‘There are places I remember’

What are the places in Southwest Florida that inspired Curb Appeal, the third book in the mystery/suspense series featuring CW (Candace) McCoy, the former detective applying her investigative skills as a real estate agent? To paraphrase John Lennon, here are a few of the places I remember, including one many residents hope they’ll never see: the inside of the Sarasota Police Department.

 

Model of the house where CW McCoy finds first murder victim in #curbappeal

 

One of the many condo buildings gracing the skyline of Sarasota, FL #curbappeal

 

 

Sarasota police officers demonstrate vascular hold that Skip Taggert tries on CW #curbappeal

 

 

The Power of Place

How many times have you read a novel and fallen in love with the location? (Fans of Ellis Peters and Nevada Barr, raise your hands.)

CW McCoy’s Spanish Point holds the same allure for those of us who, like CW, fled the darkness of the North for Florida’s Gulf Coast. The result is Spanish Point, a fictionalized mashup of the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton that isn’t the paradise it first seems.

Over the few weeks, we’ll look at the places in the region that inspired Curb Appeal, the third book in the mystery/suspense series featuring CW (Candace) McCoy, the former police detective turned real estate agent whose struggles with career and personal issues lead her into dangerous terrain.

While Curb Appeal is fiction, it’s the tragic attacks on real estate agents that form the backbone of the book—that and efforts by the National Association of Realtors to promote awareness and safety.

Each day on social media, we’ll take a look at the homes, boats and watering holes of CW’s friends and enemies as we reconcile the images of paradise with reality. I hope you’ll join us for a guided tour. In the meantime, here are a few deceptively ordinary images from the Gulf Coast.

On the Gulf of Mexico near Siesta Key: sailing the high seas near sunset on a day that’s divine—until you turn your back.

 

Lakewood Ranch luxury: remember the movie “Play ‘Misty’ for Me”? You may never go near a soaking tub again.

 

Myakka River State Park: the mysterious woods (and the alligators of Deep Hole) beckon the unsuspecting.

 

The locus of murder

In fiction, when does setting become a character? When does location move from background to foreground?

Readers from Pennsylvania to Florida have called out locales they recognize in both the CW McCoy and Brinker series of crime novels. Even with altered geography and names, those places seem to resonate like the voice of a friend.

As they did with me while doing research for Tourist in Paradise, Peak Season and Mr. Mayhem. Here, then, are some of the images that inspired the characters that inhabit those books. As well as the writer.

Sarasota marina, similar to one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

Sarasota marina, similar to the one where Walter Bishop berths his sailboat in CW McCoy novels

 

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of models for DeSoto Park complex in “Tourist in Paradise”

Sansara condos in Sarasota, one of the models for the massive DeSoto Park complex in Tourist in Paradise

 

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in “Peak Season”

Farmers Market in downtown Sarasota, where CW and Tony Delgado meet in Peak Season

 

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

The Sarasota skyline inspired creation of CW McCoy’s Spanish Point

 

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz, Delgado work

Sarasota Police Dept. inspired Spanish Point’s PD where Cheryl, Oz and Delgado work

 

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds second body in “Peak Season”

Drumming the sun down at Siesta Beach, where CW finds a second body in Peak Season

 

Key Breeze stands in for galley of Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop

Key Breeze stands in for the galley of the Mary Beth, where CW finds an unconscious Walter Bishop in Tourist in Paradise

Darkness descends on the Sunshine State

Someone has declared war on Florida’s tourists. And caught in the crosshairs is CW McCoy, the retired female detective desperately trying to lead a normal life as a real estate agent in tony Spanish Point.

She does, until that someone comes gunning for her.

As if a midnight carjacking isn’t enough trauma, CW must deal with savage punks, corrupt politicians, an errant lover and a disease that is rapidly obliterating her beloved grandfather.

Welcome to Tourist in Paradise, the sequel to Peak Season, the book that kicked off the CW McCoy series of crime novels. The sequel debuts this week in trade paper and ebook formats through Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble. But fans of the spunky sleuth who are eager to read about her troubled past and doubtful future won’t have to wait. They can read the full first chapter of Tourist in Paradise here.

Enjoy.

1.

