TAMPA — The jails Walter Heinrich took over in 1978 were overcrowded, dank and dangerous. As the incoming Hillsborough County sheriff, Mr. Heinrich anticipated the need to reform local jails that hadn't changed much in decades.
Under his leadership, the county built the Orient Road Jail and closed others. Orient Road, the first county jail of its kind in the state, posted unarmed deputies with scores of inmates round the clock. Such jails, considered radical and "soft" at the time, are now the norm.
The "Heinrich Hilton," as some called the jail then, is but one of Mr. Heinrich's many accomplishments in a 48-year law-enforcement career, 14 of them as sheriff. He arrested murderers, led investigations that seized millions of dollars worth of stolen property and created special units for everything from parking enforcement to emergency response.
Mr. Heinrich, a cerebral law-enforcement administrator who pioneered numerous advances for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, died Monday (Feb. 15, 2010) at University Community Hospital. He was 83. His family suspects heart failure.
"Heinrich was a visionary," said Sheriff David Gee, noting that Mr. Heinrich established the first training bureau for deputies in 1979 and helped the Sheriff's Office become first in the Southeast to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
Those close to him describe Mr. Heinrich, who graduated from the University of Tampa, as a calm thinker.
"I think he was like a college professor who raised the standard of the class," said his son, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Walter "Buzzy" Heinrich.
Mr. Heinrich grew up in Harrington, N.J., and entered the Navy during World War II. "When you go into the Navy when you are 17 by fudging on your date of birth to help the war effort, it's quite a hard thing to do at a young age," the younger Heinrich said.
He became a Tampa police officer in 1949, with a beat that included downtown Tampa. "He was the beat cop on the corner," said Jack Espinosa, a former spokesman for Sheriff Heinrich. "He looked like Dick Tracy."
His partner, Malcolm Beard, had started the job a couple of years earlier. Beard left the department but watched from afar as his old partner moved up the ranks, becoming the department's youngest captain at 27.
By 1970, Beard was Hillsborough County's sheriff and Mr. Heinrich was ready to retire. In a chat, he told Beard he was thinking of taking a teaching job at the University of Minnesota.
"I said, 'Well, that sounds great, but before you leave town come see me,' " Beard said.
Beard hired Mr. Heinrich as a major in the Sheriff's Office. Gov. Reubin Askew appointed Mr. Heinrich to replace Beard, who stepped down in 1978. The next year, Mr. Heinrich — known by peers as the "King of Sting" — and the FBI seized $1.75 million in stolen cars, furniture and jewelry. Ten years later, a year-long investigation brought down seven crime rings and netted $5 million in stolen property.
A couple of times, Mr. Heinrich himself came under scrutiny. In 1957, he was charged with selling seized moonshine back to bootleggers. A jury acquitted him, according to newspaper accounts.
The 1980s, an era rife with concerns about organized crime, saw public officials scrutinized for possible ties. Mr. Heinrich was no exception, and was once called to testify in the trial of a state prosecutor.
"That was a difficult time in his life," his son said. "They were looking at people in local government. I think they knew they were barking up the wrong tree." Mr. Heinrich would be elected sheriff three more times, retiring in 1993.
One of his biggest battles came in the mid 1980s, when Mr. Heinrich sued county officials in an effort to end jail overcrowding. He had visited jails using a "direct supervision" model in California and Illinois, which replaced individual cells with pods and put deputies in their midst. Such a change would increase safety for detention officers, he reasoned.
"He took me aside," said a former jails chief, Col. David Parrish, "and said, 'Dave, I want you to teach these detention deputies to treat the inmates as if they were their mothers or fathers or brothers or sisters or children. But for the grace of God, it could be.' "
Today, Mr. Heinrich's face is embossed in bronze in the jail lobby.
Staff researcher John Martin and staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]