC Fire Rescue Battalion Chief who killed himself last October 2016 after posting about PTSD from seeing so much death. So now I am the one reflecting on New Year's Eve! Dangerfield was the 'star' of my Fire Rescue book and helped make it possible for me to start this whole movement which has turned into Chunky Chat. For that I am forever grateful. If you told me four years ago when this started that he was going to kill himself, I would not have believed you.
Here is a link to the news story. And here is the photo by Scott Boileau, with Dangerfield on the far right with the white hair, taken some 10 months before his own death:
We ride in silence for a while. In 2014, Dilks was one of the first responders who recovered the body of young Cole Coppola, the 15 year old victim of a drunk driver, who was struck while riding his bicycle on the Alma Lee Loy Bridge. I ask him about that.
"It was so quiet, you know it was like 2:00 in the morning, and for hours as we searched by boat I could hear the family members just calling his name, over and over, from the top of the bridge as they walked it back and forth," he says. "It was the only sound. Echoing off the water and into the night. I will never forget that sound."
Here is a link to Cole's Foundation LIVE LIKE COLE.
And here is a link to one of the news stories.
It's just after 11:30 pm, and we get the call for a missing person. A man with dementia has wandered off into the woods. He is wearing a red backpack. His son has called 911.
"This is when time starts flying by because every minute that passes means he has traveled that much further, in any possible direction, and that makes it harder to find him."
Me: "Wow, so having been through the rescue in the cold retention pond, do you now anticipate what if you have to get in a canal to save him?"
"Whoa, slow down," says Dilks. "We're not there yet. Let's focus on finding him safe."
I understand. It's a good overall lesson for life, too. Being in the NOW where you are able to actually respond.
As we drive the dark, heavily wooded area where he was last seen headed with the red backpack, a spotlight shines down from the sky through the thick smoke. The Hawk is up. That's the name for the Sheriff's Office helicopter.
The scene is surreal as the Hawk hovers, then disappears, then suddenly is there again.
This sure seems very REAL to me! Time is ticking to find this man before something terrible happens to him. He could easily fall into one of the canals. The last missing person call I was a part of - with Deputy Jonathan Lozada - ended that way, where the man drove into a canal.
I am only vaguely aware of the time but think to check. 11:57 pm. Ha. Almost Happy New Year time! I think on all the many celebrations about to explode, all the corks about to pop, all the fireworks about to blast. And it is all so frivolous and irrelevant at this moment.
We search and search, hoping for a glimpse of that red backpack. I suddenly understand what it means to try to find a needle in a haystack. But we have to keep going. A life hangs in the balance. Every deputy in our zone is now searching. A couple of times we are pulled away on disturbance calls. Changing focus on a dime, it's almost a whiplash of sorts, going from call to call, and then seeing the Hawk hovering and remembering that, oh ya, we still haven't found the man.
Finally around 1:30 am, he is found right around the corner from where are, safe and sound, curled up on the ground under some trees. He says that he had "wanted to go camping." As we pull up, there is Deputy Craig Jarvis helping the gentleman into the patrol car. I see the red backpack for the first time in real life. It's different from what I have been imagining as we searched for it. He is gentle and sweet, smiling at us with twinkling eyes, and he seems happy and relieved and even a little sheepish.
About 15 minutes later, we get the call for a Possible Burglary in Progress. I sit up.
"Well, let's see," he says. "Don't get too excited. Sometimes these types of calls come in but turn into something completely different."
We get to the house right around the same time as Thomas and Deputy Ian McKay. The homeowner thinks she heard someone breaking into a back bedroom window. It doesn't add up, because while the screen is off and the window is open, there is no evidence in the wet grass outside that anyone was walking around. The screen must have already been off, and the window left open. Maybe the strange hanging cut cable was banging in the wind and she heard that? Was there more to the story?
Inside the house, Dilks explains how they came to this conclusion and seems to be trying to ease her fears. She however still seems fearful and doesn't seem to want us to leave. She gets really chatty, sharing how she is a single mom and how she works very hard. Prominently displayed is a book on The 12 Steps. She wants to show us around the home she has made. As it really is time to leave now, she holds us again in her obvious need, and begins to talk about her daughter. This is when the whole story comes out, and I reflect on what Dilks had told me on the way here about how it could turn into something else. Like a Missing Person call!
In a nutshell, the daughter is way underage and hours late getting home (it's now 2 am!) and is not answering her phone. In fact the phone is OFF.
I wonder if she thought maybe it was the daughter sneaking back in? She continues to say how this is not like her daughter, and how she tries to be a good mother. Now, if the girl is not just being defiant and breaking curfew, then this could be a very serious situation. Thomas and Dilks remain calm but begin to ask a series of excellent questions to really understand the whole situation. I am impressed. Of course, they train for this stuff, but OH if only I could ask questions like this in interviews! Very revealing.
Dilks' shift is over, and Thomas and McKay can stay on the call, and so Dilks and I go to leave. The woman says with tears in her eyes, "I am a bad mother!"
I surprise myself by kind of shouting at her, "YOU ARE NOT A BAD MOTHER!"
I guess I really don't know if she is a good or bad mother, but at that moment I really want to hug her. No one moves however and we just connect through our eyes for a long moment. I think of my poor mother and all I put her through when I was 15, climbing out of windows!
And just like that, it's over. I think of how many situations you have to step in and out of every day in this job. I couldn't do it!
Update: Thankfully, the girl was just breaking curfew and not harmed and did try to sneak back into the house around 4 am. The daughter apologized the next day to all of the deputies. Hopefully another lesson learned.
"It was great having you for a zone partner for the night," Thomas wrote to me just the other day. Her words mean a huge deal to me. I think part of why I like to do these stories, aside from the rush of adventure, is to be part of something bigger than myself, that is working toward something good.
I am honored to tell the stories and grateful for the chance! Has this made you reflect on anything?
Bright and early (7am!) on Wednesday, December 21, I gathered my camera and audio recorder and headed to the sheriff's office for the start of this year's "Shop with a Cop."
The first person I see is none other than Deputy Roberta Barker. It is quite possible the term "Hometown Hero" was coined just for her. While still in high school here in Vero Beach as her friends were out having fun, Roberta was on duty, literally answering calls for help as a 911 Dispatcher. I had the chance to "chat" with her on my radio show which you can hear here to learn how she grew up in Vero Beach influenced by her Lt. Detective dad Ray Barker, how she served our country in the Air Force, and how she has worked for over two decades protecting Indian River County through her work with the IRC Sheriff's Office. She has been instrumental in starting vital programs including Vial of Life, Eddie Eagle (gun safety), Citizen's Academy, Operation Medicine Cabinet, and Shop with a Cop.
"Let me just say that without the help of Officer Ashley Penn of the Sebastian Police Department, this would not happen," says Barker emphatically. "Also new to the team this year is IRCSO Deputy Clifford Labbe."