THE AIR FELT THICK and wet. Lightning slashed the clouds and thunder detonated over the Gulf of Mexico. In the rental lot of the Spanish Point International Airport, palm trees swayed like frat boys. Mercury vapor lights buzzed. The sky dropped another foot.

A hard rain was gonna fall.

By the time Walter Bishop dropped me off at the car rental counter, the display on my cellphone read 12:01 a.m. Despite the hour, the rental agent looked crisp in white shirt and black slacks. Tall, early twenties, with black hair slicked forward in a rapper quiff. His nametag read Ken. No Barbie in sight.

The agent stood at a computer terminal in front of a banner that read, “Spanish Point—Welcome to Paradise.” The photo showed a man in a white shirt, striped tie and madras shorts leaping through the surf with a smiling woman and young girl, both in swimsuits and sarongs. At least the women had dressed the part.

Ken handed over the keys and a copy of the paperwork. “Here you are, Ms. McCoy. You’re in Number Three. Enjoy your stay.”

He smiled. He had a right to look happy. This was Southwest Florida after one of the worst winters on record, when tourists had fled south like refugees. I should have been happy, too, because I’d moved to this beach town two years ago, although trouble with money and men had thrown a bit of sand in my face.

I considered correcting Ken’s assumption that I was a visitor—he should have known, he’d looked at my license—but I kept that thought to myself. Score one for self-restraint.

Walter had the parking lot to himself. Leaning against his gold Mercury Grand Marquis, arms folded, jaws snapping gum, he looked every inch the former state police commander and proud owner of a forty-one-foot sloop. Not exactly your typical beach bum, he still carried a weapon. Louie, his vintage black Labrador Retriever, stood on the passenger seat with his head hanging out the window. All this time in the South and Louie didn’t know better than to wear black.

I walked to slot number three and beeped the remote of a white car that could have passed for a Hyundai, Toyota, Ford or an enameled rickshaw. The front looked like the helmet of an imperial storm trooper. The back bore a Florida license plate.

Walter walked to the car. Last winter, while helping me take down an enraged investor in a bank-fraud scheme, he took a bullet in the thigh. He still walked with a slight limp, but when I’d asked how he felt, he’d always say, “Fine.”

I slid into the seat and started the car. “Why is it that half the rental tags in this state begin with the letter J?”

“They used to begin with Y and Z, until the governor banned the practice.”

“Why?” Even after midnight, the August heat made my clothes feel like a sausage casing. I cranked the knob for AC. The system fought back with a blast of hot air.

“Carjackings and robberies near Miami International.”

I adjusted the mirrors. “How’d that work?”

“Gangs would tail a tourist out of the airport based on stickers and tags. They’d bump the car from behind. Tourist pulls over, puts up a fight, gets popped.” Walter snapped his gum for emphasis.

In the distance, thunder rolled off the horizon. “When was this?”

“Nineteen ninety-two, right after Hurricane Andrew.”

The air blowing out of the vents smelled like the wrong end of a vacuum cleaner. I adjusted the fins and clicked on the headlights.

Walter leaned on the doorframe. “So tell me why you need a rental.”

“I’m showing a house.”

“You always rent cars at midnight?”

The sky crept closer to the ground. I looked for the stalk that controlled the windshield wipers and sighed. “I got a last-minute call to show a condo on Spanish Key and had to return Cheryl’s car. You’d think the cops would let her take a patrol wagon home for the night.”

He crossed his arms and grinned. “You’re diligent.”

“I’m broke, remember?”

“What happened to the SUV?”

“I loaned it to someone.”

“To whom did you loan it?” His grin tempered the mocking tone, but only a bit.

“Chet.”

He smiled to reveal a gap in his top teeth and curled two fingers in a “come on and spill it” gesture.

The car’s clock read 12:06 a.m., the temperature gauge eighty-six. I sighed. “You’re not going to let go of this bone, are you?”

He shook his head.

“Chet, my auto body guy.”

“Ah.” His smile grew wider. “And what did you hit this time?”

“A pole, all right? I was pulling out of the marina lot—you know they won’t let you back in—and this sign came out of nowhere and clipped the bumper. Totally did not look where it was going.”

He laughed and walked to the Merc. “I’ll follow you home. Wouldn’t want you to get ambushed by a traffic light.”

