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Ex-Secret Service agent accepts a major undertaking with sheriff

The newest major at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office is a St. Petersburg native and former Secret Service agent who worked the security detail for Vice President Dick Cheney.

James D. Previtera, 39, has accompanied Cheney on bird-hunting expeditions at the Anderson Ranch, where Cheney this month accidentally shot a 78-year-old fellow hunter while hunting for quail.

So go ahead, make a joke about bird hunting and birdshot wounds. Previtera has heard them all. But he insists, with a chuckle: "No, I've never been hit with birdshot."

Sheriff David Gee recently appointed Previtera to be major and commander of the training division, a promotion that takes effect next month. Last year, after a nationwide search, Gee selected Previtera to be civilian director of the training division.

Previtera left the Secret Service after eight years to take the job, which brings him back to the area where he grew up and worked as a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy.

Previtera, married with four children, earned a bachelor's degree in criminology from Saint Leo College. He is now one of 12 sheriff's majors in the office.

Gee has emphasized the need for the best training possible for aspiring and longtime deputies, and Previtera is working to improve the programs in place.

He's also adding water safety training for deputies, who might be called to investigate a submerged car or drowning, and a Spanish language program to help them better communicate with the county's large Hispanic population.

"We've got a lot going on right now," Previtera said. "There's a lot of 14-hour days."

Previtera didn't always want a career in law enforcement. An aspiring journalist in high school, he freelanced for the Times' sports section during college. After college, he worked at the Evening Independent, a St. Petersburg afternoon daily that merged with the Times in the late '80s.

Then one day Previtera spent some time riding with a cop, on the advice of an editor. Not long after that, he went to work for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office.

PRESIDENT VISITS ILL TAMPA COP: Speaking of presidents, an ailing Tampa police officer got a visit from President Bush last week.

The commander in chief, in town for a visit to MacDill Air Force Base and the Port of Tampa, made time to meet Toby O'Brien, who is dying of Lou Gehrig's disease.

Hillsborough-based Secret Service agent Greg Laughlin, who befriended O'Brien during their days at the Plant City Police Department, helped arrange a 15-minute meeting between O'Brien and the president near the base, said David C. Williams, who organized a fundraiser Friday in O'Brien's honor.

O'Brien left the event at Ker's Wing House in Tampa to meet the president and his entourage. They took pictures and chatted, all under tightly guarded security.

"It was Toby's 15 minutes of fame," said Williams, a Pinellas County auditor who raises money for sick law enforcement officers in Tampa Bay.

O'Brien, 39, was diagnosed last year with Lou Gehrig's disease. It started as a sore thumb and has progressed into paralysis of his legs and right side.

The disease eventually leaves sufferers completely paralyzed, suffocating them.

O'Brien and his wife of less than a year lost their Valrico home because of medical expenses not covered by insurance.

More than 750 people gathered at Ker's Wing House to raise more than $23,000 for the O'Briens, who are living in a cousin's South Tampa home.

The best news, Williams said, is that checks are still coming in.

Contact Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler at (813) 226-3373 or