Chunky Chat readers will remember Labbe from the recent ride along story "Active Shooter." Read that here.
Here is how Shop with a Cop works: Barker and Penn and their team of volunteers work hard all year to raise money so that kids in need will have presents for Christmas. These children are identified through groups including the Hope for Families Center, the Treasure Coast Homeless Service Council and the School District of Indian River County. The children are brought in by police escort on buses to the Sebastian Walmart where they are paired with an officer and a gift card for shopping! Mark Rogers, the Sebastian Walmart Store Manager, collaborates closely with Barker and Penn to make it all possible.
As we move into the auditorium, a lady brings her kids in and she runs up to Barker to hug her.
"I miss seeing you," the lady says to Barker, which puts a huge smile on her face.
"Merry Christmas," Barker replies, and then to one of the sleepy children, "Hello! Wake up!"
They laugh and as she goes in, I see Sgt. Mike Pierce. I have known him since Junior High School and Pierce is the subject of many of my stories on Chunky Chat.
"This one day renews my faith and gets me through the year," he says. "This is one of the best days of the year for me. I do this every year and it never fails, we always end up spending our own money on them. It is really touching when you get these kids that go in with their gift cards to buy themselves presents and they end up buying presents for their sister or their mom. I tear up every time that happens!"
Now inside the auditorium, Barker addresses the group.
"We get to go spend some money today for Christmas," she says, as a collective 'YAY' goes up. "First I want to say thanks for being here and I hope we have helped each of you in some way or another. Second, I want to say there are a few new rules this year."
After she explains the rules, the children come up one by one to get their special bracelet from Labbe.
I meet 14 year old - soon to be 15, he declares - Cody.
"This is my second year with Shop with a Cop," Cody says enthusiastically. "I am lucky I get to do it again! All three of my brothers got picked too! And my sister is now coming with us too for the first time."
I ask him, "What do you love most about this?"
"I get to shop for my family! And having time to celebrate Christmas and Jesus' birth. Also shopping with the officers is great because they talk to us. They teach us about maturity."
After, I get in my car and head up to the Sebastian Walmart in time to beat the group and get photos of the procession.
Inside, I see Lt. Milo Thornton. Click here to the our ride along story.
"This is all about giving," he says. "Before we shop for them, I have them make sure they first take care of their mom and dad and siblings. And then after that we go and shop for them. If they go over, I pay for them! I don't have kids so this is my way of taking care of our kids."
Later I find out Thornton bought the little girl assigned to him a bicycle after she spent all of her Shop with a Cop money on her family.
Here are all the shopping photos:
Merry Christmas !
I will be back on the road New Year's Eve, this time with Deputy Mike Dilks. See you then!
I am a Florida native. I have lived in my same small Florida hometown most of my life. Yet up until now, I had never been on an airboat.
"Well, they are very fast," says Deputy Luke Keppel from the Indian River County Sheriff's Office Ranch & Grove division. He is unhooking the airboat from the truck as we prepare to go on a completely different kind of ride along experience. "They are top heavy. They have no reverse. No brakes. It’s just forward and the only way to turn is more gas."
Ranch & Grove Deputy John McNeal joins us and off we go. Both men are true Hometown Heroes. They both grew up here air-boating, hunting, fishing in these very same woods and waterways they now protect.
Ummmm, so..... HEEELLLLOOOOOOOOOOO!!! YES. It is VERY LOUD.
I put on ear protection and sunglasses and remember to keep my mouth shut to avoid eating large insects. GULP. This isn't easy either because it is so beautiful out here that my jaw will drop more than a few times. The sensation is that we are hydroplaning. Keppel is confident and in control and an excellent driver of this giant loud thing. We glide over both land and water quite effortlessly.
It's just vast, wild Florida. In a rural area such as this, airboat traffic is heavy with locals and tourists recreating, fishing and hunting. Our deputies respond to calls for help, and they patrol for wildlife poaching, illegal immigration and drug operations. It looks like we are in the middle of nowhere but the Ranch & Grove officers know the area well. Regular readers will remember this fact from last summer's Ranch & Grove ride along.
Every few minutes we stop to listen for motors and chat.
"It is dangerous out here, especially at night," says Keppel. "Some of the paths are very narrow. Everybody is supposed to have flags but even in the tall saw grass you can’t always see the flags. Every couple of bends, it’s good to just shut it off and listen because you never know when that guy is going to be coming around the corner."
Keppel explains how the airboats and the bass boats are using the same paths. The bass boats are low to the water. "It just takes a lot of paying attention," he says. "So you get some nasty crashes. People get hurt or killed."
Also there are plenty of alligators out here, and if you come unprepared and get stuck, you have that to contend with as well.
"At night, you shine your light out there and it’s a thousand eyes looking at you," says Keppel.
I mention how seemingly unafraid the gators are of the airboat, and how they wait until the last minute to swim away.
“Mostly those are just young and dumb,” says McNeal. "They may have never even seen an airboat before."
I know from my Ranch & Grove ride-along last summer that our county has no shortage of coyotes either.
"Yes, they are everywhere," says Keppel. "Even growing up around here I don’t think I realized how many there are until I took this job. Once I was sitting in the woods off 512 just kind of waiting for somebody to come poaching and trespassing and an ambulance went by with the sirens blaring. After the sirens faded, the coyotes began howling from all directions around me. There must have been 30 of them within earshot howling because that siren went by."
Keppel recalls one particular happy ending out here in the marsh. "Some people from Colorado called for assistance. They were in one of the deep canals and the only thing sticking out of the water was 2 or 3 feet of the airboat's cage. One man had bags and bags of photo equipment he was holding up and trying to balance himself."
"SAVE THE BABY," I shout.
He laughs. "That stuff is expensive!"
This reminds him of something important. "A lot of people think we are going to pull their boat out," he says. "We are about saving the people. We are not a tow service. We do have the ability and do what we can, but for a boat that’s underwater, we aren't going to do that."
"I am sure the taxpayers appreciate that," I say.
On one of the frequent stops we make to listen, I learn more about Keppel and McNeal.
"I have been here most of my life," says Keppel. "I grew up in North County, mainly Vero Lake Estates and Sebastian. My wife and I met in high school at Sebastian River High School. I went to college and police academy in St. Augustine, and then came back home to Indian River County."
I ask why he chose law enforcement.
"I don't have any family in law enforcement, I just thought it was really cool, being in the middle of all the adrenaline stuff, while helping people," he says. "After a while though, you figure out that a lot of what you do might not help anybody, but you do solve problems, at least temporarily."
Both men talk about their frustrations. “Mostly the drug dealers are the worst part of it," says McNeal. "Most of them just don’t learn, so it’s a revolving door with them.”
McNeal was born and raised in Vero Beach. He started with IRCSO in 1994 in Corrections.