Tourist in Paradise cover 3DI slammed the door with enough force to fly the rivets back to South Korea and headed down the access road to University Parkway, one of the main East-West highways in Spanish Point. We sailed across the railroad tracks and into the northern part of the city, encountering little traffic at this time and season, when well-heeled residents traveled to cooler climes and the tourists headed back to Canada and the Continent.

The few houses here stood far apart, guarded by cement-block walls with peeling white paint. Not the sign of a prosperous neighborhood. I rarely showed property this far north. The rich retirees preferred gated communities and five-acre ranches east of I-75. I preferred them, too, since I worked on commission.

At the cross street I hung a right onto Orange Avenue and headed south into a fist of rain. Fat drops smacked the windshield, then ratcheted up the volume. I checked the mirror. Walter hung back so far his headlights had disappeared.

The street numbers had dropped from the fifties to the thirties when a car fell in behind me. I glanced in the mirror and saw its glittering image edge closer. When I slowed to let it pass, the car lurched forward and rammed the back of the rental, not enough to set off the airbag but hard enough to jar my teeth.

I jammed the brakes. “What the . . .” I yelled as a black Honda with tinted windows and dual exhaust pipes spun a hundred and eighty degrees and came to rest twenty feet in front of the car, blocking the road and blinding me with its high beams.

A short black kid in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans bounded from the passenger side, raising a handgun as he ran. Hands and eyes, eyes and hands, I reminded myself. Watch the eyes and hands. My heart thundered, my vision narrowing to focus on the weapon. Ducking beneath the dashboard, I searched my ankle for the Beretta .25 only to remember I hadn’t carried since I’d shot that officer in Pennsylvania. I came up to see the black kid pointing the gun at my head and screaming for me to get out of the car.

Things happened fast. I heard Walter yell “Freeze!” and the black kid fired a round that splintered the windshield. Another shot slammed the kid’s shoulder and took him to the pavement. I looked for the driver, a light-skinned male, his features obscured by the blinding headlights. He glanced at his buddy, ground the gears and barreled north, forcing Walter into the ditch.

The kid on the highway rolled in pain. Walter climbed onto the crown of the road and kicked the boy’s weapon out of reach, then backed away and asked, “You all right?”

“Yeah,” I said. My breath felt ragged. I inhaled deeply, willing my heart to slow. “You get the tag?”

“Enough,” he said.

My stomach clenched as Walter moved his gun toward me but he must have changed his mind about asking me to hold the weapon. Flipping open his cell phone, he called 9‑1‑1, asked for police and fire rescue and disconnected.

The kid hugged himself and moaned and rocked on the double yellow line just as the sky opened wide, the rain mixing with blood as it soaked his clothes.

“We need to help,” I said.

With his weapon trained on the boy, Walter tossed his keys to me. “There’s a first-aid kit in the trunk.”

Arms shaking, I grabbed a checkered blanket and red plastic box marked with a white cross and knelt near the boy. He looked about fifteen with a scraggly mustache and a burst of acne on his forehead. With his high top fade, he resembled Will Smith in the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

As shock set in, the kid stopped yelling and stared at me with eyes the size of quarters. Walter had shot him in the meaty part of the right shoulder, as far away from the heart as he could and still hit body mass. I cut away the shirt and, using scissors, tape and a large square of gauze, pressed the makeshift bandage to the wound. He groaned when I tipped him onto his side. The exit wound looked worse. Cutting away the shirt, I stretched the remaining gauze over the hole and taped it to his skin. The patches wouldn’t stop the bleeding but they’d slow it.

Leaning back on my heels, I glanced up at Walter. He stood ramrod straight, gun at his side, a living shadow backlit by the headlights. Between us, rain pelted the pavement, turning the stones to shards of glass.

I bent my head toward the kid. “Why’d you come after us?”

He stared over my shoulder, eyes glazed, blood trickling from a bitten lip. I pulled the blanket over his torso, propped his head on the plastic case and tucked the cloth underneath. Then I backed up to where Walter stood.

“He’s not going anywhere,” I said and heard a faint tremble in my voice.

“Trust but verify.”

“You going to toe him in the ribs to make sure?”

Without taking his eyes from the kid he holstered his gun. “How’s the car?”

“Drivable, if you don’t mind bullet holes.” Rain streamed through my hair and soaked my collar.

He shook his head. “You know what this is about?”

“Robbery for drug money?”

