Five days before Christmas 1986, Pasco Sheriff's Deputy Jim St. Pierre and his canine partner responded to an emergency situation at a house near Gowers Corner.
Other deputies tried to calm Herman Hendrix, a 62-year-old man who had a lengthy criminal record. He was drunk and threatening violence. He pointed a shotgun at deputies and ran behind a shed. St. Pierre unleashed Bullet, an 80-pound German shepherd.
St. Pierre, then 26 and in only his third year on the job, heard another blast. He expected Hendrix had shot his dog, and suddenly the gunman came around the corner of the shed. St. Pierre, according to the official record, ordered the man to drop the gun. When Hendrix refused, the deputy shot six times from 15 feet. Hendrix died at the scene. Bullet sustained a minor pellet wound.
St. Pierre went home late that night to his wife and year-old daughter. He waited a month before the State Attorney's Office declared the shooting justified. He went back to work.
"It was rough on him,'' recalled Tina St. Pierre, who married Jim in 1982 after they graduated from college. "He got some help (counseling).''
This unsettling episode defined his early career, but he didn't talk about it at home. His wife said he put up a wall. "He became a different person when he put on that uniform. I guess that's the way you have to be in that business. I used to ask him, 'How do you go on?' "
Maybe you have to be a cop to fully understand. Sgt. Brian Brosnan, who runs the department's canine unit today, worked alongside St. Pierre. "Jimmy loved the work,'' he recalled. "He loved the dogs, and they were very effective in finding the bad guys. But you had to be careful around Jimmy. He was very good with the practical jokes. A real smart guy, always good for laughs.''
But as he and Tina added two more children to the family, he grew more concerned about the dangers of the job. In September 1993, he and his second canine partner, Puma, tracked a man wanted in New Port Richey in two stabbings. The man lunged at them with a razor-blade knife, slashing both. Puma's days as a police dog were done, though he continued to live with the St. Pierres.
Meanwhile, St. Pierre started thinking about alternatives. He got a master's degree in police administration and started teaching nights at the local community college. Tina taught elementary school. Money was tight.
Then in May 1998, a man named Hank Earl Carr killed two detectives in Tampa and a highway patrol trooper in Pasco before committing suicide in a gas station in Hernando County.
"That really got to him,'' Tina said.
St. Pierre had been ahead of the curve understanding the power of computers. He left the Sheriff's Office for a new career in information technology. And while bad guys were no longer trying to hurt him, St. Pierre's personal life was falling apart. He and Tina separated for several years and finally divorced. He lived up to his duty of providing financial support for their children, Angie, Timmy and Kalah.
And then the economy tanked. St. Pierre couldn't find work for a year. Finally, the man who left law enforcement because of the danger landed a job in arguably the most dangerous place on earth. American K-9 Detection Services hired him to work with dogs trained to root out narcotics. He was assigned to a base in Tarin Kowt in southern Afghanistan.
St. Pierre tried to maintain contact with his kids. He regularly visited the village markets and mailed gifts home. Tina, being a school teacher, asked him about the children in Tarin Kowt. St. Pierre had met several teenaged boys and noticed they never seemed to wear shoes. So Tina started a shoe drive at her school, Longleaf Elementary. She mailed off boxes of sneakers and beach sandals.
St. Pierre earned a promotion to a job in the company's information technology division. David McConnell, his best friend since grade school in St. Pete Beach, kept in close contact and said St. Pierre was relieved. "The drug duty was pretty stressful,'' he said. "Drugs are an important part of the underground economy.''
Late Saturday, McConnell broke the news on his Facebook page that St. Pierre died that morning from an apparent heart attack. His body will be returned to the U.S. for an autopsy. Beach Memorial Chapel in St. Pete Beach will handle funeral arrangements.
McConnell said St. Pierre had been looking forward to returning to Florida in 56 days. He couldn't wait to see his 18-month-old granddaughter, Kendyll, Angie's daughter. He planned to attend his son Timmy's graduation from Hudson High.
"It will take a while to process this,'' McConnell said. "It's such a shock.''