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Bunny bust put county on map

The Pasco County crime story that created the biggest stir in 2004 came in one of the smallest cases: the arrest of a 9-year-old girl in the theft of a neighbor's bunny.

The Sheriff's Office faced an onslaught of international media attention just before Easter, when a deputy read Stephanie Jefferson her rights and put her in handcuffs.

The story was picked up by newspapers as far away as England and Australia. On CBS Evening News, Dan Rather commented that a lot of people were "hopping mad" about the arrest.

After the frenzy, sheriff's officials quietly gave deputies a new order: call a superior before arresting a child 12 or younger.

But three other developments in 2004 proved much more consequential to the business of fighting crime.

First, in February, sheriff's deputies decided they did not want to be represented in collective bargaining. Deputies voted no-union in a runoff only weeks after they had voted nearly 2 to 1 in favor of joining a union.

The union men blamed their defeat on what they said were Sheriff Bob White's unfair efforts against them. The sheriff's command staff credited the vote to the confidence deputies had in their leader.

In the second major development, two months later, the Sheriff's Office became one of the first large agencies in Florida to equip all of its deputies with Tasers. The stun guns shoot bullet-like darts as far as 21 feet and deliver 50,000 volts of electricity.

Critics say officers are apt to abuse the weapons by using them to force compliance in minor situations rather than using them as an alternative to lethal force.

But Pasco deputies have so far stayed out of trouble with their new gadgets. In September, Sgt. Mark McCallum confronted a robbery suspect who lowered his hand toward a gun in his waistband. It would turn out to be a pellet gun, but McCallum didn't know it.

McCallum had every reason to shoot real bullets, but he opted instead for his Taser. His decision probably saved the man's life.

The third development happened in November, when White won four more years as sheriff.

The election capped one of the least contentious sheriff's races in recent Pasco history. Voters came out about 2 to 1 in favor of White over his opponent, retired 31-year agency veteran Darlene Greene.

White says he plans to maintain good relations with the County Commission while seeking millions to expand the county's overflowing jail and put district sheriff's offices in Seven Springs, Wesley Chapel and Hudson.

The affable sheriff stayed clear of scandal and controversy for yet another year, but a few of his men didn't.

One deputy said he found glass in his McDonald's cheeseburger, only to admit later he planted the glass himself.

Another was arrested in the theft of $3.98 worth of ground pork from a Winn-Dixie.

A sergeant exchanged flirtatious car-to-car messages with a female subordinate, only to have the correspondence made public. Another sergeant, 12-year veteran Jeffrey Potts, resigned after the FBI accused him of sending messages online about seducing a young boy.

But most of county's deputies got through the year untarnished, and concentrated on combating Pasco's annual share of thieves, sex offenders, drunks and murderers.

There was plenty of crime to keep them busy, though little of it sensational.

Of particular note was the case of Estel "Zeke" Blevins, a felon with an intriguing history as a con man. He defrauded a west Pasco civic association of its clubhouse, sheriff's officials say, and was nabbed just this side of the Canadian border. In 2005, we will watch prosecutors make their case.

Steve Thompson covers crime in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is sthompsonsptimes.com.

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