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Lee County sheriff tells it as he sees it

The world discovered Lee County Sheriff John McDougall this month. To the horror of just about everyone in the tourist business, he warned a national TV audience that it isn't safe to come to Florida.

People around Lee County had heard McDougall's passion before.

Like the time the sheriff tried to get rapper Ice T indicted on sedition charges for the song, Cop Killer.

Or when his office seized a copy of the book, Mapplethorpe, from a Barnes & Nobles bookstore in Fort Myers to investigate whether its graphic photographs were obscene.

Or when McDougall disagreed so vehemently with cuts to his budget that he declared war on the Lee County Commission and took his case to Tallahassee.

They sound like the acts of some old-time stereotype of a Florida sheriff, out for power and attention. Outrageous and brash. Half-crazy.

That's not McDougall.

"The thing is, John is really a quiet guy," said Manatee County Sheriff Charles Wells "He's articulate and intelligent. He is not some headline-seeking sheriff. He is not a weirdo."

As he starts a third term in office, McDougall says he is driven by principle and deep religious conviction. Nothing else. If people don't like it, so be it.

McDougall once studied in the Franciscan Order of the Catholic Church. He has called his family his "only special interest." He prefers driving to flying, because he says it gives him more time for quiet reflection.

At week's end, McDougall, 54, remained unapolegetic for the fury he stirred up by telling NBC's Today show's 5-million viewers not to travel to Florida. People cannot be safe here, he said, given a court decision which allowed hundreds of prisoners free on early release.

"What I said is the truth. I would always regret it if anybody was hurt by what I said, but crime is taking its toll," he said. "There's a psalm that says, the Lord hears the cries of the poor. I hear the cries of the victims."

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There's a photograph of Pope John Paul II beside Sheriff McDougall's desk. Next to it, a sign: Prayer Changes Things. In the photo, the pope is being handed something shiny, a badge that declares him a deputy of the Lee County Sheriff's Office.

It was McDougall's idea.

"I certainly admire the Holy Father, you know," McDougall said. "So I said, how about if I make him an honorary deputy?"

The Rev. Thomas Anglim, the priest at McDougall's church, agreed to carry McDougall's badge when he went to Rome. As he passed it to the pope, Anglim tried to describe Lee County, Florida, and its former seminarian-turned sheriff.

"He looked very curiously at it," Anglim recalled. "He smiled. He gave me a rosary."

Raised in Boston, McDougall entered the Franciscan Order at 19. For seven years, he wore the traditional brown robes and followed the tenets. Live in poverty. Be chaste. Obey God.

But he heard another calling. He left the order for the police academy. He became a New Hampshire state trooper. He married his wife, Gloria, with whom he has four children, two grandchildren.

The change, he insists, was not as radical as it sounds. "Religion still plays a vital role in my life. It is my life," he said. "I get down on my knees before I go to work and I get down on my knees before I go to bed."

He is an usher at Father Anglim's church. He has helped a cloistered order of nuns on Fort Myers Beach. "The sheriff," Father Anglim said, "will do anything we ask him."

After working as a state trooper, McDougall moved to the narcotics section of a district attorney's office in Massachusetts. His young children began suffering from asthma. A doctor prescribed a warmer climate.

McDougall became a Lee County sheriff's deputy in 1974. He worked his way through the ranks and was appointed sheriff in neighboring Charlotte County after the top cop there was accused of a crime. In 1988, McDougall, a Republican, was elected Lee County sheriff.

His most recent swearing-in ceremony, in January, drew a crowd to Fort Myers' Barbara B. Mann Hall. At one point, a priest spoke. He prayed for, among other things, a sufficient budget for the sheriff, who has become known for his money squabbles with county officials.

A. Scott Hamilton, the sheriff's director of planning and research, recalled the priest's words: "Bless his budget."

Days later, a Lee County resident called the Sheriff's Office. He wanted to report an abandoned suitcase on a street.

When deputies arrived, they found two suitcases, five duffel bags and two 300 pound safes beside an otherwise empty Shell Point Boulevard. No owners. No explanation.

