Before election day, Sheriff Chris Nocco and his supporters will carefully calculate opportunities to increase his appeal to voters. It's already impossible to turn on your TV and not catch him warning criminals or displaying a cache of confiscated weapons.
But if the young sheriff is to keep the job Gov. Rick Scott gave him after Bob White quit in the middle of his third term, he may look back on an incident at the jail last year involving a raging, violent, naked man.
On May 6, less than a week after Nocco took the oath of office, he toured the Land O'Lakes jail with some of his brass. At 3:55 p.m., the routine shattered.
"10-24! J Wing!''
Deputy Jeffrey Lissoy yelled a second time into his radio.
Every cop knows that means trouble, send help. Nocco led the sprint to J Wing where Lissoy and Deputy Wesley Flood were rolling on the concrete floor with a stocky 200-pound inmate. Five months earlier, Aaron Michael Beverly, 20, had been charged in Zephyrhills with beating a disabled 56-year-old man nearly to death. Beverly, himself, had been described by his parents as mentally disabled, the result of a head injury in 2004 when he was hit by a car.
It's not clear what set Beverly off. He was taking a shower and then screamed several times, "Can someone help me with my gown?'' A camera positioned just outside the shower room captured the fracas as Beverly attacked and the others came running.
Because they used force, each deputy — along with the sheriff — had to write reports. Nocco, a big man who played offensive line at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, secured Beverly's legs so he'd stop kicking. Then, as the inmate attempted to bite Sgt. James Rollston, "I placed my foot on his abdomen,'' Nocco wrote.
After Beverly was secured, Nocco and the others examined scratches on their arms and hands as they applied disinfectant. Beverly later was transferred to a state mental facility, where he remains.
In the scheme of things, this wasn't exactly like bringing down John Dillinger. It didn't make the newspapers or TV. But at the jail, where the battle lines are most apparent, the rank and file took notice.
Last month, I spent several hours there working on a story about the Rev. Howard Grimmenga, who serves as chaplain for jail employees. Officials allowed me to hang around the cafeteria and didn't seem too concerned about the presence of a newspaper reporter. That, I can tell you, is unusual.
So, naturally, I took the opportunity to ask folks how they liked the sheriff. We're not talking scientific poll or anything like that. Maybe 8 to 10 employees, including a few civilians. But everybody mentioned how Nocco had "taken down'' a prisoner in his first week on the job.
A few grizzled sergeants especially admired Nocco's willingness to get his hands dirty. In this business, toughness gets high marks. Old-timers in Citrus County still talk about the first Sheriff Charles Dean (1928-45), a big man who used to toss his hat into bars and then follow it in to bust heads John Wayne style. His son, now a state senator, served as Citrus sheriff from 1981-96.
And while Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd isn't going to scare many people with his size, he delights his fans with tough talk.
Nocco has a ways to go before he can match Judd in that department. At 36, he has a lot to learn about being sheriff, period.
But in a few frantic moments at the county jail, he earned something vital from people he must lead.