One day last year, Chase Vaccaro was cruising along in his Chevy minivan, singing to his 5-year-old son, Anthony, when it hit him: Not only did he have a decent voice, he sounded a lot like Frank Sinatra.
"I feel like I'm possessed by him," said Vaccaro, relaxing recently at his home in Odessa in northwest Hillsborough County. "Or I'm part of some sitcom, a cop who starts singing like Sinatra."
Who would have thought Vaccaro, who pulls over speeders in Clearwater by day, could pull in admirers by night with a croon so similar to that of "old blue eyes" himself?
Certainly not Santo Bruno, who owns Bellisimo Ristorante in West Park Village, where Vaccaro serenades diners every Saturday night. West Park Village is in the heart of Westchase, a community north of Hillsborough Avenue a few miles east of Oldsmar.
"I didn't think anybody could sing that close to Frank Sinatra," Bruno said. "I saw this guy in a suit and black fedora and I didn't pay any attention. I just thought, another fly-by-night."
Before long, though, it was Fly Me To The Moon for Bruno.
"I had no idea how good he is," Bruno said. "He's pulling people in from everywhere, even from the restaurant across the street."
Becoming the heartthrob of Westchase didn't happen overnight. In the beginning, Vaccaro wouldn't even let his wife, Robin, a registered nurse, hear his newfound talent.
"I wouldn't come out of the john at first," recalled Vaccaro, who later recorded a CD just to prove to his cop buddies that, yes, he did indeed sound like Sinatra.
"He brought it in, I listened to it, and I said, "Wow,' " recalled Clearwater Officer Jim Ferro. "Once I told other people about it, they had the same jaw-drop kind of reaction."
With that needed boost in self-confidence, Vaccaro approached Bruno to line up a gig. He figured Bellisimo, located in West Park's neotraditional neighborhood, was a perfect fit.
"West Park Village is very nostalgic," Vaccaro said. Plus, "they have great food and I sing good."
A study in contrasts, Vaccaro is a cop with a soft side. He's the kind of guy who can mix brash confidence with self-effacing humility and not cause whiplash.
"People will stop and ask if I'm lip-synching," said Vaccaro as 5-year-old Anthony lolled on his lap. "I take that as a great compliment."
Weather permitting, Vaccaro sets up his sound system outside Bellisimo's and serenades passers-by from 6:30 until 9:30 every Saturday night. Many nights, though, he's inside the restaurant where his entertaining has a time or two moved diners to trip the light fantastic.
Growing up in Ohio, the thought of becoming an entertainer, if only part time, was not in Vaccaro's game plan. In fact, he was in line to take over a family-owned convenience store but opted instead for a career in criminal justice. He said his goal was to be a lawyer until one of his classmates, a police officer, asked if he wanted to go for a "ride-along."
"I got hooked," Vaccaro said. "The adrenaline of riding to a call grabs you, pulls you right in."
He gets the same kick onstage.
"It's a blast," Vaccaro said. "There's the adrenaline."
Vaccaro was a police officer in Ohio for four years before moving his family to Florida, where they had vacationed and chosen as their retirement destination. Then they decided, why wait?
Vaccaro said he and his wife chose to live in the Eagles subdivision in Odessa because it was a good place to raise their children, Josh, Brett, Nikki and Anthony. He worked as a fraud investigator before joining the Clearwater Police Department about three years ago.
"I never had this driving passion for anything but police work until now," said Vaccaro, who, despite his newfound pleasure, plans to hang onto his day job.
"Let's face it," he said. "I'm 42. I'm not going to end up on American Idol."
Were you a Sinatra fan growing up? No. I grew up with the Beatles. I'd only heard some of Sinatra's later stuff when his voice had gotten gravelly.
So what turned you on to Sinatra? I heard him sing Fly Me To the Moon on a commercial and then I came across some of his earlier recordings. He was phenomenal. It gave me a new appreciation of that time in music.
Ever picture yourself on the impersonation circuit? No. I don't want to do actual impersonation. But I'm as close as I can get to the man.
What do you like best about entertaining? Making people happy. I see some pretty unhappy people (as a cop).
How do you avoid some of the burnout that cops are famous for? I can get nasty when I have to, but I never bring the job home. It can eat you up. I leave work at work.
Hear Vaccaro sing
To hear Chase Vaccaro sing, go to www.sptimes.com, click on "North of Tampa" and look for this article.