Inside the cases was $4.5-million in 10- and 20-dollar bills. McDougall expects to seize most of that cash for his department. Apparently, officials say, it was drug money.

Around the department, they aren't so sure. The joke is that the suitcases were an answer to the priest's prayer, another hint of this sheriff department's direct line to the heavens.

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One day a Chiquita delivery driver and a Winn-Dixie worker unwrapped a banana box and found few bananas.

They called Lee County deputies who unpacked what turned out to be 235 pounds of cocaine.

The media was summoned.

Reporters and photographers found McDougall, flanked by two deputies, standing behind the mound of cocaine packages. Bananas were scattered on the packages. A sign was up: Operation Banana Split.

The news conference backfired. Too much of a stunt, some people thought. The editorial in the Fort Myers News-Press had harsh words for McDougall. "What was he smoking when he dreamed up this Operation Banana Split thing?"

Said Lee County Commissioner John Albion, "(McDougall) comes across as a religious and honest man. But every so often, these little hand grenades go off. . . . It's bizarre."

Albion has had his share of tussles with McDougall over the sheriff's budget.

This year, McDougall will spend $45-million, about double the budget of the office when he arrived there in 1989. Back then, his spokesman says, equipment was out-of-date and broken down. Squad cars sputtered. Radios and guns were antiquated.

McDougall bought new equipment. He hired more deputies. The department received national accreditation for the first time. He created a special team of cops to target at-risk kids. He called for citizen volunteers to help with routine police tasks.

McDougall, who makes $105,083, has no apologies for his department budget _ or his battles with the County Commission.

"I've had to fight for those things that were necessary," he said. "It's never been a personal issue. My oath of office is to protect the lives and safety of the people."

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One minute, McDougall was telling the Today show host he was concerned that prisoners were being released early because of a court ruling that says the state cannot rescind early release time it already granted.

In the next breath, McDougall went a step _ one giant step _ further. Don't come here, he said. "I wouldn't tell anyone in my family to come to Florida right now."

Here in Fort Myers, a tourism official nearly spilled her coffee. In Tallahassee, from the governor on down, the condemnations began.

McDougall says his words were not planned. He was simply calling it as he saw it. "I'm not going to tell people what they want to hear. I'm going to tell them what they need to hear."

One recent steamy night, dozens of cars lined up at a Lee County tollbooth. Winter residents and college students were waiting to pay the $3 toll to enter Captiva and Sanibel Islands, two of the ritziest beach spots in Lee County. More than a million people visit the islands each year.

Since McDougall's television appearance March 14, David Besse, executive director of the Sanibel-Captiva Chamber of Commerce, has received one phone call from a nervous tourist. An island hotel also reported one cancellation.

"We're not even feeling the slightest hiccup," Besse said. "We are confident that our visitors simply have not agreed with his conclusions."

They had a murder on these islands four or five years ago. It was the first one in a couple of decades, Besse said.

In all of Lee County, there have been high-profile crimes in recent years: the violent youth gang that called itself the Lords of Chaos and the slaying of a German tourist. But the countywide crime rate is lower than the state's rate. In 1995, 5,413 crimes were reported for every 100,000 people, according to sheriff's officials.

Among the nearly 400,000 year-round residents, 22 prisoners _ on early release _ have come here since November, said sheriff's spokesman Larry King. Of those, several were convicted of murder.

McDougall has no plans for extra monitoring of those people. "Unfortunately, we can't," he said. "That would be considered a violation of their rights. The courts do not afford us that alternative. We can't follow them or monitor them."

Nearly 500 calls poured into McDougall's office after his appearance on national TV. Media outlets wanted interviews. Dallas. Birmingham. Seattle. London.

There also were ordinary people. Those calls were running 4-to-1 in favor of what the sheriff had said, according to King. "He should run for president," one woman's message said.

"They're praying for me," McDougall said. "The people are so edified to hear somebody telling it like it is."

_ Information from the files of the Fort Myers News-Press and Times researchers John Martin and Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this report.