The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office pressed its mostly teenage Explorer squad into service Wednesday to search for a slain Belleair police officer's missing handcuffs.
For about two hours under a scorching afternoon sun, 24 potential police officers were given maps and instructions to look for evidence in bushes along the Pinellas Trail near where the murder suspect lived.
But by 3:30 p.m. the search was called off without success.
"I think everyone was optimistic that we would find something," said Sgt. Greg Tita, a Sheriff's Office spokesman.
Officer Jeffery Tackett was killed with his own gun late Sunday as he attempted to arrest a burglary suspect. Lorenzo Lamar Jenkins, who was staying at 1602 N Fort Harrison Ave., was arrested there and charged with murder.
Police said they believe Jenkins fled on a 10-speed bicycle along the Pinellas Trail with one hand still cuffed. When they found him, he was on the bicycle, but the handcuffs were gone. So far, the handcuffs have not been found, police said.
"We may never find it (the handcuffs), but it's not going to change the way the case is moving," Tita said.
The Explorers were called in because, Tita said, the Sheriff's Office does not have the staff for such a painstaking search.
"Right now, we don't have 24 bodies to spare," he said.
So enter the teenagers in black T-shirts, wearing serious and somewhat nervous expressions as they broke into small search parties.
"Now I know I'm important at this moment," said 16-year-old Sean Miller, who joined the Explorer ranks because of his dream to one day be a police officer.
The Northeast High School student said he once hoped to join the ranks of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents but after four agents were killed in the shootout in Waco, Texas, he has "kind of cooled on that."
The shooting death of Tackett reinforced the knowledge that his ambition carries danger, he said.
By his side was Cynthia Jentsch, who turns 16 Saturday. Jentsch said she is less sure of a career in law enforcement. And Wednesday afternoon, as Miller ducked through a thicket of bushes, she was especially unsure concerning the dangers of searches.
"I'm not going through there," she said, "There's snakes."
Miller called back: "It's your job." With reluctance, she followed.
The two were paired with John Grubb, 23, who works as a civilian employee of the Sheriff's Office, and Craig Giovo, 28, a community service officer for the Gulfport Police Department. Both are training to become crime scene technicians.
Tita said the younger members always are teamed with older and more experienced members. Ideally, the Explorers would have been with detectives, but there weren't enough to go around.
He said the Explorers have been called out before on high-profile cases, but he couldn't remember the last time.
Explorers are told that touching evidence is forbidden, Tita said. Should an Explorer find something, he or she is supposed to find an officer immediately.
"What's that metal thing?" Giovo called out as the group pressed through the bushes.
"I already checked it out," Miller said. "It's an umbrella."
The discovery of a bicycle abandoned in a hedge a few minutes later brought the group to a halt.
"Did they find the bike?" asked Giovo.
"I don't know," Grubb said.
"They really didn't tell us much," said Giovo, who said he has been involved in searches before but never one in which the stakes were so high.
Department to stand by widow
At a Belleair Town Commission meeting Tuesday night, police Chief Harry Gwynne talked about the slain officer.
He said that while the Sheriff's Office continues its investigation, his department is "doing our best to assemble some relief and support for (Tackett's) family."
Gwynne said Tackett's wife, Alice, "is very sad, very depressed. She has a lot of pain. We will stand by her."
He called Tackett "a courageous police officer who gave his life for someone else. We don't know what happened that night. I don't know if we'll ever know."
Visitation for Jeffery Tackett is 2 to 9 p.m. today at Moss-Feaster Funeral Homes, Largo Chapel, 206 First Ave. SW, Largo. The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Friday at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, 12685 Ulmerton Road, Largo. Burial will follow at Serenity Gardens Memorial Park, 13401 Indian Rocks Road, Largo.