In May, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats stunned supporters when he said he would not seek re-election next year. On Thursday, the 40-year veteran of the agency dropped another bombshell when he announced he will resign in November to spend more time with his wife, Cat, while she fights breast cancer.
Cat Coats, 56, was diagnosed with breast cancer in early June and has had a mastectomy, but she has experienced some complications and had additional surgery since then, Coats said. She begins chemotherapy next week.
"Life can change in an instant," Coats said. "I think it's time to spend all the time I can spend with Cat."
The couple have been married 37 years. They met at a Palm Harbor restaurant where she worked as a server when Coats was "a young patrol deputy," he said. They have one son, 35-year-old Jay Coats.
Cat Coats is retired after careers as a physical trainer and an orthodontist's assistant. She devotes herself to charity work for the PACE Center for Girls, the Beth Dillinger Foundation, the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches and the Boys and Girls Club of the Suncoast.
Coats, 67, first joined the Sheriff's Office in 1971 and was elected sheriff in 2004 when former Sheriff Everett Rice resigned to seek a seat in the Florida House of Representatives.
Coats also was tapped by former Gov. Lawton Chiles to fill in as sheriff in Gulf and Santa Rosa counties after the top lawmen in those counties were charged with crimes.
Coats' folksy, conversational manner made him popular with voters and helped him win re-election in 2008 with relative ease. During his tenure, the agency developed a reputation for being on the cutting edge of crime-fighting technology, including the use of facial recognition software that is now used throughout the state and data management systems that track criminal information.
Most recently, Coats pushed to open Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter for nonviolent offenders near the county jail. He made fighting prescription drug abuse a priority and took an aggressive stand against Internet sweepstakes cafes, calling them illegal gambling houses. He has lobbied extensively for the Florida Sheriffs Association on issues ranging from state budget cuts affecting child abuse investigations to the open carry gun law.
He advised members of his agency of his decision to leave at a somber midafternoon staff meeting Thursday.
Coats, who served on Gov. Rick Scott's law enforcement transition team, informed the governor of his plan to resign, effective Nov. 7. The date was chosen, Coats said, to allow time for a smooth transition. Scott will appoint a replacement to serve until the new sheriff is sworn in after the 2012 election.
Scott released a statement Thursday saying he planned to make an interim appointment by Oct. 15. Applications will be accepted through Sept. 12.
When Coats announced in May that his current term would be his last, he endorsed his chief deputy, Bob Gualtieri, to replace him. Gualtieri is one of six announced candidates for sheriff in the 2012 election.
On Thursday, Coats said he had spoken to Scott and recommended Gualtieri for the interim appointment.
Gualtieri said he plans to apply for the interim job. He called Cat Coats a "big contributor to the community."
"She's a great lady, very outgoing. … She has been right there by the sheriff's side during his career, and now that she has this challenge, I'm sure he wants to be right by her side."
Gualtieri is running against fellow Republicans Rice and Tim Ingold, who retired from the agency as a captain in 2010.
"Obviously, if (Scott) was to appoint Bob Gualtieri, I think there are a lot of people who would think that would give Gualtieri an advantage in the campaign," Ingold said.
Rice said, "I don't think the governor would be wise to appoint a candidate for the seat he's running for."
County Administrator Bob LaSala was saddened to hear that the seriousness of Cat Coats' condition necessitates the sheriff's resignation. Over the past three years, the working relationship between Coats and LaSala grew despite sometimes tough negotiations over massive cuts to the sheriff's budget.
Before he became Pinellas-Pasco state attorney, Bernie McCabe was a young prosecutor when he met a young narcotics deputy named Jim Coats in the 1970s.
"He was a very good cop, always kind of a quiet guy," McCabe said. "He was not a bombastic person. He had a quiet confidence, a quiet professionalism, if you will. He's always been professional. I think as sheriff he's demonstrated that."
Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Susan Latvala said Coats has been an excellent sheriff and lauded his efforts to cut his budget.
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon said he understands the pressures of running a large law enforcement organization while a spouse is facing a medical crisis. After Harmon became chief in 2001, he learned that his wife, Lori, had a condition that required several surgeries.
Harmon credited Coats with building bridges between the two largest law enforcement agencies in the county — his department and the Sheriff's Office — and pointed to the new Pinellas County violent crimes task force against gun violence as an example.
"We've always worked together, but I think we've done some new things, some unique things that we haven't tried in the past," Harmon said. "I thought that it speaks to his leadership and willingness to share with the other law enforcement agencies."
Harmon said he wishes Coats and his wife the best on their journey through her illness.
"I'm sure he believes that his wife is his true love, that it's time for him to do whatever he can to help her," Harmon said. "I'm certain that his obligation to the men and women of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has been fulfilled."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.