Detective Hussey returns today with a story of the grim reality of police work and its consequences. Somehow, I didn't think cute pictures were appropriate.
Today is Wednesday, February 11, in the Year of Our Lord, nineteen hundred and ninety-eight. I found out yesterday that Jerry Whitehead had committed suicide with a gun, in front of the Sheriff's substation in North Lakeland. He was one of the last people I would have ever thought would take his own life.
Where to start. I met Jerry in the mid 1970's. In those days, he was a seasoned veteran, and in great physical condition. He was one of the truly physically strong people I have ever met. In fact his strength was legendary.
Jerry Franklin Whitehead began his law enforcement career in 1961 at the age of 21, walking a downtown beat. Jerry was well thought of and had a reputation with good and bad guys alike for being fair but firm. Later, Jerry rode a bicycle downtown, long before all the fancy mountain bikes came along. A story is told about Jerry pursuing a motor vehicle for miles and staying with him. He just didn't know there were things he couldn't do.
In those days the area north of the railroad tracks was considered a dangerous place for everyone, including the cops. There weren't any radios and very few telephones.
You just didn't go north of the railroad without a backup...that is no one did except Jerry Whitehead. By the time Jerry's probationary first year was up, he had created a reputation that would only grow larger. Once, a call came in to the police department that there was a policeman in a fight at one of the Pine Street liquor establishments. When the patrol units arrived, they found around a dozen dazed and banged up drunks, lying in the street. Inside they found a slightly battered Officer Whitehead, uniform torn, alone, after having single handedly, thrown every patron outside on his or her respective ass.
Another time, he ventured north of the tracks at the request of a disgusted citizen who had seen two scantily clothed winos lying in the alley behind one of the bars. Jerry located the drunks, handcuffed them and telephoned the police station for a wagon to transport. The operator told Jerry that all the units were tied up on calls and that as soon as someone was free, she would send help. That wouldn't do for Jerry. A short time later, he was seen walking into the police station's sally port with an unconscious drunk over each shoulder. He'd carried the pair a quarter of a mile.
There used to be a rock in downtown Lakeland's Munn Park. The stone was huge and weighed several hundred pounds. Jerry would take people there, especially rookies, begin discussing the weather, politics, the size of the rock, then bet the unsuspecting sucker that he could lift it. Trust me, he could lift it. Jerry won a lot of lunch money that way. Years later, the city set the rock in concrete. Jerry went over to the park and nearly broke his back, trying to lift it. He hated defeat worse than anything.
Sometimes on the midnight shift, you would find him behind a business or shopping center, grunting and sweating profusely, as he was "working out." He'd be there, lifting a full trash dumpster several feet off the ground. He just had awesome strength.
There are a hundred Jerry Whitehead stories. One of my favorites is one I wrote about in an earlier chapter. Jerry was having lunch at K.C.'s. While he was inside, Billy Hyatt tied a dead dog on the end of a short rope, and concealed the dog under the back of the officer's cruiser. When Jerry came out, he got in his car and turned West on the boulevard, then headed South on Florida Avenue. It was a bright sunny day and the streets were full of people. As Jerry drove down Florida Avenue, past the old Silver City garage, people yelled and pointed. Jerry thought everybody was waving and being friendly he flashed his huge smile and waved back. The calls started pouring in at the LPD switchboard. "Hey, one of your asshole cops is pulling some poor defenseless dog behind his car, he should be shot"... Until a grinning Sgt. Pete Petersen stopped a surprised Jerry Whitehead and made him dispose of the dog.
Jerry left the Lakeland Police Department in 1976 to take a supervisory position with the Polk County Sheriff's Department. He rose to the rank of Captain during the Mims administration, but was ousted by newly elected Sheriff Dan Daniels, who defeated Louie T. "Trooper" Mims in 1984.
For the next several years, Jerry managed and marketed restaurants for the Burger King Corporation. I saw him once, dress shirt and tie, sleeves rolled up, flipping hamburgers behind the counter of the Burger King restaurant on The Boulevard. He was sweating and moving at breakneck speed. He was a hard worker; it's how he did everything, and it's how I choose to remember him.
When Lawrence Crowe became Sheriff in 1986, Jerry went back to work for the Sheriff's Department as a deputy, shagging calls and taking orders from kids who weren't even born when he first became a cop. He did so cheerfully and with the same zeal as always. He later was able to secure a spot for himself in the agricultural crimes unit. He stayed there until several weeks before his death. It was a job he enjoyed very much.
Jerry's tenure spans several decades. He worked for numerous Police Chiefs and Sheriffs, including Lawrence W. Crowe, Jr., who had worked with Jerry as a rookie patrolman. His personnel file took up nearly a file drawer at the Polk Sheriff's office where he finished his career. No one person had more letters of commendation and awards than did Jerry Whitehead.
In 1995, Jerry again immortalized himself in the annals of police folklore. He was called to recapture 3 prize Hereford bulls that had escaped from a fenced pasture. As the giant bulls made their way down a road, Jerry planted himself firmly in their path and challenged them hoof to toe. One bull charged Jerry and knocked him out of the way. Jerry was slightly injured; the bull later died. One of Jerry's supervisors said "I always bet on Jerry, I've seen him work, no bull."
I'm sure that we will never know the truth or the torment that lead a legendary veteran to leave the Sheriff's Office building, walk to the front door of the substation and end his life with a gunshot to the head. The story circulated at the department is that he was insubordinate to a supervisor and was being bounced back to the patrol division. Probably some wet behind the ears, virgin, college boy, who wouldn't make a pimple on a real policeman's ass. I can also tell you that at age 57, it's a pretty dark prospect to have to handle calls with a bunch of rookies when you're a grandfather. You just have nothing in common with those kids.
There were many things about Jerry Whitehead that weren't saintly. He was a human being, a man, a good cop. Cops like him are a thing of the past. He was like the frontier Sheriff who lived through the end of the eighteen hundreds into the 20th century. He just couldn't make the changes. I think I know how he felt. So many other things have gone by the wayside too. Things like peaceful neighborhoods, respect, and being safe in our homes and cars. You think there's a connection?