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Longtime Tampa police lawyer was a girl dad and reptile lover

Kirby Rainsberger worked with six police chiefs over 30 years
Kirby Rainsberger studied criminology at Florida State University and worked as a police officer in Florida and Colorado. He later went to law school. In 1991, he joined the Tampa Police Department as their legal advisor.
Kirby Rainsberger studied criminology at Florida State University and worked as a police officer in Florida and Colorado. He later went to law school. In 1991, he joined the Tampa Police Department as their legal advisor. [ Courtesy Kathy Hegenauer ]
Published Feb. 8

On the drive home from a date early in their relationship, Kirby Raisnberger pulled over.

Mr. Rainsberger, the city of Tampa’s assistant city attorney and the longtime legal advisor for the Tampa Police Department, had spotted a corn snake in the street.

He got out. Picked the snake up. Got back in the car. His date, and future wife, flattened herself against her car door.

“What are you doing?” Kathy Hegenauer asked.

“Is there a place that isn’t populated around here that I could let this snake go?” he said.

She suggested a nearby field. The corn snake soon slithered off to safety.

“He did things like that all the time,” Hegenauer said.

Through six police chiefs, over 30 years, Mr. Rainsberger didn’t talk a lot, didn’t share too much and didn’t shout at all. But his life in and out of his career was devoted to the same thing — helping others. That included police officers, family, and, yes, reptiles.

Mr. Rainsberger died Jan. 13 from brain cancer. He was 66.

Mr. Rainsberger grew up catching snakes in Paynes Prairie in Gainesville. Throughout his life, he cared for different reptiles, including skinks, iguanas and tortoises. He also loved cats.
Mr. Rainsberger grew up catching snakes in Paynes Prairie in Gainesville. Throughout his life, he cared for different reptiles, including skinks, iguanas and tortoises. He also loved cats. [ Courtesy Kathryn Earle ]

The best listener

Mr. Rainsberger took notes on legal pads. He made several trips a day to RaceTrac for a Pepsi with “the good ice.” And in rooms of type As, he’d wait patiently for heads to clear and reason to return.

“He didn’t tell you what he thought you wanted to hear,” said former Tampa Police Chief Bennie Holder, who worked with Mr. Rainsberger from 1993 to 2003. “He told you the truth.”

“It really didn’t matter who you were in the police department, you could have been a patrolman that started two weeks ago or you could have been the police chief, and you got the same reception,” said former Tampa Police Chief Steve Hogue, who worked with Mr. Rainsberger from 2003 to 2009.

Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan used to joke that Mr. Rainsberger was his therapist.

“Being Chief is a lonely job,” he said. “You have to be careful you don’t surround yourself with yes men.”

“He was very stoic, very measured, but when he spoke, people paid attention,” said Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who served as chief of police from 2009 to 2015. “There are so many police officers that, through the duration of Kirby’s career, he helped keep safe. And they never knew who he was.”

Mr. Rainsberger, pictured top left with daughter Kathryn Earle and grandkids Menolly and Domick. Bottom left, with Earle and step-daughter Shelby Hegenauer, who became a Tampa police officer. Right, with wife Kathy Hegenauer. The two were together for 23 years. "I always knew that man loved me," she said. "I could see it in his eyes."
Mr. Rainsberger, pictured top left with daughter Kathryn Earle and grandkids Menolly and Domick. Bottom left, with Earle and step-daughter Shelby Hegenauer, who became a Tampa police officer. Right, with wife Kathy Hegenauer. The two were together for 23 years. "I always knew that man loved me," she said. "I could see it in his eyes." [ Courtesy Kathryn Earle and Kathy Hegenauer ]

A girl dad

When Mr. Rainsberger’s daughter was 12, he helped her get certified as a scuba diver. Each year after that, they took a scuba trip together. He drove her to softball games and coached her team. And when he became a grandpa, Kathryn Earle said, he made regular trips to Virginia to see his grandkids and called them each week for a video chat.

“He was probably one of the most reliable people I could ask for,” said stepdaughter Brittny Hegenauer.

He coached her softball teams, too, and drove to far-off games. At those games, he and Shelby Hegenauer would often head out into nearby fields in search of snakes. He taught all three girls not to be afraid of nature, Shelby said. Mr. Rainsberger was also one of the reasons she became a police officer for the city of Tampa.

Mr. Rainsberger and his wife were together for 23 years, though they didn’t get engaged until 2019. Then came his brain cancer diagnosis, then surgery and treatment, then the pandemic.

Every year for his birthday, Mr. Rainsberger would bicycle as many miles as his age.

In March, three months after surgery, he rode more than 66 miles. Hegenauer isn’t sure if he stopped to rescue any snakes or turtles on the way, but if he saw them, she knows he did.

Every year, Mr. Rainsberger took his daughter, Kathryn Earle, on a scuba diving trip. They always found a way to leave their mark.
Every year, Mr. Rainsberger took his daughter, Kathryn Earle, on a scuba diving trip. They always found a way to leave their mark. [ Courtesy Kathryn Earle ]

Poynter Institute researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

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