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Auto shop students discover guns in cars

When auto shop students at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute start working on someone's car, there's no telling what they'll find.

Bad brakes. Oil leaks. Transmission trouble.

Guns.

Last year, vehicles left at the shop by Citrus Sheriff's Deputy Don King and by WTI director Steve Kinard held the vehicle-owners' weapons, according to an adult student and a graduate of the program.

Graduate Rob Young said that on more than one occasion, students found a weapon in King's black Fiero.

"He had one (gun) with hollow-point bullets, sitting right there with two extra clips, right on the seat," said Young, who completed the mechanics program last summer.

"I took them out of the car once and put it in the teacher's desk. I said, "We have a couple of loonies around here. Put this away.'

"

Student Mykal Davis, 19, also remembers students finding the deputy's gun. "He used to bring his car in all the time," Davis said. "His engine is in the rear. You'd open the trunk and the gun was sitting right there. It had hollow-point bullets."

According to the Citrus Sheriff's Office, that's not only against department policy, it's against the law.

"Deputies will be responsible for securing firearms in a safe place and taking reasonable precautions against theft or availability to unauthorized persons," the sheriff's firearm policy says.

"It is unlawful for any adult to store or leave a firearm in the reach or easy access of a minor."

Gail Tierney, the sheriff's spokeswoman, said she knew King "left his weapon in his vehicle when he left it to be serviced" at the technical school's auto shop.

She said King told the agency that the weapon had been found by an adult instructor, who notified King about the find. "I didn't know there were minors there," she said.

Most of the students attending WTI's auto shop classes are teenagers. Some are troubled kids, in danger of dropping out of school or struggling with various disabilities.

School records don't show that King brought his car to WTI for service. But plenty of work was performed by the auto shop without the required documentation.

After the Times began to investigate undocumented work at the school and came across the work done on King's vehicle, the deputy went to his supervisor and acknowledged leaving his gun in the car, Tierney said.

"Deputy King told Capt. Wayne Burns that he had left his department-issue service weapon (a Smith and Wesson 40-caliber automatic) wedged between the front seat and the car's console," Tierney said.

She said King told the agency that he had locked the car and given the keys to an adult whom he assumed was the instructor. That person removed and secured the weapon then called King to retrieve it, Tierney said.

The school did not notify the sheriff's office about the incident, she said. As for the students' comments that King left a weapon in his vehicle more than once, Tierney said King only told them of the one occasion.

"He was verbally counseled by Capt. Burns," Tierney said. "He turned his weapon in to this agency."

Tierney said Sheriff Jeff Dawsy is aware of the incident but he has not indicated whether he plans any additional discipline for King.

Young and Davis said students also found a weapon in the Ford Explorer brought to the shop by Kinard, WTI's director.

"That had a loaded gun in it, too," said Young.

Kinard has refused to meet with Times reporters or answer any of their questions.

Former auto shop teacher Keith Estep declined to comment on the students' recollections.

School Superintendent Pete Kelly said he was unaware of the incidents.

When questioned by the Times, King at first defended his actions.

"Obviously, you know I'm a sworn officer. Obviously, you know I have a right to have a weapon in my car," he said. "So, what's the point?"

Asked whether he was supposed to leave his weapon unsecured in a car being serviced by students, King declined to respond.

"I think I'm going to reserve any more comment until I read the article," he said.

King is a teacher at WTI as well as a part-time sheriff's deputy.

Tierney, the sheriff's spokeswoman, said King didn't need a weapon to perform his current duties, which are administrative. He has notified the department that he will resign in June, Tierney said.

In his 25-year career at the sheriff's office, King has received numerous commendations. However, he also was demoted from sergeant to road deputy in 1986 after he left his patrol area without permission, leaving only three men to patrol the county.

He worked his way up to the rank of lieutenant after that, but in 1995 he again was demoted to deputy for committing three infractions in a two-week period: napping on duty, taking an hour to get to a homicide scene and engaging in a two-hour, sometimes sexually suggestive telephone conversation while serving as watch commander.

King retired from the force in August 1996. He was hired as a part-time deputy the following March to work with the department's community-oriented policing initiative.

_ Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.

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