"Anything you want people to know?" I ask him.
"Stop committing crimes," he says.
I think of how frustrating most of the day in and day out work fighting crime can be. If you are a regular Chunky Chat reader, you know! Read one particularly stressful shift here.
"I love the job, but after years on regular road patrol, I started burning out. This position came up and I put in for it. In reality, I am a redneck at heart," he laughs. "I mean I don’t do any hunting anymore, and I barely have time to go fishing. So this takes me out here. And we've got some great people out here to converse with. Good, down-to-earth people."
I think of the landowners like Jean Middleton at Blue Cypress, and Pete Marks on the Seminole Indian land (rest in peace, Pete), whom we met on last summer's Ranch & Grove ride along. Read that here.
I remind him that I know it's not all beautiful scenery. On the July 4 night ride with Deputy Benjamin Buffington, we came across Keppel in the dark of night. The Ranch & Grove division were part of a special all-night burglary detail which went on for weeks this past summer. See that story here.
"Lt. Raulen put together some numbers from the detail and we had, I think it was, a 72% decrease in burglaries during that timeframe, so we did something right," he says.
"We also have an excellent airboat community out here, and they help us by being our eyes and ears, just like citizens help deputies on road patrol. They are the Indian River Airboat Association. They have regular meetings out here and hold fundraisers and do clean-ups. They educate people."
Learn more at www.indianriverairboat.com.
On our way back we see a young gator, bloated and floating. We stop to investigate.
"Poachers," says Keppel.
The gator has been shot but abandoned. They say it probably happened because the gator is too small and the poachers left it instead of risking arrest had the deputies come across them. Looking at it, I think, 'what a waste of life.'
Well, there are a million more gators out here, right? So what's one? But it's never just one, and too many needless kills affect the whole balance of everything! I love the idea of how these officers are not only protecting the people out there but also the balance of nature too. That doesn't matter to some people, but on a pure selfish level, maybe the dudes who hunt gator and wasted this life would understand if they realized they are endangering their beloved sport once all the gators are gone. Think I am being dramatic? Google the recent reports of how in only the last 40 years, we have lost well over half of the world's wildlife.
We stop at a ramp crossing. They talk about the many different incarnations this spot has had, from being a cattle field to a river to a racetrack. Both men used to ride on airboats as kids right here in this same area. They recall numerous stories of adventure and fear out on the marsh, like the time Keppel was a just a young boy and his stepfather nearly cut off his (the stepfather's) thumb and bravely got them back to 'civilization.'
"You needed a Ranch & Grove officer to the rescue," I say. "Seriously, you are heroes to the people who get stuck and hurt out here. And right here in your own hometown. True hometown heroes."
They laugh at me calling them Hometown Heroes.
Still, that doesn't change what they are.
What would you do right now if an active shooter walked into the room?
Do you have any sort of plan?
Have you ever thought about it, or do you just push it away?
It can’t happen to you, right?
These are questions no one really wants to think about. That’s stuff that happens to other people. We watch it on a screen. We change the color of our profile pictures to show support. We post our thoughts and prayers. Then we forget. With so many shootings now, it becomes one big terror BLUR. We go back to our lives of Happy Sheep. I will have more on the Sheep later, but right now can you name off the top of your head all of the Active Shooter tragedies that have taken place in the past year alone?
Um…. So….. WARNING! This is the darkest subject I have ever explored in my writing. If you have a sense of goodness and love for life and humanity in your heart, then some of the photos and videos to follow could really disturb your peace of mind. Enter with that knowledge. Also in here is information that might help you save your own life one day. We shouldn’t dwell on the fact that we live in a world where it’s become sort of commonplace for really messed up people to walk into public places and open fire on everyone. We can’t live in fear all the time, but like the Boy Scouts know, we must be prepared.
"I hope this subject matter is not too...dark," Sgt. Mike Pierce of the Indian River County Sheriff's Office tells me as he picks me up to start the 10 am to 8 pm shift.
It's a Wednesday. I have asked him for a different kind of ride-along experience. Instead of focusing on the calls, we will explore a dark side of first responding: the Active Shooter.
I first met Pierce in high school. Come to think of it, that may have even been junior high school. He is now a S.W.A.T. Negotiator! Learn about Pierce here. A couple of years ago when I was just finishing my Fire Rescue book project, Pierce encouraged me to sign up for the IRCSO Citizen's Academy course, which led to other training, screenings and vetting, and now I have the privilege of doing these stories!
"I am taking you to the Sheriff's Office and passing you off to Deputy Clifford Labbe," says Pierce. I learn that Labbe recently retired to Indian River County from a 27-year law enforcement career in the Northeast that includes 14-hour shifts during 9/11 and being Troop Commander on the second day at Sandy Hook Elementary. He loves the job so much he came out of retirement to serve Indian River County.
As we drive, I ask Pierce to update me on how he has been.
“Well, my neck is sore,” he says with sarcasm in his voice which I do not pick up on.
“Oh no,” I say sympathetically. “Did you sleep on it wrong?”
He laughs. "I must always look over my shoulder now and it is giving me a pain in the neck!”
I realize he is referring to the fact now that law enforcement officers have to be aware of their surroundings at all times because of the heightened threat of AMBUSH.
“You read about it and you hear about it and you go, well that’s not going to happen here," he says. "And then you realize that probably every officer that has been ambushed probably thought the same thing right before it happened. Now when I am at a stop light and somebody drives up beside me, I have to look. Or when I pull up to a house on a call - my neck, it’s turning 360 degrees! You never had to do that before, not to such an extent.”
We park to wait for Labbe and Pierce pulls up a flyer on his laptop that is being shared online by an extremist group declaring it ‘Black August’ and calling for attacks on law enforcement. A lot of artistic talent went into the illustrations and the design of the flyer, so it pulls you in a bit like a movie poster. Prominently displayed is an illustration of a giant jet-black ape monster with viciously sharp teeth about to eat a tiny cute plump little pink pig. Now, I am kind of stupidly naive when it comes to sarcasm or jokes of any kind really, and so it takes me a few moments to digest the symbolism.
“Oh, a pig,” I say. “I get it. The police.”
The tone in Pierce’s laugh tells me he is not amused.
Then, the giant killer gorilla.
“King Kong,” I say which it most directly resembles. He is so scary, and, well… racist, right?
By the way – an aside here – I wonder at this moment what the heck do pigs have to do with police anyway? And so I found out it dates back to August 1968 and the Democratic National Convention. Read more on that here.
So back to the flyer. What cannot be denied is the pure hatred and evil in this call for violence. Listen, I am one of those Happy Sheep people (I really will explain soon), and so my natural inclination is to delete it and forget it. Pronto! As if to convince myself that this kind of hatred and evil could not POSSIBLY exist and I can't deal with the fact that it might so I will just mentally shred that flyer. Except now that time has passed, I still see it clearly in my mind, and probably forever will, my eyes opening up a little....bit......more.
