TAMPA — Sheriff David Gee said Friday he plans to retire on Sept. 30 after nearly four decades in law enforcement and 13 years as the low-key but well-regarded leader of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
"This decision has not been made lightly and was one of the most difficult decisions that I have made in my career," Gee said in an e-mail to his staff. He said he wants to devote "full attention and support" to family.
Under Florida law, Gov. Rick Scott will appoint an interim sheriff who will serve until a new sheriff is elected at the next general election in November 2018. The Sheriff's Office has a tradition of grooming sheriffs from within, and potential successors include agency veterans Chad Chronister and Donna Lusczynski.
Former sheriff's Col. Jim Previtera said Gee professionalized the Sheriff's Office and made sure the agency evolved as Hillsborough County's population mushroomed.
"He told me he wanted training to be a large part of his legacy," Previtera said. "He has endured every imaginable crisis that a law enforcement executive can face. He led the Sheriff's Office through the loss of (Sgt.) Ron Harrison, who he was close friends with. He led the Sheriff's Office through budget crises and through a period of great growth.''
Gee, 58, has spent his life in Hillsborough County. Born in Plant City, he grew up in Lithia and never has lived more than a few miles from his childhood home. As a teenager, he spent Saturdays picking oranges in south county citrus groves for $50 a day.
"He has been down at the Sheriff's Office as police explorer since he was 14," said Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough prosecutor.
After graduating from Brandon High School, Gee joined the Sheriff's Office in 1978 at age 18 as a community service officer. He enrolled in a law enforcement academy at 20. He wasn't even 21 when he graduated, which meant he couldn't buy a gun, so his academy class bought him his first service weapon.
Gee's first assignment put him on patrol in the same rural southeastern areas where he grew up. He became a detective at 22, investigating robberies and burglaries and, finally, homicides. One of his first big cases was Bobby Joe Long, a serial killer who murdered nine women and is now on death row.
Gee worked homicides at night while attending college classes and raising a family in the day. He earned a degree in mathematics from the University of Tampa in 1990.
As a detective, Gee displayed the same kind of intuition that hockey great Wayne Gretzky used to skate to where the puck was going to be, not where it was, said retired sheriff's Maj. Paul Davis.
"Instead of going to the store that some guy just robbed, he would go to where the crook was going to be, like the closest crack hole," Davis said.
Over the course of his career, Gee also worked as the Sheriff's Office spokesman, as chief financial officer and, starting in 2002, as chief deputy for then-Sheriff Cal Henderson. When Henderson retired in 2004, Gee followed in a long line of Hillsborough sheriffs who were hand-picked by their predecessors.
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"My god, Gee has worked in every nook and corner of the sheriff's operations," retired sheriff's spokesman Jack Espinosa said. "He's like Sara Lee: everybody likes him. He's proficient, he's quiet, he's polite, he's intelligent. He's just a real likeable individual."
Gee, whose salary is $170,198, handily won election as sheriff in 2004, campaigning on a platform of raising standards for deputies, pledging to enact training for natural disasters and dealing with the mentally ill. He has since won re-election three times with little opposition.
As sheriff, Gee commands an agency with more than 4,000 deputies, detention personnel and civilians and an annual budget of $405 million.
"His knowledge of the county served him well," Previtera said. "He could meet with downtown executives one afternoon and then go talk to farmers and ranchers on the east side of the county the next day, and he would leave them all feeling satisfied that he understood their concerns.''
Gee was not flashy, but local officials said he brought consistency and a steady hand to the job.
"David's retiring is a tremendous loss for the community, not just for law enforcement," said former U.S. Attorney Bobby O'Neill. "David is a real honest-to-goodness good guy. He's a voice of reason behind the scenes. ... You just knew you had a stable influence. There weren't rash judgments and there wasn't a need for self-aggrandizement."
In recent years, Gee has let top commanders do most of the talking in front of TV cameras. While that contrasted with the style of some sheriffs, it could become a source of criticism when Gee was not out in front in the face of controversy.
Most notably, last year, Gee was out of sight after one of his deputies shot Levonia Riggins, an unarmed black man who was the target of a drug-related search warrant. In the ensuing protests, some demonstrators held signs demanding, "Where is David Gee?"
