Wednesday, April 18, 2018
Public safety

Plant City police chief retiring at 50 — sort of

PLANT CITY — The photos and mementos amassed after a long career now packed away, police Chief Bill McDaniel settles in behind an empty desk in a sparse office.

Only memories fill the room. They go back 27 years, including 16 as chief. They trickle out after a little nudging.

His most memorable case as chief?

He mulls the question a bit.

"The Kaiser double homicide," he says finally, his voice now quieter. "I'll never forget it."

It happened on a Saturday. Jan. 15, 2005.

Normally, McDaniel would have enjoyed a day off with his wife, Mercedes, and the couple's daughter, Harley, or taken a ride on his motorcycle or caught up on paperwork, but the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. parade was in full swing and McDaniel made sure it came off without a hitch.

Then the call came in.

He can't remember exactly how police were alerted to the house on N Gordon Street.

A couple had lived there. The Kaisers — Darren, 37, and Heather, 26 — ran an Internet car brokerage business out back in an office.

They were shot execution style.

There were no signs of a struggle. No apparent theft. There was plenty of blood but scant clues pointing to a suspect.

McDaniel recalls the feeling of trepidation at seeing the grisly scene.

"It was one of those cases where you went in and said, 'How are we going to sort this out? How are we going to do justice to the victims and their families?' "

• • •

Detectives were stymied.

A couple of months later, the case turned. A forensic accountant had found a discrepancy in the Kaisers' records. A Mitsubishi 3000 GT was missing from the inventory. Investigators checked the car's make, model and vehicle identification number with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

It turned up in Fort Myers.

"We knew what car to look for," McDaniel said. "When someone tried to register it, that's what led us to the murderer."

Benjamin Wibben, a restaurant server and small-time burglar, had tried to pay for the car with a bad check, according to trial testimony.

In addition to stealing the car, the killer took the couple's laptop computers.

"It took a lot of work, but we were able to sort through it," McDaniel said. "I was really proud of our team."

• • •

Other, far less dramatic moments marked the lawman's tenure.

They punctuate a career that started when McDaniel, now 50, joined the force as a patrolman and officially ended Friday with his retirement from law enforcement.

Starting Jan. 7 he'll have a new job: assistant city manager in charge of the police and fire departments, code enforcement department and the information technology systems.

"After 27 years, it was time," he said.

The move across town to City Hall comes with a 12 percent pay increase — from $95,000 to $107,000 a year. But officials say it's worth tapping McDaniel's organizational skills and grasp of public safety and technology.

"Bill is always looking for ways to do operations more cost effectively, and that certainly is one vision I have always supported," said City Manager Greg Horwedel, who has worked without an assistant for 21/2 years.

He'll coordinate with the heads of the police, fire and code departments on administrative tasks, including budgeting and long-term financial goals, and look to streamline operations.

• • •

The move is a departure for McDaniel, but so was law enforcement back in 1984.

As a young man, he pictured himself miles away from Plant City, where he had grown up and gone to high school.

He thought about becoming a marine biologist on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic.

He found a new perspective after taking classes at Hillsborough Community College in Plant City, where he got to know several police officers. They always had stories to tell.

Now he's the one with the stories.

• • •

McDaniel was a patrolman for 21/2 years. From there, he became a sergeant and then a captain in charge of training, crime prevention, internal affairs, recordkeeping and communications.

The job taught him the administrative side to police work, preparing him for when he'd take over as chief in 1996.

He's proud of how the department changed under his tenure.

He had been chief about a year, replacing Troy Surrency, who retired, when he introduced computer technology to the department in 1997, propelling it seemingly decades ahead from where it had been.

Most reports were typed or handwritten back then. Dispatchers used 4-by-6 note cards to log 911 calls and police dispatches. Officers used Polaroid cameras at crime scenes.

The cost of film a constant worry, police had to be judicious about taking pictures.

McDaniel automated the department's dispatch center and recordkeeping to speed the flow of calls, complaints, criminal records, affidavits and warrants. He equipped officers with digital cameras, doing away with film, and outfitted squad cars with laptops. "Now they can run a tag or warrant by searching from a computer from the seat of their car," he said.

He also presided over the department's move in 2005 to a spacious building — a former car refurbishing factory off Alexander Street — from its cramped quarters at 611 S Collins St.

When McDaniel joined the department in 1984 it had 35 officers and 15 civilian clerks. Now, 68 officers and 25 civilian staffers serve the city.

• • •

His ascension proved invaluable, but nothing prepared him for the dark days that came a few years after he took the post.

They changed the department — and McDaniel.

In 1999, Plant City police Officer Gregory Laughlin contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to say he knew of fellow officers lying, stealing, misleading judges and illegally searching homes.

The charges ignited years of investigations and the prosecutions of several Plant City police officers. Some cut deals with prosecutors, alleging the corruption ran all the way to McDaniel and Mayor Michael Sparkman, both of whom vigorously denied any wrongdoing.

No charges ever were brought against the chief and the mayor, and the case eventually faded from public view, but the allegations marked a low point.

He won't say anything about that time, even now, except to note that it taught him about leadership and its costs.

"I learned even the greatest adversity can teach you valuable lessons," he said. "I learned you have to have balance. I learned to question all answers, to take very little to almost nothing at face value.

"I ask a lot of questions," he continued. "I question all answers, and I use questions to guide people. It's not necessarily about barking orders, but about questioning people. These are smart people. They understand what you're getting at.

"I've told many people this over the years: The longest walk in my career was from the other side of this desk to behind it. Sitting behind this desk, you realize it's all on you. You don't prove your skills by flying only in fair weather."

Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.

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