“But you know you have to get into that place where you accept the fact that this is what we do, this is the job that chose you,” says Pierce. “So if it’s your time, it’s your time. So what do you do to prevent it from being your time?”
Awareness. It’s the first of the “Four A’s” I am about to learn about from Labbe. And just like first responders have to have a plan in case of ambush, so do we in the case of an active shooter! It’s the way of the world now.
Labbe pulls up just as Deputy Christopher Lester walks by and waves to Pierce. I roll down the window. I don't know Lester at all but I surely know of him. I want to take his picture but I don't want to go all paparazzi on him - after all he is the deputy who was shot last December during a routine traffic stop just a mile or so away from our location. And here he is, fully recovered and back at the job, protecting our community! To me, this is a TRUE HERO.
I tell Lester exactly what I think of him, and he smiles and asks, "Did anyone show you where it happened?"
"No," I say making a mental note to ask Pierce take me there later today. Lester smiles again and walks off. He is so mild-mannered and to me seems to have such a good heart. There he goes, with his life intact, back out to respond another day. I have so many questions for him, but I know the court case against the alleged shooter is still pending. One day I hope to do a full interview with him, and luckily later this afternoon I will get to see him training.
If you read Part 3 of the Summer Series, you probably watched the dashcam video of the shooting. You can even see in the video what I mean about how nice a guy he is, calm, polite. He was taken by surprise, but Lester's resiliency and training kicked in, and he was able to fire off shots back while lying in the grass bleeding, injuring the assailant and slowing him down so he could be caught. Here it is again:
SANDY HOOK, SHEEPDOG, & THE FOUR A’S
I load my camera gear into Labbe’s patrol car, and off we go. We are heading to the northern most end of the county, Labbe’s zone.
“It’s quieter up here than in Gifford or South County,” he explains. “We don’t have as many domestic calls up here.”
Right away I see that Labbe is a bit of a contradiction. He looks intensely strong and fierce, not someone to mess with, and yet he is also very funny, caring and kind.
“When I was a child, my father was a reserve officer in the town I lived in, so I always admired these officers. I know it sounds like a cliché but that’s the truth,” he says, laughing. “I finished high school and at 17, I wanted to join the Marines and be an MP. Well they told me I had to be 19! So the Air Force recruiter told me ‘hey we will give you a stripe and you can go in’ so I joined the Air Force at 17 years old! My mother had to sign. I got to travel all around the world.”
When he got back he joined the same police department where his father had been a reserve officer in his hometown of Norwich, Connecticut and then later joined the Connecticut State Police rising from Resident Trooper to Sergeant to Master Sergeant to Lieutenant to Troop Commander. He worked task forces that solved homicides including the Judy Nilan case , and he even served undercover in Narcotics and Organized Crime!
“I did some Asian kidnapping cases,” he says. “We worked with the FBI, so that was very interesting! Then in State vs. Servello, I posed as a visitor in the prisons and met this guy who was trying to hire me to burn down a courthouse and wanted me to kill a prosecutor,” he says. Read about that case here.
“The day I got promoted to Troop Commander was the day of Sandy Hook,” he says. “So the second night of Sandy Hook I was the commander. I had to run the scene and all the security around it while the detectives worked. I had to walk through the crime scene. The bodies had been moved just outside the school to the temporary outdoor morgue under a big tent for identification. 26 people killed, 22 of them were children.”
“Even with all your training, you can’t be prepared for that,” I say.
“Well, you are prepared for an Active Shooter," he says. "But going to the scene, even on the second day… now I have been through children drowning and burning, I have been to officer-involved shootings, I have seen dead police officers unfortunately. So I have been to a lot of different things. But you are never prepared for – you THINK you are – but you are never prepared to see something of that nature. That magnitude.”
He shared with me crime scene photos:
It makes me think of how we sheep don’t often consider what the human beings who work as First Responders have to deal with emotionally and mentally when they are dealing with the aftermath of a mass shooting. Like the officer on the scene at PULSE Nightclub in Orlando who told a reporter that as they were walking through the scene, they could hear the cell phones of the victims ringing and chiming on their lifeless bodies, loved ones on the other end of the line hoping for an answer.
“Those poor guys aren’t ever going to get those sights, sounds, smells out of their heads, ever,” Pierce later says to me about it.
Meanwhile, Labbe ‘retired’ in 2014 and went to Abu Dabi and Dubai to teach and train their local police:
He joined IRCSO less than a year ago. “It sounds like another cliché but I missed being a road cop. I am having a great time. I love being here. I love the agency. I teach numerous courses on the side too.”
He shares one of his main teaching subjects with me: The Four A’s. These are Four things we all need to think about NOW so we can be prepared if an active shooter shows up on any random day.
AWARENESS – AVOIDANCE – ARM – ATTACK.
AWARENESS: Pay attention to your surroundings. What is going on around you? Who is around you? What exits are nearby? These are possible escape routes. If an exit is not nearby, what other areas around you would serve as good hiding places? Labbe adds, “The second part of AWARENESS is if you SEE something, SAY something.”
AVOIDANCE: If you can get out, then get out. Your first plan is to get as far away from the shooter as possible. This is why you need to think about your possible escape routes ahead of time, during the awareness phase. If you cannot get away, then you must hide. Barricade yourself and others with you using doors, tables…anything! Put your phone on silent. Don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself. Don’t scream. Don’t cry. Stay calm.
ARM: Think about anything you can possibly use as a weapon. “A book, a pen, scissors,” says Labbe. “Almost anything can be used as a weapon.”
ATTACK: If you cannot escape and you cannot hide, then you must fight. Use what you have armed yourself with and strike the shooter’s head and throat to incapacitate until law enforcement arrives. Also remember, a group of people working together can overwhelm a shooter, especially if they can come from different directions. “This messes up the shooter’s OODA-LOOP because the mind can only focus on one thing at a time,” says Labbe. That term always makes me think of breakfast cereal! Learn what OODA-LOOP is here.
Labbe explains further, “You have to attack because your life depends upon it. You are either going to be a Sheepdog or a Sheep.”
“I LOVE that reference,” I exclaim.
“I didn’t say it first, I promise you,” he says, laughing again.
He’s right. I look it up. There is an essay by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman called “On Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs” in his book On Combat. Here is part of that essay: “If you have no capacity for violence, then you are a healthy, productive citizen: a sheep. If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath: a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed.”
“You know, the way we respond to active shooters now has all evolved from Columbine," says Labbe. "It changed the way we do business. We have had to adapt our training.”
He explains how before Columbine, the approach was to surround and get set up then go in together, but now that shooters are able to kill so quickly, everything has changed.
