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A fallen officer's son decided to join the force. His mother prepared a special gift.

At police academy graduation, family and friends celebrate Charles Kondek's legacy
Andrew Kondek hugs his mother, Teresa Kondek, after graduating from the police academy.
Andrew Kondek hugs his mother, Teresa Kondek, after graduating from the police academy.
Published Feb. 18, 2019

Two days before her son's graduation, Teresa Kondek got a call from the jeweler. The engraving was ready.

She had waited so long to get the gift. Then, when she finally had it in her hands, she couldn't look at it. She closed it into the glove box of her car and only took it out when she got to the store.

Even there, she didn't take off the brown-paper wrapping. She just handed over the package, along with a note spelling out what she wanted etched in the metal.

She had struggled so hard for the right words.

She kept trying to channel her husband. He always knew what to say.

"He would have been so proud," she told the jeweler. "I just wanted him, somehow, to be able to be there."

Teresa didn't want to go to the graduation. She wanted to celebrate her son, of course, but she is terrified of what comes next.

Andrew had just finished training at the Law Enforcement Academy at Pasco-Hernando State College.

He is about to become a police officer.

Just like his dad.

***

Charlie Kondek loved history and fireworks and waking his six kids in the dark on Christmas morning. He served six years on the streets of New York City, another 17 in Tarpon Springs. He worked mostly midnight shifts so he could be with his children after school.

Every evening, before he left, he kissed Teresa on the forehead and called to the kids, "Love you guys!"

Every morning, before daybreak, Teresa listened for the snap of his gunbelt and clank of handcuffs on the kitchen counter.

Four years ago, she woke to a different sound. Officers were knocking on her front door. Frightened, she called Charlie. He didn't pick up. So she called his supervisor. What was going on? Answer the door, he said.

That's when she knew.

Her husband had responded to a call about a car blaring its stereo outside an apartment. When he approached the Hyundai, the driver pulled out a handgun and fired seven shots. One hit Charlie in his chest, above the bulletproof vest. He fell to the ground. The shooter ran over him, then sped away.

Later that night, officers caught the man, a 23-year-old felon on parole.

Charlie died at the hospital.

Andrew was 23 then and had a job replacing windows at an auto glass shop. His father's funeral, he said, inspired him to follow in his footsteps. "Seeing everyone come together, the whole law enforcement community mourning him, holding up my family, I just saw how close everyone was and decided I wanted to be part of that."

When he told his mom, she wept. Every time he brought it up, she refused to talk about it. How could he even think about that, after what had happened?

She couldn't lose him, too.

***

More than a dozen family members came to Andrew's graduation Wednesday at the college: grandparents, aunts, uncles, his two brothers and three sisters.

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Teresa sat in the center of the auditorium, five rows up, clutching a blue velvet box.

She had wanted to give Andrew his gift earlier but didn't want to make him cry before the ceremony.

During the hourlong event, the provost lauded the cadets' courage, honor and willingness to "face the negative side of the human spirit." The sheriff thanked the families for sharing such brave young officers. The class president congratulated her 21 teammates for making it through months of grueling training, learning to shoot moving targets and surviving dry heaves after being pepper sprayed.

"Never lose sight of who you are," she said. "You are now guardians of the public's safety."

Andrew sat on the left side of the stage, staring straight ahead. He didn't look out at the audience, even when he walked across to get his diploma. He shook a long line of officers' hands but never turned to find his mom.

Afterward, officers who had served with Charlie surrounded the family. "Here he is! Here comes Andrew!" someone called. A photographer posed everyone for a group picture.

"This is for you," Teresa said softly, handing Andrew the box. He looked at her, then at it. "Go ahead," she said. "Open it."

When he did, his father's handcuffs gleamed in the stage lights.

Andrew cleared his throat. "I'm not going to cry," he said.

Teresa had waited four years for those handcuffs. After the trial, after the man who murdered her husband was sent to prison for life, she had begged the court to let her get them out of the evidence locker.

Charlie had gotten those handcuffs in New York, brought them with him to Florida. They always dangled off the back of his gun belt. They had shackled thieves, abusive parents, drug dealers and men who had taken lives.

They were the only thing Charlie had on him the night he was killed that hadn't been crushed.

Teresa wanted her son to carry them into his new profession, so that maybe, somehow, his dad could help protect him.

She'd written a note in the box: "It breaks my heart that your father isn't here to share this day with you … Always stand tall and stay humble. I'm so proud of you."

Andrew hugged her and smiled. Then he looked again at the handcuffs. That's when he saw the engraving.

On one circle, his father's name, the cities he had served and the date of his death.

The other said, "Andy, Pray and be safe, Love you. -- Dad."

Andrew's shoulders started to shake. His mom wrapped her arms around him and held tight.

When they finally pulled apart, she reached up and wiped his wet cheeks.

Contact Lane DeGregory at ldegregory@tampabay.com. Follow @LaneDeGregory.