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Pasco officer bounces back

At first, it looked like alcohol would end Kurt Gell's long career.

The much-praised Pasco County sheriff's sergeant was pulled over for drunken driving in Hernando County in February 1992. Reports say he stumbled out, flashed his badge, and asked the arresting officer for "professional courtesy."

He got just that. After being brought to jail, Gell was "unarrested," his name concealed in the booking log.

Initially, the coverup seemed a big mistake. When the news leaked out, former Sheriff Jim Gillum gave Gell two options. Resign or you're fired, he was told.

But later, the full benefit of the favor came due. Two years after he resigned, Gell is once again a Pasco County sheriff's deputy.

Normally, an arrest for drunken driving is grounds for dismissal. But technically, Gell was never arrested.

So after his resignation, he filed two discrimination claims: one with the Florida Commission on Human Relations and one with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The basic thrust of both was the same: He had been discriminated against because of a disability. The disability? Alcoholism.

"If you drink and came to work, you'd be fired, but you can't be fired because you're an alcoholic," said Mary Anne Burke, the sheriff's legal counsel. "In a lot of situations, you get one mistake and get to go away for treatment."

Gell's claims made their way through the commission until a hearing was scheduled in August. At that time, Sheriff Lee Cannon and Gell went into a room alone together and hammered out a deal.

Drop all the claims, Cannon said, and we will hire you back.

It was an agreement both sides welcomed.

Cannon was impressed, Burke said, that Gell had sought treatment for his alcoholism immediately after his resignation and had remained alcohol-free since.

"It seemed a mistake not to take him back," Burke said. "Kurt's always done a good job."

Gell could not be reached for comment.

Before the drunken-driving incident, Gell had a 15-year career with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office filled with both heroism and personal grief.

In 1979, then-Deputy Gell was shot in the stomach while responding to a report of a hostage situation at a Hudson home. He was credited by former Sheriff John Short with saving the lives of the woman and child held hostage.

Four years later, Gell was recognized as "Officer of the Year" after he single-handedly arrested a bank robber on U.S. 19.

In 1985, Gell's first wife was killed when the boat he was piloting slammed into a channel piling near the Hernando County public boat ramp at Hernando Beach. Gell later remarried.

After he resigned in 1992, Gell worked as a private investigator until he was hired for a part-time position by the Crystal River Police Department in Citrus County in May 1994, personnel records show. City Manager Roger Krieger, who then worked as police chief, said Gell proved an excellent investigator.

"He was a professional all the time he was here," Krieger said. "We hated to see him go back."

Cannon rehired Gell as a road deputy in September. He quickly proved an asset to the force, Burke said. Records show he received two letters of commendation, one for help in a marijuana bust.

In May, Gell was promoted to a detective in the criminal investigations division. He made the high-profile arrest last week of former Deputy Michael Erstling on charges of impersonating an officer.

"He's done an excellent job," Burke said.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.

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