“We just have to go in right away now because it happens so fast,” he says. “For example, take Sandy Hook. In a little less than 9 minutes, 152 rounds were fired. 26 lost their lives. 9 minutes. That’s not much time! Same for PULSE. The worst was over in the first few minutes. That’s why we teach the public the Four A’s. We as people get complacent. It’s not going to happen to me! But what would you do if you are sitting in a restaurant and an active shooter comes in?”
LESTER, COLUMBINE AND A SURPRISE TEST
Labbe and I meet up with Pierce in a safe area where we can spend a few moments to talk, and Pierce tells us he has plans to surprise some of the road deputies to test their readiness in the event of an active shooter.
Pierce and I head south, making a brief stop in Gifford where Lester was shot this past December. Pierce parks right where Lester was parked and we have the same view as his dashcam in the video. Only for Lester it was 3 am and it was just the two of them there. We are quiet and I try to imagine.
We get into Vero Beach and hear a call at Wal-Mart. Deputies Daniel Whittington and Luis Nieves are already on the scene when we arrive. We park a good distance away to observe, making guesses as to what is going on. We guess correctly. White male, drunk and disorderly. We also find out he has a no-trespass order that he is breaking by being there.
We head to south county and wait for the calls to slow down so we can meet up with some of the deputies for Pierce’s surprise pop quiz. He pulls up the 911 recording from the Aurora Theatre Shooting. As we listen, Pierce explains things they did right and things they did wrong, and how law enforcement learns and evolves each time there is an active shooter situation. He also pulls up the Columbine video and I watch.
I am going to post a link to the video, and I want to say: WARNING! THIS IS A VERY SERIOUS EXTREME WARNING HERE FROM ME. I AM NOT KIDDING. This is actual footage from cameras in the rooms of the school during the shootings. The shooters laugh and taunt their victims. At the end, the two shooters commit suicide, which you also see and hear. This is a brutal video. I only watched it that once. It hasn’t made me fearful, though. It sure makes me really think about those Four A’s and incorporate them into my daily life! But watching the video has popped my proverbial cherry of innocence, so be ready. My bubble has burst. My sheep-like innocence and naiveté, the underlying belief that it could never happen to me, like a kid who feels invincible…that is all gone. And while sad, it’s probably in my best interest. For, in fact, there are people out there who just want to see you bleed. Wolves set on killing you.
The radio is mostly quiet and Pierce calls for nearby Deputies Chris Bellefleur, Jessica Ogonoski and Robert Sunkel to meet us at safe spot tucked out of sight. This past March, Sunkel and his zone partner Deputy Linda Nolan pulled a woman out of a burning car. Click here to read their CNN interview.
Once everyone is out of their cars, Pierce has them unload their weapons, just as a precaution as this is a drill. He holds up a stop watch and tells them, “You have just found out there is an active shooter inside the building that is filled with people. Now go get on your active shooter kit. I am timing you.”
BAM. Everyone jumps into action and heads back to the patrol cars. In less than 30 seconds, they are ready, each about 30 pounds heavier in extra body armor, ammunition and communication gear.
Pierce is pleased. “Well done,” he tells them. “I wanted to see how accessible and unencumbered your gear is and where you keep it.” They briefly talk about possible scenarios and imagine what items they could possibly need in those situations, and then Pierce sends them back out on the road.
Soon after we pull the same surprise on Deputies Christopher Lester and Denton Kitchell. They also pass the test of readiness with flying color. And how about Lester? Shot and seriously injured last December, and now here he is, calm and ultra-ready for an active shooter situation! One Serious Sheepdog.
WHITE MALE, POSSIBLY SHOT IN FACE
The shift is nearly over, and Pierce brings me home. Just as I start to get out, we hear on the radio there has been a shooting. A white male has allegedly shot another white male, possibly in the face. Victim is bleeding. Type of firearm is unknown. Possibly pellet gun. By the way, a pellet gun is made to look like a regular handgun, and can do serious damage to flesh and bone. AND TEETH!
“Do you want to go?” he asks.
“YES.” I get back in the car.
Flashing blue and red lights fill the dark road as we approach the scene.
We find out that the shooting was done with a pellet gun in a homeless camp. It is between two men and seems to be over, and I am sure those people in the camp are frightened, with only a tent to hide in. The setting makes it a more public, shared experience for that community.
Soon after arriving, we see the victim emerge from the woods. His mouth is bleeding and he is spitting teeth out. I am not exaggerating. I immediately thank my stars for all the many blessings in my life, like a house to live in and teeth intact.
And obviously, I am really thankful for the Sheepdogs. I think people like that guard the light in this dark world. They keep the scales from tipping too far to the dark side.
Pierce drops me back home, and about ten minutes later he texts this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”
This was an intense story to write. It took me a while to get my head around it. I can say that I am looking forward to going out later this week into the beautiful, undeveloped, western portions of our county in one of the IRCSO airboats with Ranch & Grove Deputy Luke Keppel. Check back later this month (because I don't write fast!) for those stories and photos of both the wildlife and the shenanigans people get themselves into out there too.
"YOU GUYS ARE SO QUICK TO SHOOT!"
With racial tension certainly at its highest ever in my lifetime, I decided to ride in the town of Gifford, our county’s predominantly African American community, to see what effect the conditions are having here in small town America. Most of the current accounts we hear about take place in larger cities, but what about a small town like Gifford, with a population of less than 10,000?
It’s a Tuesday. I am riding with Indian River County Deputy Jonathan Lozada on his 4 pm to 2 am shift. Lozada is Hispanic, born in Puerto Rico to Puerto Rican parents, and he grew up here in Vero Beach. He is one of the ‘rising stars’ at the agency, beginning in the volunteer youth Explorer program, and already a Field Training Officer only four years since starting his law enforcement career. Since we are talking race, I was born in Florida to a Cuban father and a Daughters of the American Revolution mother.
The shift includes a threat of suicide, armed robbery, intense racism from an intoxicated white male, domestic violence, a foot pursuit of sorts, and even an escaped dog. We make three arrests, all white subjects, and we see a great deal of good will and trust between the community and the officers. I start to think maybe the constant rhetoric we hear on the national news has not permeated our town, that is, right up until the very end of the shift.
“YOU GUYS ARE SO QUICK TO SHOOT,” the young black man shouts at Lozada.
It’s nearly 2 am. It’s dark and the streets are empty. Literally only a few minutes before this exchange, I have experienced the most harrowing encounter of my life, which I will describe later, when I thought for sure we would be shot. Still beyond freaked out, I have no time to recover, and instead of going home like I thought we were, we stop to assist Deputies Brian Aguiar and Kevin Jaworski on a traffic stop directly across the street. It is important to note here that having to move from event to event without being able to recover is something cops have to do every time they are on shift. Over time, they get good at it, but I can't quite compartmentalize my emotions like that yet.
