Slides of suspects and maps flashed on a wall, lighting two dozen or so deputies' faces crowded in a dark room. Their helmets and boots and Kevlar made the room in back of the sheriff's east district office seem even smaller. Some spilled out into a hallway.
Lt. Chuck Balderstone peeked in occasionally. He knew the plan. He and his men spent months investigating for this SWAT raid.
They said a prayer. Balderstone threw on an agency-issued windbreaker, the only thing aside from 29 years of clout denoting him as a member, and joined the ranks of men now filing outside and into a three armored vehicles, bound for a known drug house. Balderstone climbed into his black pickup and followed.
He waited in the dark, parked in a lot blocks away from the drug house, the way a general hangs back from his troops. At that time of the morning between the paper coming and the roosters crowing, his men would have surprise on their side. While Steve Miller crooned The Joker over the truck stereo, Balderstone's face showed calm. But raids always come with nervous pangs. He's seen what can happen. After Thursday morning, though, he'd be done.
Then, from the direction of the drug house, a boom.
Most everyone in the Sheriff's Office who knows the retiring lieutenant says Balderstone has a Type A personality. Not the loud kind who flings feelings into conversation. He's reserved. The quiet driver behind all of the agency's vice and narcotics investigations.
Two weeks ago, at a press conference concluding a massive countywide drug sting, Sgt. Bill Davis recapped how the division had spent the previous 12 hours arresting more than 50 drug dealers.
"Nobody puts more pressure on him than himself," Davis said, jabbing a thumb toward Balderstone, "but nobody puts more pressure on me than him. That's how it worked."
The sting was called Operation Balderstone, because it was supposed to be the lieutenant's last. But "one more" had become his unofficial mantra in years of running the unit. He's won plaques for it. So before dawn on Thursday he was waiting again in the dark for the boom.
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"Flashbang," he said, the thud still echoing through Tommy Town, a rough neighborhood on Dade City's northwest side. He put the truck in drive.
At the time, his men were stampeding into the tiny drug den that was little more than a roof over a plywood floor and gutted kitchen, where undercover deputies had found a steady methamphetamine stream. They snatched out recently awoken occupants and strapped them in handcuffs.
By the time Balderstone got to the scene, his deputies were milling around in the street. Most had taken off their helmets to wipe their sweaty heads.
The raid had been a wash. Hours before, the drug dealing group had been evicted from the home. The investigations and tactical planning had so far come up empty. Dealers, by nature, are unpredictable and hard to track. Sometimes, it's how the job goes.
Those days are why Balderstone pushed. He's led 32-hour-straight shifts that netted big busts. Ten years ago, one of his deputies caught a bullet in the face coming through the front door on a drug raid. In 1998, one of his undercover detectives was shot in the leg while buying crack cocaine. Moments before, Balderstone had told him to make one more deal.
"When you're the supervisor of those things . . . no matter if there's nothing you could've done about it . . . you kind of carry that burden on you. And every single drug deal we went on, I was on pins and needles for these guys' safety," he said at the press conference. "When you put that many years behind you doing something like that, there comes a point in time where you say 'Hey you know what? You've given what you can give it, and it's time to go.' "
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Chuck Balderstone was born 52 years ago in Clio, Mich. His dad was a detective, and Balderstone took to the camaraderie he saw. He went to Saginaw Valley State University on a track and field scholarship and he studied to be a deputy. A job drought after he graduated in the early 1980s brought him to Pasco.
He started as a jail deputy and watched vice and narcotics detectives bringing in their catches. From almost his first day, he began pestering the unit's commander, who eventually let him on as a detective.
In 29 years, he has watched the ebb and flow of drugs in the county. Marijuana gave way to cocaine, which gave way to meth and pills. Pills never stopped, he said. In recent years, his unit has batted down synthetic marijuana. He sees heroin on the horizon and knows Mexican drug cartels have their hooks in small towns like Dade City.
It always shook him to raid houses and find children inside.
In retirement, he plans to put in a more thorough deer hunting season. He'll spend more time at the family's Smoky Mountain home in Young Harris, Ga., where morning temperatures dip into the 50s this time of year. His 18-year-old daughter is looking at colleges. He'd like to see more of his 14-year-old son's baseball games and spend time with his wife, Danita. He talked about them on the way back from Thursday morning's drug raid.
"If you keep active with your family, then a lot of the stuff you see out here," he said gesturing out the pickup's window, "you'll never have to deal with it."
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.