He glanced at me. “Anyone after you?”

I shook my head. “Does he look like a pro?”

“They had to pass me to follow you.”

In the distance, sirens split the air. I leaned against the rental to steady my legs and felt the water soak my pants. “What do you think?”

He stared over my shoulder into the dark. “It’s starting again.”

Dark night of the American Dream

A savage attack. A corrupt politician. A war on tourists . . . and within herself.

CW McCoy faces a barrage of challenges that threaten to overwhelm her in Tourist in Paradise, the sequel to last year’s Peak Season, the novel that marked the debut of the scrappy former detective who battles punks and politicians to head off a full-blown war in Southwest Florida.

Watch the video trailer for the novel here or on YouTube.

[iframe id=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/uTSJZC1PZLo” align=”center” mode=”normal” autoplay=”no”]

Changing the view of black and blue

A police officer shoots an unarmed civilian. A criminal assassinates a deputy. People march, riot, while others call for peace. Across a widening divide, battle lines form. Black Lives Matter. Blue Lives Matter. In the middle, a sheriff suggests that all lives matter.

America is coming apart. America is coming together. The people we hire to protect us attack and are themselves attacked. Support erodes. Doubts replace trust. In an increasingly hostile environment, what can law enforcement do to help society regain its balance?

It can show the public how policing works, the dangers, the challenges, the limitations officers face. Two agencies in Sarasota County do that, the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office through its Citizens Law Enforcement Academy and the Sarasota Police Department through its Citizens’ Academy. I’ve attended both, riding with officers, conducting mock investigations, standing in the use-of-force simulator with a gun,  a TASER and the feeling that life has spun out of control.

It’s an issue all of America faces, one that prompted me to write a book about the experience. The book is called Riding with the Blues, Behind the Badge with the Sarasota Police Department. It’s an attempt to find out what law enforcement does when the cameras aren’t rolling. Here’s the first chapter:

Chapter 1: Simulated Fear
My partner and I sweep into the office building, weapons held in firing position, stomachs bouncing like trampolines. There’s an active shooter in the building. People move in and out of the frame, a jumble of corridors and desks, the wounded lying on the floor, workers, police officers, some calling for help. We have no time.

Riding with the BluesA tall man with shoulders rounding a white polo shirt crosses between several desks and turns into an office. He raises his arm and fires. We edge closer. As the man backs out of the office he spots us and, half-turned, starts to raise his pistol. My partner and I yell “Police! Drop the weapon!” but he doesn’t and we fire, hitting him several times. As he goes down, silence crowds the air, and as we inch forward, a dark figure climbs from behind a desk.

Is he a shooter, a victim, a hostage? Is he armed? We’ve been briefed about the law, how shooting unarmed civilians can land us in jail, how hesitating may get us killed. As the man rises, we have a nanosecond to make a decision.

We freeze. He’s too far away to see his eyes but he’s got something in his hand, and we’re in the open, nothing between us but raw space. Crawling around the side of the desk, crouching in the corridor, the man raises a handgun and starts shooting. We return fire until he collapses. I have no idea if we’re hit, just that he’s not moving.

The officer behind the computer freezes the frame. On a screen larger than the biggest home theater, crosshairs dot the shooter’s chest, marking the places where we’ve landed rounds. As the adrenalin cools, we come back to a different reality.

In the dim light, everything looks gray, the walls, the carpet, even the screen. We’re standing in a classroom on the third floor of the Sarasota Police Department (SPD) in Sarasota, Florida, experiencing the use-of-force simulator as dozens of rookie officers have over the years. Only we’re not recruits. We are civilians enrolled in the SPD’s Citizens’ Academy, a twelve-week program designed to reveal the realities of police work and the people who live in the often closed world behind the badge.

The simulator is a humbling experience. It pinpoints our lack of training and resolve. It highlights the violence of our culture, and the risks that officers and civilians face in any encounter. This is the dark half of policing, the part we see in movies and on TV, always from the spectator side of the camera, the focus on how the situation looks, not how it feels. As we turn in our weapons and return to class, I recall the shooting of civilians by police in Ferguson, Baltimore, South Carolina. I think back to the first session of the Citizens’ Academy and the chief’s talk about community policing, the part about cooperation and understanding, about winning the hearts and minds of the citizens, and I wonder how the two halves fit.