In this case, Aguiar sees a car down the road with the headlights off in an area where burglaries are up and he stops them for this reason. As he checks the car's tag number and the men's ID's on the radio with the 911 disptacher, Jaworski stands nearby as back-up. We are right across the street so we go too. There are three young black males in the car, and one gets out and walks up to his front porch nearby.
"Why did you pull us over," asks the driver.
"I noticed you were driving down the street with your headlights off and it caught my attention," Aguiar tells him.
This seems to satisfy him, however the man in the passenger seat appears agitated and starts reaching into his pockets. Jaworski asks him to keep his hands in sight, and Lozada reinforces the request when he continues reaching.
“Look, you have to know we are sensitive these days to what could happen, so please sit still and stop reaching in your pockets,” Lozada explains to him in a manner that seemed pretty relaxed and nice.
The young man, whom I observe to be clean-cut, educated and sober, reaches into his pockets once again. Lozada again tells him to keep his hands in plain view.
“I DON’T HAVE A GUN,” the young man shouts.
“I didn’t say you did, but I don’t know what you have in there. It’s not hard to follow a simple command! Keep your hands out of your pockets! What is in your pocket that is so important you have to reach in right now as we are doing this traffic stop?! Just let us run the tag and then you can leave.”
That’s when the guy goes off, calling Lozada a phallic symbol, but in less kind words, and then repeats several times, "I HAVE A JOB! I PAY TAXES!” And then, “YOU GUYS ARE SO QUICK TO SHOOT!”
It sounds like language often heard these days, and I begin to wonder if we are being recorded. Now, I don't know this for sure, and I do have an active imagination, but I start to get the feeling we are being goaded into an altercation.
The irony here is that Lozada is the last person who would want to shoot anyone and in fact he is receiving a Lifesaving Award tomorrow. He is young, newly married and about to become a father for the first time. He is not looking for a reason to shoot innocent people in the middle of the night in the dark. (You can read details about the lifesaving event at the very end of this story).
I find myself having judgements about the whole encounter, and then I remember to consider all sides. No doubt this young man sees the media spectacle and may believe ALL cops are bad. He may seriously fear for his life, expecting that we do in fact want to shoot him and are looking for a reason. Maybe he has even had fearful encounters with law enforcement in the past and that is why he is acting out now. I don't know the whole story. It could be said that in my 'white privilege' I could have no idea what it means and feels like to be black, and that would be correct!
“PLEASE KEEP YOUR HANDS IN SIGHT UNTIL WE ARE FINISHED!”
Lozada’s voice is raised. Suddenly the polite young man I know has been replaced with one of firm authority. And with good reason. Not too far down the road last December, Deputy Chris Lester was shot while conducting a routine traffic stop around the same time of night. Here is the dashcam video from the night Lester was shot:
The deputies keep their cool, the tag and IDs check out, the guys learn a lesson to ride with their headlights on and follow the rules of the road, and soon everyone is on their way.
“Nowadays it’s tough being a cop because of everything going on nationally,” says Lozada as we drive away. “Sometimes the calls can get a little hostile – yelling and screaming - but you can’t let it get to you. You have to just brush it away. Sometimes you want to get in screaming matches but you are not going to win and it would not be professional.”
And a big difference now, Lozada notices, is that everyone has their phones out, recording.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
It’s 4 pm and Lozada has just picked me up for the shift.
“Gifford reminds me of Puerto Rico, with all the colorfully painted stores and the front porch community.
"It is a very small area and you will feel like we are driving in circles, which we are, and the reason is because there are high crime areas around here and we have to focus on them," he continues. "There are usually at least four units assigned to this area at all times. We do get calls for shots fired, although our narcotics unit has been working hard here and crime is now down. We used to get calls here like, a guy is shot in the head, lying in the yard. Now that type of crime is down. The Old Timers love it.”
I think about the ‘old timers’ – this is an affectionate term I have often heard to describe the older generation in Gifford who want to take back their community and make it what it used to be. This doe snot mean they are OLD people, in fact some are young, but they are holding strong to the old values Gifford was founded on. Many are working hard to do that, including Freddie Woolfork, Katherine Washington and other community leaders like them. In fact, they are renovating the historic church that East Coast Railroad workers worshiped in well over a century ago when the railroad was being built. Its new purpose will be Gifford's own Museum and Resource Center.
Woolfork is and always has been one of the major driving forces behind the Gifford Youth Achievement Center, and is also a part of the group behind the Museum and Resource Center project since the beginning. He said to me in a recent story I did on the project for TCPalm/Press Journal: "I use a quote all of the time: 'He who knows little of his past does little in his future.' This is our community and we have to take care of it. We want to blow the dust off of everything so our kids can see some of their history. Hopefully with this beautiful Gifford Museum and Resource Center we can bring tours through here, have family outings, have Walk-A-Thons and events here in Gifford to support the community. This is an opportunity for us to show our colors. No pun intended," he says with a gleaming smile and contagious laugh.
We start driving around the community. Right off the bat we see a friendly smiling face. It’s Deputy Teddy Floyd. He works hard in this area. He has a big family who lives in Gifford, and he is responsible for getting many of the vacant crack houses demolished. With him is Gifford resident Natron Young and another beautiful young man whose name I did not get.
“Don’t kill me because I wear a badge and don’t kill my fellow brothers and sisters,” says Floyd. “I love them. We are here. I am not going anywhere. So if I have to take a bullet, get ready, I am coming! All the good cops that there are, stand up! Know us before you need us. I am proud of my community! I am proud of Indian River County and I am never leaving.”
Lozada talks about how they try to get to know the community. Like Floyd just said, 'Know us before you need us.'
"We get to know the residents, especially the juveniles, and that makes a positive difference," Lozada says.
Just then we see the ice cream truck which reminds him of a good example.
“Some time ago, the man who drives the ice cream truck got shot by a pellet gun by one of the kids,” Lozada says. “We caught the kid and now ever since, he always waves and is very nice to us. He has stayed out of trouble, so hopefully he turned around a little.”
As we drive, we pass a relative of the man who shot Deputy Lester. He is on a bike.
“If the relative is going to lash out like that, then what is he capable of? You never know. You know there are people out here that want to hurt you, but 90% of the time you don’t know who. To me, this guy is a threat. Because if his relative is going to do that to one of us, what is he going to do?”
It being such a small area, they have instant backup even on a traffic stop.
“Is it excessive? No. We are being careful. Are we profiling? Look, I couldn’t care less about who is driving the car. I don’t care if he is purple or white, or even the President of the United States. I care about the guy who is conducting the traffic stop! I will stand by my zone partner until I know that he is safe.”
As we drive, we see men playing dominoes, kids riding bikes. We wave. The men wave and smile and most of the kids wave back.
“Some of the kids we wave to may want to act tough in front of others, but by themselves they will talk to you all day long,” he says with a smile. "And of course there are some people who really don’t like you, but still in your heart you tried."
