Sunday, May 20, 2018
Public safety

Slain Tarpon Springs Officer Charles Kondek remembered for humor, dedication, love (w/video)

TAMPA — Charles Kondek held his wife's hand everywhere they went. He made funny faces to cheer his kids up, blasted AC/DC, cheered for the New York Jets and did a SpongeBob SquarePants dance for his daughter's second-grade class.

"Charlie K," as his fellow police officers called him, worked the midnight shift, ribbed his co-workers, told the same jokes over and over, and liked teaching rookies how to do the job right.

Tampa Bay got to know Officer Charles Roger Kondek on Saturday — and then said goodbye.

The Tarpon Springs police officer was laid to rest six days after he was fatally wounded in a gunbattle with a felon. About 3,000 law enforcement officers gathered at Idlewild Baptist Church to honor the 45-year-old husband and father of six.

"He loved us hard; he gave us all he had and never complained," his 15-year-old daughter, Aleena, told the assembly. "He went without to give us everything. He cried when we cried. He wasn't afraid to love us more than he loved himself."

The Tarpon Springs Police Department is a small, close-knit agency. Since Kondek's death on Dec. 21, his family and fellow officers had grieved privately.

That changed Saturday as they shared their memories, their stories and their farewells.

• • •

The question arose just hours after Capt. Jeffrey Young lost his friend: What was Kondek like?

"That question hit me like a punch to the stomach, realizing I was never going to see or talk to Charlie again," Young said. "I began to cry. I walked away.

"What was Charlie like? That's easy. First and foremost he was a family man."

Aleena, the youngest, spoke for the family, with sister Holly at her side. The officer had five children with his wife, Teresa. He also had a child from a previous marriage.

"My dad was my hero," Aleena said as her mother sat in the first pew with her head bowed.

"My best friend, my coach, my back-up singer in the car. He was everything to me."

Aleena described a father who came home every morning at 7:45 to make breakfast and see everybody off to school or work. Then he slept until the afternoon. When he awoke, the first person he called was always his wife.

"They finished each other's sentences and would even call each other at the same time," the daughter said. "My mom lost her best friend and the love of her life."

Kondek loved Christmas and delivered flowers to all his daughters every Valentine's Day, Aleena said. He worked nights so he could help her with soccer. Some nights he cooked dinner.

"We loved him for trying," she said in a light moment. "But it was actually horrible."

She once asked her father what he dreamed he would become when he grew up. Her father's answer:

"A police officer, just like my dad."

She remembered smiling "because he was doing what he always wanted to do."

• • •

Thousands of officers from the bay area and from as far as Chicago came to pay their respects to a man many had never met.

Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee and Tampa police Chief Jane Castor were there.

Bob Langford, 72, didn't know Kondek. But his brother, Lanny Langford, was the most recent Tarpon Springs police officer to die in the line of duty, in a 1969 car accident at age 25.

"I've been to a lot of police funerals," Bob Langford said. "But this was the one that hit closest to home."

Ed Kondek, a lieutenant with the New York State Unified Court System, had never met his cousin Charles Kondek, either. Ed Kondek's grandfather and the fallen officer's grandfather were brothers.

But while Ed Kondek's colleagues were in New York, paying tribute to one of two police officers shot and killed there on Dec. 20, he was in Florida.

"I would have attended those (services)," he said. "But blood comes first."

• • •

Charles Kondek spent five years as an officer with the New York Police Department, in which his father also served. He moved to Tarpon Springs in 1996 and joined the police force there, spending 17 years on the job.

"He looked like a cop right out central casting from Blue Bloods," Young said. "Or for us older cops, NYPD Blue. Or maybe even Hill Street Blues.

"One thing was for sure: Charlie loved being a police officer."

Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen said Kondek enjoyed being a resource for his fellow officers, especially the young ones — the "rooks," as he called them.

"He was also known for the loyalty he showed to his friends," the chief said. "Charlie was trustworthy. He was there when you needed to talk. He was kind. He truly cared about people."

Police funerals are grim, solemn occasions. But Kondek liked to keep things light, and his fellow officers tried to do the same at his memorial.

"There was a good deal of laughter when his shift came on," Sgt. Michael Trill said.

They could count on plenty of wisecracks. When the jokes came at Kondek's expense, he'd use the same old standbys, lines like: "You don't even have a scratch in your leather."

Or this running gag that Kondek would use whenever Trill radioed him with instructions: "My FTO (field training officer) never showed me that," Trill said.

That was funny for two reasons, Trill said.

First, because Kondek was a veteran officer.

"But I was also his FTO."

Trill told the crowd he might break down during his remarks. "I'm a bit emotional, so deal with it," he said. "I'm Italian."

And more than once, his voice broke.

"Many times people will tritely say, 'He's a good man,' " Trill said. "You read it in the paper, you hear interviews. It's so cliche to say he's a good man.

"But you know what? Charlie was a good guy."

• • •

After the church service, the officers gathered outside for the final moments of Saturday's ceremony.

The 21-gun salute. The bugler playing taps. Four helicopters flew an aerial salute overhead. One veered off in "missing man" formation.

It ended with a dispatcher broadcasting the "final call" for Charles Kondek's call sign over police radios — "285" — which will now be retired.

The long funeral procession made its way to Tarpon Springs, then headed north to Hudson, where the officer was buried in a private ceremony at Grace Memorial Cemetery.

"Yes, there will be scars," Trill said. "That comes with police work. But we will work together to heal them. Charlie's life and sacrifice will be an inspiration, an inspiration to continue on and fulfill our mission.

"We will never forget."

Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji on Twitter.

     
                                         
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