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Epilogue: Sid Klein, Clearwater’s innovative police chief, dies at 78

In three decades on the job, Klein built a modern police department, tackled race relations and dealt with a newcomer to town called the Church of Scientology.
Former Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein died Wednesday of cancer. Klein spent his retirement in Port St. Joe, right, where he enjoyed hanging out on the water. [Times staff | Courtesy of Kelly Klein]
Former Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein died Wednesday of cancer. Klein spent his retirement in Port St. Joe, right, where he enjoyed hanging out on the water. [Times staff | Courtesy of Kelly Klein]

If Sid Klein, the police chief once known as the “Iceman” for his all-business approach, thawed over his three-decade tenure at the Clearwater Police Department, he fully melted in retirement.

Klein built his dream home on a lot he’d owned and camped on for years in Port St. Joe. He was so excited about the future that he’d bring the architectural plans into the police department to show his command staff. After he retired in 2010, he and his wife, Kelly, moved to the sleepy Panhandle fishing town, where Klein lived in shorts and Columbia sport shirts and grew out his facial hair in a way reminiscent of his time as an undercover narcotics officer.

That was Klein’s home base for the last decade of his life, in between vacations to the Galápagos Islands and Iguazú Falls, then later, when he wasn’t making the 700-mile round trips to Moffitt Cancer Center for rounds and rounds of treatment.

Klein died Wednesday after an 18-month battle with melanoma, a deadly skin cancer that, by the time doctors found it, had metastasized to his lungs, brain and bones. He was 78.

“It was time to stop the fight,” said his widow, Kelly Klein, 59. The family moved him to hospice care at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Panama City after doctors found a mass in his abdomen last weekend.

An undated photo of former Clearwater police chief Sid Klein after he retired in 2010. Here he is seen with his Airstream RV in Wyoming. Klein, 78, died Wednesday of cancer. [Courtesy of Kelly Klein]

Family members and former colleagues remembered Klein as a chief who yanked the Clearwater Police Department into the 21st century and was politically savvy enough to carry out his vision for the agency. He was an early leader in community policing and a helper of the city’s vulnerable populations. Behind the scenes, he was known for his resiliency after losing his first two wives to breast cancer.

“Sid Klein was a visionary," said former police lieutenant Steven Burch, who worked under Klein. “He took that little police department … into a modern, internationally recognized police force.”

Klein was born in New York City. As a kid, he moved to Miami with his family, then joined the Navy at 17. Following his service, he began his law enforcement career in Miami-Dade County. He later joined the police department in Lakewood, Colo., before coming to Clearwater.

Burch, 65, remembered just how small the department felt when he joined the force in 1980 as a patrol officer. There were no in-car radios, and the portables were spotty at best. “Clearwater” and “police” were hand-painted on the patrol cars using a stencil.

Klein faced more than just outdated technology when he started as chief in 1981. The city was grappling with racial unrest in the historically black North Greenwood neighborhood, where officers often clashed with residents. Downtown property owners had grown wary of a sizable homeless population. And a mysterious institution known as the Church of Scientology had quietly moved into the city just a few years before Klein took over the police department.

Klein tackled those issues one by one. He grew more empathetic of those different from him, former colleagues said, while developing a quick-thinking, innovative style of leadership.

“The man was always decisive, very confident in his decisions," said current Clearwater Police Chief Dan Slaughter, who joined the agency in 1992 and became chief in 2014. “He had this unique ability to see the big picture.”

This 2000 photos shows current Clearwater Police Chief Daniel Slaughter, left, shaking hands with his then-commander then, former Clearwater chief Sid Klein, right. Klein, 78, died Wednesday of cancer. [Courtesy of Clearwater Police Department]

Klein opened police substations in North Greenwood and Condon Gardens, a massive public housing complex, to improve community relations. He started the Clearwater Homeless Intervention Project shelter program.

He launched an investigation into the Church that would last for 13 years and produce a 10-volume report equating Scientology to a criminal money-making scheme. The investigation didn’t result in charges — the lead lieutenant couldn’t get state or federal investigators to look into it further — and the Church’s imposing presence has only grown larger since.

Klein kept his force nimble to tackle new challenges, too. As a group of Hispanic immigrant families trickled into the city, Burch recalled that Klein sent a delegation to the region in Mexico they were from, then helped start the Hispanic Outreach Center, which still exists today.

When police response to 1985′s Hurricane Elena was scattered and disorganized, Klein formed a contingent of officers to study hurricane response at other departments and create a plan that later won a national award.

“Everything he did was always in the best interest of the city, was always in the best interest of the police, was always in the best interest of the police officers on the front line," said Dewey Williams, who served for years as Klein’s second in command.

Klein’s tenure had some tense moments, particularly in the first decade. He held his officers to a high standard and was at times "stand-offish,” Burch said. Union members gave him a vote of “no confidence” in 1988. But the longer he stayed, the more trust he earned trust from his officers and the community. Many officers on his command staff — including Burch, Slaughter and Tony Holloway — went on to become chiefs of other departments.

Klein was married three times, first to Barbara, who he met at a disco near Miami. After a battle with breast cancer, she died in 1996 at age 48. They were married for 28 years. Their daughter, Jennifer Bruty, introduced him to his second wife, Lois, who was Barbara’s supervisor at the Clearwater Library Countryside branch.

In 1999, Klein proposed to Lois on public television, on a show he hosted about the police department called “BlueLine CPD.” Lois also died of breast cancer in 2005.

Just six weeks later, Kelly Klein’s first husband died of lymphoma. She had known both of Sid Klein’s wives, Barbara because they were neighbors and Lois because she was a patient at the OB-GYN practice where Kelly worked. Sid and Kelly were never that close, until she brought him a quiche after their spouses had died — the same dish she had brought over years earlier when Barbara discovered a lump on her breast.

From there, Sid Klein told the then St. Petersburg Times in 2010, “It just clicked.”

In this 2007 Tampa Bay Times photo, former Clearwater police chief Sid Klein dances with then-girlfriend, now-wife Kelly Delesec at the Palms in Palm Harbor where he liked to unwind by singing karaoke. The former chief went by the stage name "Sid Vicious." [JULIA KUMARI DRAPKIN | Times file]
Related: Fate offers new start for Clearwater police Chief Sid Klein

The couple lived out his last years at the house in Port St. Joe, fishing in a boat named “Lady Lo” after his second wife, and entertaining visits from his daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. He took up guitar, making up fun songs such as “Deep-Fried Flashlight,” named after a night when he dropped a flashlight into a pot of hot oil.

He especially loved a glass of Wild Turkey or Maker’s Mark bourbon at sunset.

To honor Klein, his wife and daughter are asking folks to raise a glass of whatever they’re drinking and post it on Facebook. They’re foregoing a celebration of life because of public health warnings against large crowds due to the coronavirus pandemic.

They figure that’s what Klein, a man who spent his life dedicated to public safety, would have wanted.

Times staff writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report, which uses information from Times archives.

Sid Klein

Born: Sept. 7, 1941

Died: March 18, 2020

Survivors: wife Kelly Klein; daughter Jennifer Bruty; son-in-law Jeff Bruty; grandchildren Hannah Bruty and Hayden Bruty; sister Stephanie Rinaldi; nieces and nephews

No public services due to the coronavirus. The family asks that in lieu of flowers, support local first responders.

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