Lozada describes how officers have to know the streets in their zones. “Here you also have to know the trails,” he says.
There is a network of back trails that make it easy for burglars to break in and get away quickly and unseen. Only a week before, Lozada was in a foot pursuit on one of the trails. The guy had a warrant out on him so that is why he took off running. Lozada shows me where it went down.
“In a foot pursuit, you are in the mode of you want to catch the guy but at the same time you have to be aware of your surroundings, where you are going, where you are at. You have to manage running with all this gear and pacing yourself. You have to call it out on the radio as you are running. You always want to be calm. You don’t want to be screaming on the radio. That is a very important part of this job – when you need help, you need help – when it is time to scream for help, you scream for help, but we always try to tell people if you don’t have to scream, don’t scream.”
He says you have to relax so you can let your training kick in. These words – RELAX AND LET YOUR TRAINING KICK IN - would ring in my head many hours later when I feared for our lives in a dark parking lot.
4:30 pm – Domestic Violence call
A man’s wife catches him in their bed with another woman and now the wife is threatening to destroy property. We go to back up Deputy Anthony Muraca who is already on scene. The couple are Haitian and new to the country and don’t know our laws. Muraca deescalates the situation and explains the laws. As he leaves, he says privately to the man, “No more girls in the bed!”
Muraca is from Long Island and and servied in Iraq with the Marines in 2007 and then as private security in Afghanistan before coming to Indian River County in 2011. Lozada tells me Muraca’s big interest is in cracking down on the local gangs. We pull into the school to park because it is relatively safe area, and Muraca pulls up alongside us.
“It’s sad when you have to park somewhere and worry about being ambushed,” says Lozada. “It’s not something I like to think about but at least this area is all fenced in and I always roll the windows down so I can hear.”
We talk about the gangs. The Bloods. The Crypts. The 300 Boys – a 15 year old is the leader!
“The juveniles get involved in gangs and start to become burglars,” says Lozada. “They evolve then into the drug dealers. That is the cycle. Believe it or not, people get upset that we go after juveniles but these are the kids we need to stop before they turn into the adult criminals. Maybe we can stop the cycle, and they can turn their lives around. Some can, some can’t.”
Just the Sunday before, Lozada had to arrest three kids, aged 9, 10 and 13. Lozada pulls up the current warrants on his laptop and sees a juvenile listed at a nearby address.
“Hey this kid lives right over here,” Lozada says to Muraca. “Let’s see if he is home.”
A few moments later, we enter a neighborhood and see kids playing. I smile and wave to them. They wave back.
“It’s that yellow house over there," says Lozada.
We knock on the door and small toddler comes barreling out to hug me. He then holds onto Lozada’s leg for a long time while he and Muraca speak to the mother and sister who are very willing to help. The 15-year old boy in question is not there, and they say they haven’t seen him for weeks but that he was last seen down in the south county area, Buffington’s zone. They show us a video on Facebook of the young man in a fight with a known gang member taken only a few days before. Muraca recognizes the other young men in the video.
As we leave, Lozada says, “This search for the kid with a warrant has turned into a bigger thing – now we can document gang activity.”
6 pm - Animal Call
A man has called about an overheated, dehydrated dog on the loose in his neighborhood. When we arrive some local children see us and recognize the dog and take us to the dog’s residence. We determine no one is home and take the dog to the Humane Society where they care for him. Luckily the dog is micro-chipped so they can contact the owner.
We take a drive through Grand Harbor and Lozada tells me how he was part of a search here recently for a man with Alzheimer’s who had wandered off. “We found him in a lake. He was lying on some rocks just outside of Grand Harbor.”
7:15 pm - Drunk/Disorderly and Shoplifting
This situation escalates quickly! A big strong man, clearly intoxicated, (allegedly according to witnesses) spews racist comments while in line to buy beer, including, "GO TRUMP! BUILD THAT WALL!" to a Mexican man who is behind him in line, and calling the Muslim owner of the store a “Sand-Nigger” right to his face. Then he takes the beer without paying.
When we arrive, Deputy Holly is already on the scene in the parking lot observing the man talk to the store owner. As Lozada walks up, the man next insults Lozada and suddenly charges at us like a bull. Lozada pulls out his tazer, just in case, as Holly cuffs him. At the same time, the man’s female friend arrives and yells at us, blaming us for taking him away when he has a minor at home! (Gosh, sounds like there is a bigger problem here at play). She leaves and returns three times while they get him into Holly's patrol car, screaming at us and blaming us all the while. It was… a HUGE SCENE!
Meanwhile I am obsessed. As we drive, I look up the man on Facebook and I am shocked at what I find.
“LOOK! He has a million posts supporting law enforcement and firefighters and EMS," I say to Lozada. “He himself served in the military and he loves his dogs and cooking! How can this be the same person???”
Lozada is much calmer than me. “He is drunk,” he tells me. “It can bring out the worst in people.”
I still am not over it. “And that WOMAN! She was the worst! Screaming at us and BLAMING US like that!”
Again Lozada is the voice of reason. “She is probably just really mad at him and taking it out on us. You can’t let your emotions take over when dealing with situations like this.”
He is right. And very insightful. Still, I am shaken.
8:02 pm –Suicide Threat - white female
A man has called in to say his wife has threatened to kill herself and is walking nearby along US1. Lt. Campbell locates her and we head to the scene to help.
“The good thing is she obviously wants help or she wouldn’t have told her husband,” Lozada says.
I listen nearby as Lt. Campbell counsels her. He is very kind to her, and tells her to think about her sons which seems to calm her. We then help her into our patrol car and take her home. On the way there we open the window between us and talk. Her face is dirty and tear-stained, and new fresh tears keep falling from her eyes. She tells me she is bi-polar and the long list of medication she takes. The stench of stale alcohol and body odor fill the space, and I try to make my compassion win out over my potential fear of her. She is just a broken little lady. I ask her to tell me about everything good in her life worth living for, and she tells me she has five sons and several dogs she loves. She repeatedly says THANK YOU to us. She seems happy to talk.
After we deliver her safely home, Lozada says, “Lt. Campbell keeps us in line. He wants us to succeed. He wants us to be leaders in this community. Not only does he tell you when you are doing wrong, he tells you when you are doing right, which keeps us motivated.”
We hear dispatch assign another deputy to a domestic call. “Remember the Haitian couple,” Lozada asks me. “She is trying now to take his car.”
9:36 pm– Dinner
Back in the safety of the school parking lot, we can finally eat. Sgt. Steve Stoll pulls in and right away gets a Domestic Call. A man cannot control his teenage son who refuses to do his chores! HUH? The man actually called 911 for this reason.
“The father wants us to come in and be the parent,” Lozada tells me.
Stoll starts by calling the man on the phone. They talk for a long while. A dad himself, Stoll can relate to the man which he does, but then he also tells him to step up and be a parent. The man ends up thanking him, saying he needed a deputy to tell him that.
