Deputy relives tragic Plant City gun battle on 50th anniversary

PLANT CITY

In 1962, Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Perry Young spent most days responding to traffic accidents, disputes between couples and fights at bars on Saturday nights. He joined the force simply because he wanted a job. "I never remember drawing my weapon for anything," Young said. "We usually just settled everything." Young's life changed in an instant on this day 50 years ago, a moment that reverberates even today for Plant City's law enforcement community, but it started like the rest. It was so routine he doesn't recall much of it.

The moments before and after the gun battle, however, remain crisp and sharp in his mind. They tumbled out slowly and quietly this week as he sat in the dining room of his two-story gray stucco Walden Lake home, surrounded by family photos and religious pictures.

Back then, parts of the story were so blurred that Young couldn't grasp them all, and they remained like holes in a puzzle. Some of the pieces would become filled in by newspaper clippings and recollections of fellow deputies days and weeks later.

All while he lay in a hospital bed.

• • •

Young and his supervisor, Sgt. Ben Wilder, were called to a home southeast of Plant City to arrest Clyde Steward Anderson, a man who they said had fired a shotgun at his father-in-law, H.D. Hagan, after Hagan took a fan from Anderson's home.

Young wasn't even supposed to be at the one-story cinder-block house on Wiggins Road, near the Polk County line. His 3-to-midnight shift was ending, but he agreed to help Wilder bring in Anderson, a stocky 42-year-old World War II veteran with a bad reputation.

"He was a well-known troublemaker," Young recalled.

The men exited Young's green-and-white squad car and headed to the front door. Lights were on inside. The porch light flickered to life when Wilder, who stood just in front of and to the right of Young, knocked. Other deputies circled around back and to the sides.

Young and Wilder kept their 38-caliber revolvers holstered. They weren't sure Anderson was home. His car wasn't in the driveway. But they had received a tip shortly before midnight that he was there. Including Young and Wilder, four men in two squad cars had answered the call, Young said.

"We thought we would just ask for him at the door," he said.

Anderson's wife, Amanda, 39, appeared in the doorway. She said her husband wasn't home.

That might have been the end of it if not for a deputy who shouted, "He's got a gun."

Wilder never had a chance to draw. The blast from the 16-gauge shotgun ripped into his neck and head, pushing him off the porch and crumpling him to the ground. Young, stunned, started to kneel toward Wilder to pull him to safety when a second blast tore into Young's left arm below the shoulder.

The force knocked him down. Deputies fired through windows and pulled back. Wilder lay dying. Young staggered to his feet, ran next door and lay in the driveway.

"I knew I was hit. My arm was just hanging in the sleeve," he said.

Surgeons removed the arm a few days after the shooting. Wilder died at the scene, leaving a widow, Dorothy, and two children, Judith and Ronald.

"He was a good guy, a real likeable guy," Young said.

Ed Blackburn, the sheriff at the time, said in news reports that Wilder "was not only a friend but a dedicated police officer. A good church man. A good friend."

The County Commission voted to give his widow $14,700 in death benefits and $500 for funeral costs. At a time when the paper was $4 for the entire year and seeing Disney's Pollyanna at the old Capitol Theater cost 80 cents, the community raised nearly $1,000 for the "Wilder Fund."

• • •

Anderson had quarrelled with his wife a couple of weeks before the shooting and had appeared before a justice of the peace, J.C. Poppell, on domestic violence charges, according to news reports. He was briefly jailed until his wife intervened, asking the judge to release her husband.

The day of the shooting, she appealed to Poppell again, this time to complain that her father had taken a fan from the couple's home. Later that day, Hagan would tell police his son-in-law drove by and fired a shotgun as he sat in his front yard. Hagan suffered minor injuries.

The rest of the day, deputies searched for Anderson. A tip came just before midnight, as Young was finishing his shift, that Anderson was at home.

Young remembers walking to the door, the two shots, trying to help Wilder and taking cover next door. As he lay bleeding in the driveway, state troopers and police from Tampa and other jurisdictions surrounded the house.

Anderson held out for an hour, until officers tossed three tear gas canisters into the house, according to news reports. His wife emerged first; then Anderson stood in the doorway. He ran about 30 feet toward them, firing the 16-gauge, before dying on the front lawn in a barrage of gunfire.

• • •

The shooting rocked Plant City's law enforcement community, with a photo of Anderson's dead body appearing on the cover of the Plant City Courier.

The Hillsborough Sheriff's Office had about 40 deputies back then. Wilder and Young's beat covered pretty much all of east Hillsborough County and parts of Polk. When possible, the deputies collaborated with state police and the Plant City Police Department.

"It was a situation where you wanted to be mad and see that justice was done and can't understand why things like that get so quick out of hand," recalled Ed Swindle, 82, who at the time and ran an industrial insulation company, Adamo Insulation. "Plant City is a rural community, and rural-type communities have a way of reacting to tragedy and people try to help in any way they can. It wasn't like losing one of your own relatives, but it come pretty close to that."

Months after the shooting, business leaders and law enforcement officers pulled together to form the East Hillsborough Law Enforcement Appreciation Association to honor officers from four law enforcement branches — the Sheriff's Office, Plant City Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

This year, the group honored Young at its annual dinner in May.

The impact of the Anderson shooting 50 years ago can still be felt today, Plant City police Chief Bill McDaniel said.

"I can only look at it through the lens of history, but from everything I've seen and heard, obviously it had a big impact," McDaniel said. "It must have had a tremendous impact to motivate the businessmen to form the association."

• • •

Young is low-key when asked how his life was affected. The 78-year-old said he doesn't think about the shooting unless asked about it. Thankfully, he said, parts of that night have receded from memory. He focuses on the present.

He doesn't remember the ambulance ride to Lakeland General Hospital, now Lakeland Regional Medical Center. He may have been unconscious. He remembers being in the hospital.

A few days later, surgeons removed his left arm below the shoulder to stave off gangrene.

"They just couldn't save it," he said.

Young was left-handed and had to relearn everyday tasks he had taken for granted — writing, driving, getting dressed. Grief counselors and post-traumatic stress were constructions not yet invented.

Six weeks after the shooting, Young was back at work. He pulled desk duty, mostly in the auto-theft division, until his retirement in 1989.

His days now are spent in quiet retirement with his wife after his previous spouse died a few years ago.

Two months ago he rescued a stray Jack Russell terrier mix he found in a field. He named her Gypsy. She has cataracts in one eye but sees fine with the other, he said.

He steps on the leash to hold her steady until he can reach down and grab it.

"You just make out the best way you can," Young said. "Sometimes it just takes a little time."

Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 661-2454 or rshopes@tampabay.com.

Deputy relives tragic Plant City gun battle on 50th anniversary 07/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 19, 2012 5:30am]

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