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Cop, mayor remained a matched set until the end

In the beginning, the new mayor didn't see why she needed a police officer assigned to keep her safe. She figured she'd be fine on her own.

But Tampa is a big town, with all sorts of people. And the police chief insisted.

So when Pam Iorio would walk out of City Hall, headed to a meeting just down the street, Detective Juan Serrano was beside her in his neat dark suit. Always, he was beside her.

"In the beginning, I would say, "Juan, I'm fine. You don't have to meet me,' " the mayor told me this week. "He would just smile. And he would follow me."

"It's okay, mayor," he would say. He was steady, agreeable and not leaving.

"Finally I realized I wasn't going to win," she said. "He wasn't going to argue. He was just going to always show up."

For three years, he was there six days a week. The mayor took Sundays off; so he did. He was with her for meetings contentious and dull, neighborhood gatherings and Gasparilla parades, long drives to faraway New Tampa.

Once, they walked into a funeral together. Everyone there was so pleased to see the mayor had come. Then it dawned on both of them.

Wrong day.

Wrong funeral.

But they had to stay, had to offer condolences. Finally, they got back to the car. "We just looked at each other, and - " the mayor laughed a little, remembering.

It was like that with them. She usually rode up front with him in the city-issued car, and they talked. They talked about whatever event they had just attended, about the war in Iraq, about who might run for president, about his job as a detective, about their families.

She would ask what he thought about some issue or other. "Mayor, it's like this," he'd begin, and then he'd tell her.

As far as bodyguard duties went, things never got out of hand. She thinks Serrano, who guarded dignitaries back in his native Puerto Rico, had a knack for stopping things before they got started.

They turned out to be a matched set in some ways. They both had reputations for being professional, perfectionist, a little reserved. She came to trust him. She knew what was said in that car would not be repeated.

And sometimes they didn't talk at all, in the way of friends who don't need to fill every silence.

He rigged a rubber contraption in the car to hold her collection of cell phones and police scanners. He kept her in protein bars. If she wasn't ready when he got to her house to pick her up, her husband made him an espresso.

On Christmas, or maybe it was his birthday, she gave him a silver key chain engraved with the words "Top Cop." She won't say what gift he gave her. He was a private man, and might not like the whole world knowing.

On Saturday, their last ride together, he was with her at the Gasparilla 5K run. In past races, she had walked across the finish line, but this year, she was determined to run the whole thing. And when she did, there he was, giving her a thumbs up and a way-to-go-mayor.

On the way back, they kidded another city employee with them who seemed a little grumpy without her coffee. Then he dropped the mayor off at her house. They said goodbye, and he was gone.

Serrano, 49, was headed home when another driver ran a red light and smashed into his car. He died at Tampa General Hospital.

The other driver, Jose Luis Espinosa, was charged Tuesday with DUI-manslaughter and vehicular homicide.

At a press conference this week, the steady, no-nonsense mayor cried right there in front of everyone. "This is what gets me so much, is that a person who lived his life so right had something so wrong happen to him," she said later.

The mayor wants people to know that Tampa police Detective Juan Serrano was more than a driver and a bodyguard. He was a 17-year police officer who worked high-level cases, and someone she respected. He was her friend.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@sptimes.com.

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