Last summer, Lacoochee Elementary principal Karen Marler sat down with Sheriff Bob White and his top brass to discuss drugs and crime in the impoverished community.
Talk turned to 2003, the year a sheriff's deputy was gunned down while patrolling in Lacoochee.
White and his staff said enforcement since then had been difficult and delicate. A civic leader in the area, White said, had told him it was in the best interests of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office to let things cool down, to not be too aggressive.
"I asked him who the civic leader was," Marler said. "He said the man who owns the grocery store by the railroad track."
"And I said, 'Man Stewart?'"
"He said, 'Yes.'"
"I was in total shock," Marler said, "when he used the name."
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Robert Sullivan, former head of the Sheriff's Office vice unit and White's opponent in the Aug. 26 primary, was at the same meeting. Like Marler, he was familiar with Stewart's reputation and says he had the same reaction to hearing Stewart's name.
The 50-year-old Stewart runs the Mosstown Convenience Store on Cummer Road. He hasn't stepped outside the law in recent years, but records show an arrest record dating back to 1977. He was charged with attempted homicide in 1987, though the charge was dismissed. In 1989, he faced charges of cocaine possession and sale and was acquitted at trial. In 1993, he was arrested on multiple drug charges including possession and sale of crack cocaine and marijuana. He pleaded no contest and served three years' probation.
Sullivan said that in the months after the June 1, 2003, shooting of sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, his ability to execute dynamic search warrants — the kind where SWAT teams kick in doors of suspected crack houses — "came to a screeching halt."
And he said it was all because of the advice White received from Stewart.
According to Sullivan, White said: " 'Well, after Bo got killed I was riding my horse — I was riding my horse on Cummer Road and went over the railroad tracks, and I stopped in to get me a grape Nehi at that little convenience store right there just to the side of the tracks.' "
"A civic leader told him … that in order to keep the racial flames down on the east side of the county, his vice unit needs to quit kicking in doors and walking away without arresting anybody and just ransacking houses and not having any drugs to show," Sullivan said. "I told him, I said, 'Sheriff, whoever your civic leader is is lying to you. It's (a raid coming up empty) never happened.' "
Sullivan said the SWAT team regularly executed dynamic search warrants until 2004, when word came down that all search warrants were to be reviewed by the undersheriff. Some warrants were denied, Sullivan said. Others were approved, he said, but without the use of the SWAT team — the only safe way for officers to barge into a crack house.
"It started just on the east side (of the county), but it filtered over to the west side, to where we pretty much couldn't do them," Sullivan said.
Then in 2007, Sullivan said the sheriff again grew alarmed about violent crime, and warrant procedures returned to normal.
"This convicted drug dealer set enforcement policy at the Pasco Sheriff's Office for 2 1/2 years," Sullivan said.
Sheriff: No way
Sheriff White says Sullivan has got it all wrong.
White, first elected in 2000, said that his work to rebuild community relations in Lacoochee and his policy on search warrants aren't at all related.
"After Bo was killed, I got on the horse and I rode around the community and I talked to people," White said. "I wanted people up there that could quell any tensions, and that's what we did."
For a time, all patrols in Lacoochee were staffed by two deputies.
Later on, and outside the context of Harrison's death, White said, he held one of his periodic "meet the sheriff" sit-downs with a few employees.
There, he said, a detective expressed frustration about nabbing drug dealers and said sometimes "we just go in, kick the door in and get them out."
The sheriff said one deputy told him that kind of force was needed to "teach someone a lesson."
That alarmed White.
"I said, 'Time out, that's not how we do business,' " he said. "I said, 'I want to see bodies, and I want to see dope. I want to see people in cuffs and I want to see drugs seized.' "
The sheriff said he called in Sullivan, the vice commander, to make sure that message got through.
"My instruction to the man on the tip of the spear was, 'Make sure we're doing this correctly, appropriately,' " he said.
White also had concerns, he said, about Sullivan's leadership.
"I knew that we could do more."
"I have a lot of respect for Bobby Sullivan as a law enforcement officer and he has served well," the sheriff said, "but I felt at the time that he had been in vice/narcotics too long."
The suggestion that he called a halt to dynamic search warrants or changed his policy on them at all, White said, is "completely and totally bogus."
But White did say that he "encouraged" his commanders to ensure that dynamic search warrants were being executed properly and safely.
White pointed to one incident in which one of his SWAT deputies was shot between the eyes in 2002 while serving a dynamic search warrant in Trilby.
The armored deputy survived and a fellow SWAT deputy killed the assailant.
Records are gone
The Sheriff's Office destroyed records of SWAT team-executed search warrants prior to 2005. The agency said this is allowed under law and is done routinely to clear space.
So the available statistics do not definitively prove either side of the argument, which would require search warrant figures for the years prior to Harrison's murder in 2003.
The numbers that exist do seem to support part of Sullivan's story: that White removed restrictions on those warrants in 2007.
SWAT team-executed search warrants:
The Sheriff's Office responded to these figures by saying that the number of warrants rose and fell along with the need for them.
And, White added, it was up to the commanders on the ground to obtain and execute the kinds of warrants they felt they needed.
"I don't make that decision at my level," he said. "It's made by the commanders, not made by the sheriff."
Ex-deputy weighs in
To back up his assertion, Sullivan put the St. Petersburg Times in touch with former Pasco Deputy Abe Carmack, who served on the SWAT team.
"The first year I got on (SWAT) in 2003, we served a lot of search warrants," Carmack said. "Then sometime in '04 is when it was pretty much shut down."
Carmack doesn't recall any specific figures, but estimated the number of dynamic search warrants the SWAT team executed in 2003 was in the "double digits."
The former deputy, who now works at another law enforcement agency, said Sullivan also told him the story of White's "source" in Lacoochee years ago.
But Carmack said the sheriff gave him a different rationale for ending dynamic search warrants.
"I had a conversation with (the sheriff) myself, that we needed to back off search warrants, that we needed to re-evaluate them," Carmack said, "that the federal government looks at them and we need to make sure we're doing them the right way.
"The reason he gave was different. But there was definitely the impression that we needed to back off."
The sheriff could not confirm this recollection, and said he preferred not to comment on specific conversations with his own deputies.
"I have discussed excessive force issues with detectives from time to time," White said, "and I was then and I still am concerned with the safety of our deputies, our residents and our suspects."
Rumors go back years
The sheriff did, however, level an accusation of his own at Sullivan, his foe in the Aug. 26 Republican primary.
White said he heard rumors a few years ago that his administration was shutting down the use of dynamic search warrants by the SWAT team.
It just wasn't true, the sheriff said. So White said he turned to Sullivan, then the vice commander, to help quash those rumors. "I had Sullivan in my office on several occasions and told him that I want those rumors stopped," the sheriff said. "He would tell me, 'Yes sir, boss.'
"Now I found it was him all along. I find that very disappointing."
Sullivan said that conversation never happened.
'Just campaign stuff'
White says Sullivan's tale about the search warrants is "just campaign stuff."
But having been at last summer's meeting with White, Karen Marler got another impression.
"The assumption was that the recommendation (from Stewart) had an impact on the patrols," she said. "That was the assumption that I got."
Stewart, who still works at the convenience store, said he recalled talking to White after Harrison's death but declined to say what they discussed.
White said he remembered visiting the Mosstown Convenience Store, remembered meeting Stewart and remembered later meeting with Marler. But that was all. "Well, I can't speak to what Karen remembers and what she doesn't remember," White said. "But let's face it, I was new to Pasco County at the time. How did I know if he was a civic leader?"
Molly Moorhead can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6245.