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Inverness Elks honor four officers, firefighter

An armed robbery in daylight. A desperate high-speed chase from Beverly Hills to Inverness. Law officers exchanging gunfire with the fleeing suspects.

It was March 5, 1996.

"Our county changed that . . . night," said Sheriff Jeff Dawsy. "We had never seen that kind of violence before."

The chase ended with the arrest of two men, one of whom has since pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges. Neither the accused robbers nor law officers nor residents in the Inverness neighborhoods where the chase wound up were hurt by the exchange of gunfire.

As infamous as that incident may seem, it was just one of the many times that those who protect and serve in Citrus County put themselves in harm's way for the community.

For their service and other examples of devotion to duty in 1996, the members of Inverness Elks Lodge 2522 thanked and honored four Citrus law officers and a volunteer firefighter at a luncheon Wednesday.

Honored were Citrus sheriff's Sgts. Jim Bergman and Greg Farrell, Inverness police Officers Chuck Van Etten and Darrin Burger and Inverness volunteer fire Lt. Dick Churchill.

"Citrus County is one of the safest counties (of its size) in Florida," Dawsy told the crowd of more than 200. "That's thanks to the work of the men and women who wear the green and blue."

The membership of the Elks has "always been close" to law enforcement and firefighters, said Jim Sutherland, an Elks member from Dunnellon who spent 30 years with the Marion County Sheriff's Office and the Ocala Police Department.

It was the first of what the Elks hope will be a yearly tradition.

The Elks asked Dawsy, Inverness police Chief William Vitt and Fire Services Director Mike Schlaudraff to nominate their top people for the award.

The three found it easy to find worthy candidates, but difficult to narrow the field.

"I told the Elks no problem," Schlaudraff said. "Can you seat 400?"

Said Vitt: "I wanted to nominate the entire department."

It was the kind of thanks that law officers and firefighters rarely receive, Vitt said.

"We in the law enforcement community and the fire service want to commend and thank each of you for honoring these officers," Vitt said. "Too often, those of us who wear a uniform are criticized unfairly because of what we have to do."

Wednesday's banquet was not the first time the four officers and firefighter have been honored. Bergman and Farrell were honored last year for their actions in the 1996 high-speed pursuit. Van Etten and Burger, who also helped capture the two fleeing suspects, were honored at Tuesday's Inverness City Council meeting.

Churchill, whose home burned down last month, was named Citrus' firefighter of the year in 1995 and 1996.

"I got picked out of 400 firefighters," Churchill said. "I just can't believe it. I'm honored."

Even though a bullet pierced his cruiser's windshield, Farrell said that during the 1996 pursuit he and Bergman had hoped fervently for the outcome they got: the peaceful surrender of the two men, without more gunfire, and without anyone getting hurt.

"We were hoping it would end this way," Farrell said. "What was important was not to endanger any civilians. Jim (Bergman) could have returned their fire earlier in the chase, but civilians could have been hurt. He waited until we reached a secluded location to return fire.

"And by the time we caught up to the bad guys, they didn't want to play with us anymore."

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