Every now and then, Richard McKee gets asked what he does for a living.
He isn't exactly clean-cut. So he tells people that he's a street sweeper or a garbage truck driver or just "retired."
In reality, McKee, 45, is an undercover detective for the St. Petersburg Police Department's vice and narcotics unit. His job involves getting the trust of drug dealers so police can gather enough evidence to arrest them.
On Thursday, McKee was recognized at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club as the department's officer of the year.
The job requires an unusual set of skills.
"You have to learn how to talk and convince people that you're with them," McKee said. "Your mind and your gift of gab is your best tool."
McKee has been with the department for about 16 1/2 years and an undercover detective for the past three years. He has also been in the Air Force and is part of the Naval Reserve.
In recent years he has been involved in several high-profile cases, such as the attempted firebombing of neighborhood watch leaders in Palmetto Park.
He also played a big role in the arrest and federal indictment and conviction of Eric Lemon in 2006, who police and federal agents say had become the leader of the largest illegal drug distribution ring in Childs Park, according to local police and federal agents. He moved several kilograms of crack cocaine and other illegal drugs through the area each week, authorities said.
McKee's role in that case: gaining Lemon's trust so he could directly purchase drugs from him.
"It was half luck and half skill," McKee said. "I made some phone calls and got my name known and was able to make contact with Lemon and make direct purchases with him."
McKee purchased about $10,000 in crack and powder cocaine. He remembers Lemon telling him: "Just come on by." After that purchase Lemon was arrested and later pleaded guilty. He's currently serving a 17-year prison sentence.
Did it make a difference?
McKee thinks so. He says when he talks to other dealers, he senses a new fear.
"They're still scared out of their pants," he said. "They know if he can go, they can go."
Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.