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Two deputies reprimanded

Published Oct. 10, 2005

A Hernando County deputy won't be punished for sending a fellow officer home from jail after initially planning to arrest him for drunken driving.

The deputy's two immediate supervisors, however, have been reprimanded for their roles in the incident.

Those decisions were made by Hernando Sheriff Tom Mylander, who also released a statement Wednesday saying that the officer who was pulled over showed "classic signs of an obvious DUI suspect. The driver in fact had great difficulty in just standing up."

Hernando Deputy William Steele, 37, was just bending to peer pressure when he decided not to charge Pasco County Sheriff's Sgt. Kurt A. Gell after stopping his weaving car Tuesday morning, Mylander said Wednesday.

Steele's two immediate supervisors, Sgt. Lanny Corlew and Lt. Robert Henning, were given written reprimands for implying that Steele should not arrest Gell.

Steele saw Gell's white Ford Bronco about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday "weaving drastically across the double yellow line" on Spring Hill Drive, according to a written statement.

Once Steele stopped Gell's car, "the driver immediately stepped out of his car, stumbled into the traffic way, with his badge case in his hand," Steele wrote. "This deputy recognized a typical "Sheriff's gold shield.' "

Gell is a 14-year veteran with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

As Gell told Steele not to arrest him as a matter of "professional courtesy," Steele smelled alcohol on Gell's breath, according to the deputy's report. He looked inside Gell's car and found an open, cool and partly empty can of beer and two unopened cans of beer.

A cassette tape of Steele's conversation with a radio dispatcher and Corlew showed that he planned to arrest Gell but wanted to clear the decision with his superior.

"I've got a signal one (drunk driver) here," Steele said to Corlew over his radio. "I'm going to need you to meet me at the jail."

When Corlew asked Steele to explain why, the deputy replied, "I can't say it over the air. I need you to meet me there if you would, please."

When Deputy Richard Braune stopped at Gell's parked car to wait for a tow truck, he called Corlew after looking inside.

"Hey sarge, you know who that 15 (prisoner) is, correct?" Braune said.

"I do now," Corlew answered. A few minutes later, Braune was ordered to cancel the tow truck and not impound Gell's car.

In his written statement, Corlew explained that when he met Steele at the Hernando County Jail on Tuesday morning, Steele told him that Gell was a deputy from Pasco County. Corlew then telephoned Henning, who was at home sleeping.

"Lt. Henning requested that I speak with Deputy Steele to see if he would unarrest the subject, however, Lt. Henning emphasized that it was Deputy Steele's decision," wrote Corlew. "At this point I took Deputy Steele aside and advised him that this was his arrest and the decision was entirely his, but that Lt. Henning had recommended that he unarrest the subject and help him find alternative transportation home."

After Steele decided to let Gell go without a formal arrest, a jail worker whited out a line on the jail booking log showing that Gell had been inside the building.

Corrections Officer Tammy Woods said she wrote Gell's name in the booking log after Steele arrived just after 3 a.m. Tuesday, according to a jail report.

"Dep. Steele and Sgt. Corlew then took the subject (Gell) into a conference room," according to Wood's report. "Several minutes after that the Sgt. and the Dep. advised they were unarresting the subject, and left the facility with the subject." Woods then whited out Gell's name from the log.

Woods faces no disciplinary action because she simply made a clerical error, said Hernando County Jail spokesman Larry Davis.

Gell was placed on administrative leave Tuesday morning and still faces possible arrest. Mylander said he told Steele to fill out a report regarding the incident. Mylander did not know if Steele planned to pursue criminal charges against Gell, but he said the deputy probably would take the report to state attorney's office.

Mylander said he understood why Steele hesitated to go against his superiors' recommendations.

"I didn't see anything where he had done anything wrong except being pressured," Mylander said. "Maybe I would have felt the same."

Gell's arrest and the events that followed are also under investigation by Pasco County Sheriff's Office, said spokesman Jon Powers, who declined to comment further on the specifics of the case.

Any violation of the law by a Pasco deputy would bring disciplinary action, Powers said. Pasco Sheriff Jim Gillum likely would decide on any punishment, maybe by the end of the week, Powers said.

If Gell does receive punishment, it will be a first.

His personnel file _ covering 14 years _ is dominated by commendations, ranging from praise for his work with a mobile home park's bike registration program to being named officer of the year in 1983, when he single-handedly arrested a bank robber on U.S. 19.

Gell's driving record in Florida is clean of violations. And in 1990, he won a 10-year pin at the Sheriff's Office for safe driving. That same year he didn't put in for a single sick day.

For four years, Gell has been a patrol supervisor. Recent performance evaluations describe Gell as "completely reliable" "businesslike" and "goes the extra mile to do a good job." One consistent flaw noted by his supervisors involved Gell's relationships with peers, subordinates and superiors.

"He sometimes displays no tact or diplomacy when dealing with his peers," said one evaluation.

The most dramatic moment in Gell's career came in 1979, when he rushed to a home in Hudson, where a woman and her daughter were being held at gunpoint by the woman's ex-husband.

When Gell and another deputy entered the house, they heard shots from a bedroom, where the man was holding the woman and her daughter. Gell burst through the bedroom door and was shot in the stomach and chest before the man was disarmed.

In commending Gell, then-Sheriff John Short wrote that he and the state attorney thought that Gell's quick action had probably saved the two women's lives.