For the most part, however, Gee's tenure was free of controversy and he enjoyed widespread popularity.
"He always looked to the future of law enforcement to make sure that his deputies were on the leading edge of technology and safety," former Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor said. "And also he fully understood that the citizens had to be a part of law enforcement in order for his organization to be successful. He did that very well."
Two neighboring sheriffs praised Gee for fostering cooperation across county lines.
"Whenever there was a major incident, he'd call me or I'd call him and we'd say, 'Do you need anything?' " Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said.
In 2009, when Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri had to cut his budget by tens of millions of dollars and lay off dozens of deputies, Gee agreed to hire whoever wanted a job — at least 50 did — and streamlined the hiring processes to bring them on board.
"That's something you don't forget about someone's character and loyalty," Gualtieri said.
Paul Davis also was struck by Gee's core decency.
"In a parade one time, he stopped to shake hands with all these guys who came back from the Gulf War," he said. "Some had half of their bodies left. He hugged them and spoke to them, and as we were walking away, he started sobbing."
For Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, two things from Gee's tenure stand out: The Sheriff's Office's support during the manhunt for Dontae Morris, who murdered two Tampa police officers, and the seamless cooperation that allowed the city to host a trouble-free 2012 Republican National Convention.
"He'll be hard to replace," Buckhorn said.
Buckhorn and others said they expected sheriff's Col. Chad Chronister to be appointed as the interim successor to Gee.
Longtime Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden said it has been rumored for years that Chronister is Gee's likely successor. Belden, a local Republican Party icon and prolific fundraiser, said that he will immediately start "calling a lot of people on behalf" of Chronister.
"If David Gee recommends Col. Chronister, I will do anything I can to support that," Belden said. "Chad has worked his way up. I've known him for 20 years. He's self-made, came through the ranks, very involved with the fundraising events the sheriff sponsors, very effective. He's learned all of the aspects of the department."
Chronister, 49, has served often as the face of the agency in press conferences, public events, and on TV. He is married to Nicole DeBartolo, of the politically connected and influential DeBartolo family. They have given generously to local political campaigns, including Gee's.
Another potential successor is Donna Lusczynski, the colonel in charge of the Department of Investigative Services. A 26-year agency veteran, Lusczynski, 48, often speaks for the agency after homicides and other major crimes.
In an interview last year, Gee did not name a preferred successor, but said Chronister and Lusczynski would both be good choices. It's also possible that Gee's chief deputy, Jose Docobo, could be a replacement, though it is unclear if Docobo is interested.
News of Gee's retirement was first released Friday by the office of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi when the agency sent out a statement congratulating the sheriff on his plans.
The statement was released minutes after Gee held a news conference announcing the results of two major drug busts in the county. No mention was made of the sheriff's retirement during that news conference.
In an email sent to the media at 1:29 p.m., Bondi said Gee fulfilled his duties with "humility, integrity and selflessness."
"To this day, Sheriff Gee will still stop to assist a stranded motorist, or go out of his way help anyone in need," Bondi said in the news release. "He is known for his soft-spoken, strong leadership and genuine compassion for the people he has sworn to protect. His career exemplifies what it means to be a servant leader."
Once the Attorney General's Office released the news, the Sheriff's Office confirmed it.
In an interview, Bondi said Gee "wants to devote more time to family. I have been speaking to him about his decision for some time — weeks. It was not made lightly. He is devoted to the citizens of Hillsborough County, but he is also devoted to his wife Rhonda and his children."
Asked whether Gee's health or the health of a relative could have played a role in his timing, Bondi said, "There are no health issues. Zero."
Sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon said Gee looks forward to spending more time with his family and his three granddaughters.
About two months ago, Gee and Nocco were talking about legislative issues when Gee put those concerns in perspective and mentioned a partnership he was forming with the Boys & Girls Club.
"Tallahassee will take care of itself," Nocco said Gee told him. "But what it really comes down to is how things are going in your community and how you're making a difference."
Times columnist John Romano, senior news researcher John Martin and staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.