1. Archive

Deputy goes to jail for DUI, is set free

Something about the way the white Ford Bronco was traveling down the road led Hernando County Sheriff's deputy William Steele to conclude that the driver was probably drunk.

Steele arrested the driver about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday, hauled him to the Hernando County Jail and rousted a Breathalyzer technician out of bed to come down and give a test.

Then, something changed.

The suspect was allowed to skip the breath test and go home. No charge was lodged. And the jail log entry that listed the suspect's name and Steele's name, as arresting officer, was carefully whited out.

So for just a while, in the wee hours of Tuesday, there was little official trace of the incident.

Later in the day, however, Hernando sheriff's officials acknowledged they are trying to determine whether the alleged drunken driver got a lucky break because he happened to be a fellow sheriff's deputy from Pasco County.

Hernando Capt. Rich Nugent declined to provide further details. Neither Steele nor his supervising sergeant on the night shift, Lanny Corlew, had provided written statements, Nugent said, "and it wouldn't be fair to comment."

The Pasco deputy was Kurt A. Gell, a 14-year veteran with a history of personal tragedy. He declined to comment when a reporter visited his home in Shady Hills Tuesday evening. Neither Steele nor Corlew could be reached Tuesday.

Pasco sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers said Gell was put on administrative leave Tuesday morning after a hurried meeting between Hernando and Pasco supervisors at the county line.

Word of Tuesday's curious events leaked to the St. Petersburg Times in the form of an anonymous tip. A caller said a man had been brought to the jail on a drunken driving charge. When authorities were going through his possessions, the caller said, they discovered a Pasco County deputy's badge and released the suspect.

The anonymous caller also said someone called Gell's wife and told her to come pick up her husband.

The jail log for early Tuesday reveals only one entry _ and that was whited out.

Jail administrator L.T. Brown said Tuesday that he knew nothing about Gell's visit to the jail. He admitted that inmates usually are not entered into the jail log until they have been fingerprinted, photographed and formally booked after an arrest.

Brown would not allow the booking officer who was in charge at the jail early Tuesday morning talk to a reporter.

Ed Sullivan, one of the three technicians who run the Breathalyzer testing machine at the jail, said he was awakened early Tuesday by a jail official.

"Somebody called me and said they needed a breath test, and then I got there and they said, "Never mind,' " Sullivan said. "My philosophy is, "You don't ask any questions.' "

Nugent said Lt. Robert Henning reported the incident to sheriff's officials Tuesday morning. Nugent then called Steele and Corlew in for an interview at 3 p.m. Hernando County Sheriff Tom Mylander said he was aware of the investigation but had not seen a report late Tuesday.

"It may be proper, it may not," Mylander said of Steele's actions. "That's why we're looking into it."

Steele, 37, joined the Hernando sheriff's department last May, according to his personnel file. He has bachelor's and master's degrees in law enforcement and recently completed a course in traffic safety and drug and alcohol abuse.

Corlew, a 12-year veteran, was suspended for three days in 1990 after he approved the arrest of a 3-year-old boy who uprooted two pink flamingos from a neighbor's lawn.

Pasco officials learned of Gell's jail encounter when a dispatcher from the Hernando Sheriff's Office called the Pasco dispatcher about 3:30 a.m., Pasco spokesman Powers said.

The Hernando dispatcher asked for a Pasco supervisor to meet with a Hernando supervisor at the county line, Powers said.

Pasco sent Sgt. Skip Stone, a patrol supervisor, who met with a Hernando sergeant between 4:15 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., Powers said.

Stone was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but Powers said he assumed that Hernando was "notifying our agency of what had transpired."

Like Stone, Gell is also a patrol supervisor.

Gell is remarried and settled in a comfortable Pasco County home. His first wife died in a tragic 1985 boat accident. Geri Gell was 41 when the boat her husband was piloting slammed into a channel piling near the Hernando County public boat ramp in Hernando Beach. She died a few minutes later of massive head injuries.

In 1979, Gell was shot in the stomach while responding to a dispute in Hudson.

The Hernando incident marks the fourth time that controversy has surrounded Pasco law enforcement officials because of alleged drunken driving.

A crime prevention sergeant, Robert Cressman, was stopped in December after a Largo police officer saw the sheriff's car Cressman was driving weave and speed. Cressman said he had drunk three beers shortly before, and the Largo officer, Michael Kirkpatrick, later said "If he was the average citizen, I probably would have put him through field sobriety tests." But Kirkpatrick neither tested Cressman nor filed a charge against him. Pasco supervisors suspended Cressman for five days without pay. Kirkpatrick was transferred to other duties.

A corrections sergeant who transports prisoners, Nicholas Sagnelli, was fired Feb. 11 for events surrounding his arrest on a charge of drunken driving last month. A breath test showed Sagnelli's blood-alcohol level to be more than .18 percent. It also was disclosed that in November, a Port Richey officer let Sagnelli leave the scene of a traffic stop even though the officer, Keith Longworth, thought Sagnelli was severely intoxicated. Longworth later resigned.

Also last week, sheriff's supervisors fired a second corrections officer, Paul Fraley, who was accused of drinking before becoming involved in a single-car crash last September. A sample of Fraley's blood taken after the crash showed his blood-alcohol level to be more than .14 percent.

Sagnelli and Fraley still face misdemeanor drunken-driving charges in Pasco County Court.

_ Staff Writer Larry Dougherty contributed to this report.