Celebrating openness with the SPD

We gather on the second floor of the Sarasota Police Department to celebrate our graduation. There’s a cake, a couple of proud parents and about 20 members of the SPD Citizens Academy. We’re a collection of real estate agents and financial advisers, retirees and writers. We have come to peek into the guarded world of law enforcement and over the past 12 week’s we’ve learned about the hazards of policing on both sides of the badge.

Members of the SPD command staff are here, acting Deputy Chief Pat Robinson and the captain of patrol operations, Kevin Stiff, as are those who organized the academy, Training Officer Jeff Dunn and the volunteers who lugged coolers of soda and water and boxes of pastries and name cards every week.

They have certificates, photos and a parting message for us: we’ve helped them as much as they’ve helped us.

“We are grateful for people who want to live through our eyes,” Capt. Robinson says. “Officers are put under an immense amount of stress. The more folks we can educate on why we do things, the better our interaction with the citizens.”

Jeff Dunn says officers also benefit from the class by getting feedback from some of those citizens.

Robinson echoes that, adding that police can become jaded because they deal with a small but difficult portion of the population. “Sometimes you lose perspective.” (You can download an application for the next citizens’ academy here.)

For our part, we’ve learned about legal rights and wrongs, equipment and procedures, prostitution and traffic stops, court cases and crowd control. We’ve heard from the victim advocate, the public information officer, the state attorney, the coordinator of volunteers. We’ve watched K-9 dogs attack and officers defend themselves. We’ve investigated a crime scene, toughed it out in the use-of-force simulator and fired weapons at the gun range.

In between, we’ve listened to officers describe their background and their passion for the job.

In 12 weeks we’ve learned things aren’t simple. Most officers play by the rules. Some don’t. During traffic stops, most people are polite. Some shoot cops. When we watch video of situations where police use force, the solution looks simple. Hindsight will do that. But we weren’t in that battle, with bullets and adrenalin flying, with limited time and information and options. People make decisions that aren’t rational. The second-guessing, the labels good and bad . . . those come later.

After riding with officers, sharing a meal and listening to their stories, many of us are convinced the most important part of the course isn’t about guns or self-defense or crime scenes or SWAT. The most interesting aspect of police work are the officers themselves.

Getting them to open up might be the biggest cause for celebration.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

SPD Facebook banner photo Web

Riding with the blues

Officer Bryant Singley walks into the glass and metal headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department with a shell casing in a surgical glove and heads upstairs to the evidence room. Someone found the brass in a yard and called the police. It’s a minor matter, no crime has been reported, but Singley takes his time to get the paperwork right.

He fills out a property report, puts the casing in a plastic bag, seals it, fills out an evidence sticker, notes the case number on a paper log and puts the bag in one of the black lockers. “In case they need it in another case.”

Singley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Austin Police Department. He’s worked for the SPD for the past 11 years. Today he’s doing light duty, hauling a writer around in the passenger seat of his cruiser on what law enforcement calls a ride-along. He gets to fight crime; I get to watch.

He’s not even out of the building when he gets a call on his radio. I can’t make out the assignment, just his summation to me. “We’ll clear the call and then it’s crossing-guard duty.”

The car is black inside with a molded gray plastic backseat with seatbelts and a plastic partition and, in front, a computer mounted on a tray within easy reach of the driver. I squeeze in next to it and we roll.

Sign of the times
The first stop is the 1800 block of Loma Linda Street near Sarasota Bay. Two property owners are having an argument over a stolen NO TRESPASSING sign. We park on the narrow street with a pest-control vendor on one side and dump trucks rumbling down to the cul-de-sac to excavate for a new home.

“Stay by the car until I introduce you,” Singley says and walks to the door of a brick and beam house with a metal roof.

We meet a woman in running gear with a bright cap pulled over her eyes who says the neighbor in back of her lot keeps taking her sign. She’s early fifties with a low, calm voice and a slight curl to her upper lip. She’s holding a new sign with a stapler tucked under her arm.

The officer introduces me to the woman—we’ll call her Becky. We stand in the sun in the neighbor’s driveway and look at the lot, a stretch of that light gray sand that covers most of Florida. A wooden fence stands in back. A tall man with a water bottle and a gray T-shirt depicting a sailfish wanders into the conversation. Maybe the husband. The neighbor, a middle-aged woman with broad blond hair and a smile to match, joins the group.

