Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg's longest-serving homicide detective retires after 20 years

ST. PETERSBURG — For a glimpse into the life of St. Petersburg's longest-serving homicide detective, look at what he did after three of the worst crimes in recent history.

• On April 5, 2009, gang members fired 56 rounds into a house and killed 8-year-old Paris Whitehead-Hamilton. Later that morning, Detective Gary Gibson got a tip that led to a 15-year-old's bedroom. Inside, he and another officer found an assault rifle used in the shooting.

• On Jan. 24, a fugitive hiding in an attic shot two St. Petersburg officers — the first slain in the line of duty in 30 years. During the ordeal, Gibson was outside the house, phoning the shooter repeatedly. He offered to become a hostage in exchange for one of the officers inside.

• On the night of Feb. 21, a supervisor called Gibson in to work — incredibly, a third St. Petersburg officer had just been killed. Before Gibson arrived at the police station, a tipster had called his cell and told him the killer lived in Citrus Grove Apartments. Within 24 hours, Gibson and another detective were interviewing a 16-year-old from that complex who, police say, confessed to the killing.

St. Petersburg has 543 sworn police officers, but it's not surprising this one played a role in those high-profile cases.

Gibson, 48, has spent nearly 20 years as a homicide detective. That's longer than anyone currently in homicide and is thought to be longer than anyone in department history. He has been lead detective on 70 murder cases.

After two decades of chasing killers, Gibson has built a web of contacts. He hears rumors on the streets before those streets have been cleared of bodies and shell casings. He never shuts off his cellphone. Tipsters don't hesitate to ring at 3 a.m. Neither do supervisors. There are times in St. Petersburg, after the most bewildering murders, when the department turns to the Gibson Network of Sources as though it's a high-tech, secret radar system.

But Gibson's system is more shoe leather than technology. His style is to talk to a lot of people, then to a lot more, and then stay connected to them forever.

Well, not exactly forever. The city's senior homicide detective retired Friday.

• • •

Gibson graduated from Largo High in 1981 and began working for the St. Petersburg police in 1986. He started in patrol, then became a burglary detective.

Gibson joined homicide in 1992. In those days, Gibson said, high-tech CSI-style methods usually did not convict murderers.

"The confession and getting information from witnesses was really your key to success," Gibson said.

Veteran detectives taught him to stay patient while developing sources, hunting witnesses or listening to a suspect's long, hard-to-believe story.

The more cases he worked, the more people he got to know.

Gibson, known as Gib, Gibby, Slim or just Gibson, stayed in touch and would try "helping them out with their little speed bumps." If someone needed a restraining order, say, he would help her learn how. Sometime in the future, that person might hear the whispers of how somebody got shot, or where someone was hiding. And then Gibson would be the one asking for help.

"It's like a back and forth," he said.

• • •

On the morning 8-year-old Paris was shot, Gibson worked the streets a few hours and returned to the station on First Avenue N. He happened to see a young man, somebody Gibson has known for years, who had been arrested for something unrelated. It was pure coincidence and Gibson was frantically busy, but he paused to talk. The man said, I've got something for you. His tip led Gibson to the apartment where he found an assault rifle used in the shooting, not to mention four other guns.

Sometimes murders get solved with one piece of information that leads to another and another.

"You hit the first domino," he would tell sources. "I got it from there."

• • •

Detectives will tell you working homicide is draining. In homicide, you might tell a mother her son has been shot, then ask if you can interview her. You make small talk with killers, then ask them to confess. The phone rings at 3 a.m. and you can be very sure your 12-hour workday has just begun. It's a burn-out job.

As he became the longest-serving homicide detective, Gibson grew more valuable, said Mike Puetz, a former supervisor.

Puetz can recall working murder scenes with other detectives at 3 a.m. or so, while Gibson was off and theoretically asleep in bed. But by 3:30, Gibson would phone in from home to say: This is what I heard.

"I have seen Detective Gibson arrive on a crime scene, circulate the neighborhood for an hour and come back with a suspect's name along with the identities of several key witnesses," Puetz wrote in a 2002 evaluation. "This is done in spite of the fact that officers and other detectives here have already covered the same ground prior to his arrival. It is common to come across individuals who will not divulge any information unless they can talk directly to Detective Gibson."

Former supervisor Mike Kovacsev said in an evaluation that Gibson worked "to build a trust in the community that arguably no other detective has." And because of his tenure, "he has likely investigated more violent criminal acts than any other person on the police department."

And Kovacsev wrote that five years ago.

• • •

Not everyone appreciates Gibson's work.

After Nathan J. Brinkley was arrested for shooting an armored courier in 1999, public defenders conducted an exhaustive search to see if St. Petersburg police were coercing confessions. One lawyer claimed Gibson "knew the accused had not waived his Miranda rights."

A judge said the defense raised "very troubling issues" about some methods used by St. Petersburg officers. And he said Gibson displayed "a significant inability to recollect things that might have been helpful to the defense."

But the judge ruled there wasn't evidence of any conspiracy to prevent Brinkley from getting a lawyer. Another judge agreed.

Gibson said the case was grueling. But the bottom line, he said, was that the judge kept the confession and the jury convicted Brinkley, who remains in prison.

• • •

Recently, Gibson heard of an opening for an investigator at the State Attorney's Office, where his wife, Kathie, works as an office manager. And after nearly 25 years, he could retire from the Police Department.

Gibson and his wife said a lot went into the decision. His schedule would not be so crazy and the work not as dangerous.

In 2009, a man accused of murder got a tattoo in the Pinellas County Jail while awaiting trial. It said: "WANTED" and "Det. Gibson" and "$100,000.'' So a police cruiser parked outside the family home for protection. For their middle school-age daughter, the youngest of three children, "I think that really made it more obvious and scary for her," Kathie Gibson said.

Gibson could have just transferred out of homicide. But, as he put it: "I've been marlin fishing for two decades." He liked bringing in the big fish and feels he would have struggled doing something else.

Gibson's colleagues sent him off on Friday with a bash across from the police station at Ferg's. They razzed him with a photo showing him sleeping in a chair at the station, shot by his former supervisor Puetz. Forewarned, Gibson wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo that showed Puetz just as asleep. And, over beers and wings, officers talked about the cases they worked with Gibson and the murders they solved.

"It would take a squad to replace him,'' Kovacsev said.

Gibson starts working the new job Monday. Now that he has retired, he said, he does eventually plan to learn a new skill:

How to turn off a cellphone.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8232.

 
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