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Tampa mayor, police mourn bodyguard

So composed, so staid, Mayor Pam Iorio rarely lets emotion take over.

But she stood in front of a lectern at police headquarters Monday, and her lip quivered. She began to speak about Detective Juan A. Serrano, killed Saturday by a hit-and-run driver, and her voice broke into a sob.

"I'm sorry," she told the reporters gathered in front of her. She bowed her head. "I'm sorry."

Iorio had lost not just a bodyguard but a friend.

So the tears came, and she could not stop them.

"When I said goodbye to him that day, I didn't know it would be the last time I would see him," Iorio said, clutching a tissue. "He dropped me off. I went into the house, and Juan went to heaven."

Serrano, 49, was fatally injured when the driver of a Pontiac Grand Prix ran a red light on westbound Gibsonton Drive in southern Hillsborough, crashing into Serrano's city-issued Ford Taurus as Serrano left an exit ramp off Interstate 75.

He died at Tampa General Hospital.

The Pontiac driver, 35-year-old Jose Luis Espinosa, was found hiding near the crash scene.

Monday, Judge Walter Heinrich ordered him held without bail on charges of leaving the scene of a deadly crash and driving without a license.

Serrano, Iorio's bodyguard and driver for the past three years, spent Saturday morning with Iorio at the Bank of America Gasparilla Distance Classic. He left her house in South Tampa near lunchtime and was headed home when the crash occurred. As the mayor's bodyguard, Serrano had ultimate responsibility for her safety and transportation.

Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Serrano was a natural fit for the job, having guarded dignitaries in Puerto Rico, where he was a police officer before joining Tampa's force 17 years ago.

"He was like the Secret Service for the mayor," said criminal intelligence bureau Capt. Paul Driscoll, Serrano's supervisor.

If the mayor was scheduled to be somewhere, Serrano visited beforehand to get a sense of the layout, Driscoll said.

"He would do research, find out if there were any problem employees," Driscoll said. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes things that probably the mayor doesn't even realize we do."

Serrano would not take time off unless Iorio was out of town.

"He always wanted to be available for the mayor," said Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue.

From his first job evaluation to his most recent one, supervisors praised Serrano's commitment.

"I never heard him complain or say anything negative," said Maj. George McNamara. "If everyone was like him, we'd be a better agency."

Hogue said the department has concluded that Serrano's death came in the line of duty, an important designation that leaves his family eligible for certain benefits.

For example, the city will cover the costs of his funeral. Serrano's wife, Mylin, will get 50 percent of his pension and free medical benefits. George Steinbrenner's Gold Shield Foundation will pay tuition, room and board for his wife and three stepchildren to attend any college or technical school. The foundation also devotes money to funeral expenses.

All week, Tampa police officers will wear black bands over their badges. Flags throughout the city will fly at half-staff.

And Iorio will try to get used to life without her devoted bodyguard, while other officers fill in temporarily.

"Every week with Juan, we'd get in the car and I'd say, "Okay, what kind of adventures are we going to have today?' " Iorio said. "And that's what it always was: a great adventure."

Serrano's funeral will be Thursday at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 509 N Florida Ave. The time has not been set.

Sheriff's detectives are trying to find witnesses to the crash. They think a man driving a Ford Tempo with a door covered in primer saw and videotaped some of the crash scene. Also, a man in a yellow shirt who was parked near a detective's vehicle may have information that could help.

IF YOU CAN HELP

Anyone with information is asked to call sheriff's officials at (813) 247-0254.

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