Singley looks at the fence that separates Becky’s lot from her neighbor’s house and asks for the story. Becky says she knows the neighbor took the sign she’d tacked on the fence, but she can’t prove it. Singley says, “You two have had some troubles before.”

Becky think about this revelation. “Yeah,” she finally says and accuses the woman in back of tossing her lawn clippings over the fence and wandering into other people’s yards. “She’s crazy.”

Sidewalk diplomacy
Singley dismisses the comment. He asks for details and says he’ll be back. We get in the patrol car, drive around the corner to Bahia Vista Street and stop at a wooden house we later learn is 100 years old. A wooden fence surrounds the house, garage and shed. We stand on the gravel landscaping and try the gate. It’s locked. The officer and I walk up two concrete strips to the garage and he shouts “Hello?” but no one answers.

We find the woman we’ll call Linda around the other side of the house, near the shed. She’s mid-sixties, short and thin with dark hair and eyes that bounce between us.

Officer Singley says, “You know why I’m here,” and asks if she took the sign. She shakes her head vigorously and says she didn’t even know there was a sign and begins to delineate her property lines. She wants to show us the fence so we walk to the back of the house and she points to a tree on her land. Someone has sawed off the limbs that would have hung over the fence. Linda accuses her neighbor of doing that, when she wasn’t home.

Singley tells her how it’s going to be: she’ll agree to keep to her side of the fence and Becky will do the same. “Just ignore each other,” he says and we return to the empty lot, where Singley says the same thing to Becky, who looks up and down the street and shakes her head and frowns.

We sink back into the car and bathe in the air conditioning and head to our next assignment—lunch at Nancy’s BBQ, where we sit outside and eat pulled pork sandwiches and talk about the Temptations, Bobby Womack and early Michael Jackson, “Before he fixed his nose,” Singley says. How about Etta James? “That’s my mama’s generation.”

I ask him about recent incidents involving police and the use of force. He declines to comment, saying “I wasn’t there.” His philosophy about policing is simple. “I don’t comment on what I don’t know,” then adds, “I just want to go home at the end of the day.” Go home alive, he means.

Hitting the road
At Southside Elementary School, it’s hot and getting hotter, with temperatures and humidity in the upper 80s. It’s the kind of day where if you stand outside, you find a patch of shade. In the middle of the crosswalk, there is no shade.

This morning Officer Singley got word that the crossing guard at Southside couldn’t work so his lieutenant assigned the duty to him. I can’t tell if this is scut work or part of the chief’s community policing policy. Probably neither.

We arrive before 2:45 p.m. for a one-hour shift. Officer Singley parks on the grassy shoulder and hits the roof lights to slow traffic. Then he gets out, dons a yellow vest and whistle and waits at the corner of South Osprey and Webber by the signal box for pedestrians. On the rough concrete sidewalk someone has spray painted in perfectly straight letters the words, “Wait here.”

We wait.

When the kids show up, Singley’s ready. He watches everything—cars going too fast through the school zone, cars parked on the sidewalk, a guy driving with a phone to his ear, a man on a ladder half a block away. He yells at a young female driver to buckle her seatbelt. He’s got eyes in back of his head. He’s also got a cheerful banter going with the people leaving school, and not just the mothers and grandmothers with their younger kids and strollers and umbrellas. He asks the kids what grade they’re in and why they’re carrying a basketball and whether they or their younger sister has more freckles. And then he punches the button on the pole and blows his whistle and walks to the middle of the intersection and wishes them all a good day.

“It’s hot,” he says on his way back and looks for more pedestrians and punches the button and does it all over again.

Remains of the day
At 3:50 p.m. the sidewalk empties and we pile into the squad car and head for headquarters. As we drive on Osprey, something about the black VW Jetta in front of us catches his eye. In the 1600 block of Main Street, Singley calls in the tag number and pulls the car over.

“Wait here,” he says.

Approaching the driver’s side of the car slowly, he places a palm on the rear window to mark the car and leans forward to talk to the driver. When he gets back in the cruiser he says, “She says she doesn’t know why I pulled her over,” and punches the license number and tag into the computer. Up comes a photo of the driver’s father and a yellow block of type that says the tag has expired. Singley compares the woman’s information on the screen with her license and through a series of drop-down menus completes the ticket. He clicks a button labeled “issue citation” and a printer between the seats spits out two copies of what looks like a grocery-store receipt. He gives one copy to the driver.