10:13 pm - Armed Robbery
The 911 dispatcher says, “Silver Honda Sonata. Four black males all armed with handguns. Last seen driving east toward Highlands Drive in unknown direction.”
“That’s a Ben Buffington call, in his zone,” says Lozada. We head to US 1 and wait in case we have to intercept them. “So you wonder – are they driving around seeing who is on their front porch or did they pick that house specifically and why? Is it a drug deal gone wrong? Does someone at the house owe somebody money? Or is it a totally random robbery?”
10:26 pm - Suspicious Person
We get a call that there is a man lurking behind houses and peering into windows. We arrive along with backup and begin a foot pursuit. A wide-eyed elderly African American lady timidly steps out on her porch and points to the apartment behind her. She whispers, "He went in there, but don't say I told you!" She seems genuinely afraid to be helping us for fear of retribution, but she also wants the guy off her street.
We conduct a search but he gets away before we can find him. "Probably on a back trail," I think to myself.
10:56 pm – White male, to be arrested in Emergency Room
A white male with arrest warrants from two different states has gotten into a car accident and is receiving medical treatment at the emergency room. We wait in the hall outside his room, just out of sight. He is in our sight, however, as Lozada watches the reflection in hall mirror.
“Often these guys bolt,” he says. “We have to wait while he is receiving medical treatment but once it is complete we can make the arrest.”
Deputies Roger Harrington and David Flores are also there. Both men have served in law enforcement for years. Flores trained Lozada in fact. Flores and his trainee Deputy Shaw will make the arrest and we will assist. Harrington is assigned there for the night.
“We provide security for the hospital,” Harrington says. “We are also responsible for helping the section of the hospital that deals with psychiatric patients. It is a different role than being out on road deputy. Most of them just really need help, but they often become violent so we are here for when that happens to help get them back under control.”
Suddenly the door opens and it is clear to make the arrest and off to jail he goes.
11:42 pm – Subject in custody – Assist the bondsman - Needs help
This is a first for me. A man has skipped out on his bail bondsman and they have come to collect him! They have found him and now need us to come make the arrest. Deputy Cristal Perez arrives moments before we do and she and Lozada handcuff the man, a white male. They load him into our patrol car, and we make the long ride with him to the jail. EERIE. I keep thinking on the way, this guy’s reality is so different from mine right now. What if he does something drastic? Again maybe my imagination, but I feel a black-hole kind of energy coming from the back seat. The feeling of Despair.
We deliver him to the jail and stay to complete the paperwork. Flores and Shaw are still there processing the man from the ER. And remember the white intoxicated man who stole the beer and yelled racist insults? He is now being taken away in an ambulance. While he was being booked, he fell and hit his head and needs medical treatment now.
Later, I share the feeling I had riding with the arrested man. Lozada understands and says, “It’s a weird feeling, right? Having subject in the back seat. Of course I patted him down and made sure he didn’t have a weapon but … it’s always on my mind, what if I missed something?”
1:30 am – Request for Protection
A worker from the electric company is fixing a street light and has called for a deputy to come for protection. We go and sit near him while he works. During this time, Stoll and Aguiar pull up to check on us. Things are quiet right now. Soon the worker finishes and leaves – without saying thank you which I thought was rude – and soon Stoll and Aguiar leave.
I turn to get back in the car and suddenly out of nowhere a very drunk African American man on a bike appears and begins yelling incoherently at Lozada that he has been shot. OR shot at. Over and over, yelling words that don't make sense, but which have to do with SHOOTING and BEING SHOT!
It’s hard to understand him, but what I DO understand is that he is now reaching down into something around his waist.
“Holy hell,” I think. “He is going to shoot us.”
I have never before felt what I am feeling right now. Fear for my life, and for Lozada, who is standing very close to him. I can see the taillights from Stoll and Aguiar’s vehicles, driving away from us. "So close, but so far," I think. “Well, you put myself here – now what?!”
Inside I am panicking. Outside I am frozen. My first thought is to jump up and down and scream and yell for them to COME BACK! Then I remember what Lozada says all the time. “RELAX AND LET YOUR TRAINING KICK IN.” For the first time I actually understand it. I remember the training I received while being vetted. First thing is to stay calm and get on the radio and ask for backup. Simple.
At that moment, like a miracle, Stoll and Aguiar turn around and head back toward us. Later I realize I had not considered Lozada always has a radio right on his body and called for them himself! You can see it in the photo below.
They all calmly talk to the man to determine if he is shot and if he needs help. He calms down too and is not hurt after all, and soon rides off into the night. In hindsight, he may have been mentally ill as well as intoxicated which heightened my fear level when really he meant us no harm. I will never know for sure but I do keep thinking about it. I HAVE learned from previous ride-alongs never to make assumptions and never to let emotions run off with those assumptions.
The shift is nearly over and I am ready to get home. That’s when we encounter the car with the headlights off.
“YOU GUYS ARE SO QUICK TO SHOOT!”
A friend once told me that the negative slang term “Po-Po” stands for “Pissed Off Police Officer.” I think it is CRITICAL for people to realize that the police are HUMAN BEINGS and face stressful situations back to back in one single shift. There is hardly any time to recover, and it’s best to be polite and cooperate. And have compassion.
On the way home – safely thank God! - Lozada shares with me a quote his little sister once left for him on the mini-fridge in his room when he first started as a deputy.
“People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Lozada adds, “And not just men – men and women! Everywhere around the United States. Every day and night. The Night Watchers, I call us. While everyone goes home for the night and sleeps, we drive around these streets to make sure they are safe.”
So I am going to close with the same question I posed at the end of my last ride: For every "bad" cop, think of the many thousands and thousands of really good people in law enforcement risking their lives every day and how they now face higher stakes than ever before. What happens when they decide it's not worth it anymore? Who will answer our calls for help?
THE LIFESAVING EVENT:
I ask Lozada to describe the lifesaving event:
"My zone partner at the time, James Cousins, got a call for a welfare check where the neighbors of the resident had a feeling something was wrong with her. The resident had severe diabetes and often went into diabetic comas. She lived alone and the neighbors saw all of the lights on, dog running around and purse on the table which they said was very unusual. Myself and Byrd, my Trainee at the time, responded to help him out along with Sgt. Stoll. I immediately began looking into the windows of the house where I saw the patient unresponsive on the couch with her eyes open. Sgt. Stoll, Cousins, myself and the trainee forced entry into the house, located her, and Cousins and Byrd began CPR while I waited for the medics. I figured I've done this before so let the new guys get to experience the feeling of saving a life. I've done it plenty of times in my 4 years. Soon the Medics arrived and took over. 30 minutes later we visited the patient at the ER and we talked. Her only complaint: her chest was sore. But she was alive!
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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