Then it’s back to the glass and metal headquarters and we’re done. I thank him for the ride. We shake hands. It’s still hot and he’s got another hour-and-a-half to go before his 12-hour shift is up but he smiles anyway.

An uneventful day, but at least we both get to go home.

Next: graduation from the SPD Citizens Academy.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Officer Bryant Singley ticketing VW Jetta 72dpi

With drug trade, big wheel keeps on turnin’

The driver with the dreadlocks to his shoulders backs into the parking space at Marina Jack’s and powers down the window. He’s looking to buy 200 oxycodone pills from an undercover agent posing as a dealer.  The agent, a man with graying hair and a shirt slung over his shoulder, leans in to talk.

As members of the Sarasota (Florida) Police Department’s narcotics unit film the exchange from a nearby car, they see too many red flags. The driver backed in. He’s on the phone. He’s flashing a wad of cash with a twenty on top and ones underneath. The deal’s worth $1,600, so the buyer intends to steal the drugs. He wants to count the pills and tells the undercover agent to get in the car. The officer refuses.

Before anyone can react, the passenger reaches across the driver and points a handgun at the agent’s head. The driver bolts. Officers stop him before he can leave the lot.

“We did get him,” the sergeant in charge of the unit tells members of the SPD Citizen’s Academy. “We had controlled phone calls of their intent to do the deal. That’s an attempted armed robbery, and it trumps the drug charge. It was a loaded .45 handgun.”

Moving target
Detectives were seeing an uptick in the abuse of prescription medication like Percocet and OxyContin until local law enforcement, led by the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, began a crackdown in 2009. Since then, the target has shifted.

“As far as upper-level crime, what we mostly see is cocaine,” a detective in the SPD unit says. “We’re starting to see a lot more heroin because oxycodone has become more expensive. People are lacing heroin with fentanyl [a synthetic opioid analgesic that is 80 times more potent than morphine] to increase potency. They’re dying with the needle in their arm.”

But the big drug today is spice.

The Associated Press is reporting a huge nationwide spike in hospitalizations caused by synthetic marijuana. The number of cases rocketed from 359 in January to more than 1,500 in April, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. Synthetic marijuana usually is non-marijuana plant material sprayed with cannabinoids and marketed under brand names like Spice, K2 and Scooby Snax.

After two people died at New College of Florida in early May, the Sarasota Police Department said its initial investigation showed that “both deaths appeared to be drug related.”

“This stuff is really bad,” the sergeant says. “Users don’t know what they’re smoking. People put potpourri in cement mixers and spray it with chemicals they get from China. It’s sprayed with a Level 1 narcotic like XLR-11 [an ingredient in synthetic cannabis]. That’s why these people are going crazy when they smoke it. These chemicals, they’re a lethal cocktail.”

Working the street
The SPD narcotics unit consists of five officers and a technician in charge of the recording equipment. The unit does undercover drug buys, executes searches and conducts long-term investigations to nab importers and dealers.

Detectives get their cases from a variety of sources—neighbor complaints, patrol division reports, Crime Stoppers of Sarasota and other hotline programs. They follow prostitutes to drug houses. They do surveillance to verify information. They drive unmarked cars through dealer turf and set up street buys with cameras covering every inch of the car’s interior.

One of the most effective tools is the confidential informant. “A lot of times we’ll arrest somebody who says he’s tired of this life,” the sergeant says. “Once we determine that they’re fairly mentally capable, we’ll pay that person to do a controlled drug buy for us.” He pauses and in those few seconds you can watch the wheels turn as he mulls the unanswered questions from the audience, about the Faustian bargain, about ethics rather than souls, so he adds, “We say we’re making a deal with the devil,” and leaves it at that.

Bigger fish
Detectives can take only so much product out of circulation with street-level deals. So they work with federal authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to arrest leaders and escalate charges.

In 2014 the unit wrapped up a two-year investigation called SRQ Cartel II that resulted in the arrest of 10 people alleged to be mid-level suppliers. Police confiscated 12 kilograms of cocaine, five cars, seven guns and $115,000. A prior sweep resulted in the arrest of a Sarasota man allegedly tied to a Mexican drug cartel.

“Our goal is to climb the ladder,” the sergeant says.

Publicly, both he and the detective—I’m not naming or photographing them to protect their ability to conduct undercover work—they call their job “stressful, dangerous and fun.” Privately, while proud of their work to remove the cause of other crimes such as burglary and assault, they have times of doubt.

Such as the day when an informant who promised to go straight climbed into their car for another deal. “The detective pulled his hat down over his face,” the sergeant says. “The informant didn’t even recognize him.”

He shakes his head at the memory. “You put them away and more take their place. Sometimes you feel like a gerbil on a wheel.”

Next: on patrol with the SPD.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Traffic stops: the good, the bad, the nightmare

It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Two Middlefield, Ohio police officers pull over a Saturn sedan for running a stop sign in March of 2013. In the video, the sky’s a typical washed-out winter blue. Cars keep rolling down the street as if nothing’s happening in this town of 2,700, located 45 miles due east of Cleveland.

Suddenly the driver opens his door and unleashes 37 rounds from an AK-47. The patrol car’s windshield splinters. Smoke drifts across the dash-cam as the officers return fire. “Kill me!” the man shouts and collapses in the street.

Police had pulled the driver over for a simple moving violation. The stop turned into an armed attack that resulted in the death of the driver and the injury of both officers.

Most traffic stops don’t end like that one but the danger exists–witness the killing of two officers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 9. So does the legal hazard of police violating a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from illegal search and seizure. For the Sarasota Police Department, where three officers face investigation after a man pulled over for a moving violation died, traffic stops are anything but routine.

Officers Helios Blanco and John Vanik show the Middlefield video to members of the SPD Citizens Academy to make a point: that when it comes to traffic stops, the operative word is safety. Police must protect themselves when approaching a vehicle. Drivers should keep that in mind when evaluating an officer’s behavior . . . and their own.

Danger all around
There are three types of traffic stops: routine; redirect, where the stop becomes a criminal investigation; and pretext, where police use a legitimate traffic violation for a closer look at the suspect. Call them the good, the bad and the really ugly, the Middlefield shooter the poster child for the latter.

“Every traffic stop is different—the person, the weather, the location,” says Vanik, a patrol division officer who specializes in DUI checks. “When I stop a car, I don’t know who’s in the car, their race, their nationality, even after I run the tag and make contact. Everybody has tinted windows and when it’s two in the morning and it’s a dark street, I can’t even tell if there’s a person in the car.”

An officer’s first step is to determine the number of occupants and whether they are moving in an effort to hide guns or conceal drugs. After that, police look for signs of trouble. “Bumper stickers are a giveaway. NRA stickers tell me there’s a gun in car. Stickers like ‘I hate government’ and ‘I hate police’ . . . tell me how they feel.

“Most of the time,” Vanik says, “people are polite to us.” Still, he and other officers park so they can shine headlights on the suspect’s car and use theirs as a shield. They will order suspects out of the vehicle and have them walk backwards. They will stand where a shooter would not expect to find them.

“Always, keep eyes on,” says Blanco, a gang officer and Spanish-speaking translator. “Those few seconds can make the difference between me going home or going to the morgue.”

Proceed with caution
Since 52% of all encounters with police occur during traffic stops, SPD offers this advice:

  • When you notice lights behind you, pull your vehicle to the curb and stay stopped.
  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches.
  • Provide your license, registration and proof of insurance.
  • The officer will tell you the reason for the stop.
  • Back in the patrol car, the officer will check DMV records to determine if the vehicle is stolen or if the driver is on inmate release.
  • The officer will say whether you will receive a citation or a warning.

If the officer smells something coming from the car, he or she may have probable cause to search the vehicle. “The window is down,” Blanco says. “I get an odor. It’s not Febreze. If it’s marijuana, we have probable cause to search.”

Not so with alcohol. Vanik says police need at least two behavioral cues to conduct a field sobriety test, such as the smell of alcohol and slurred speech.

Regardless of whether the stop results in a warning or something more serious, the encounter is usually stressful for everyone.

“I never say ‘have a nice day,’” Blanco says. “I say, ‘take care.’”

Good advice . . . for all concerned.

Next: marine patrol and drug awareness.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.