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Thursday, Nov 27, 2014
Crime & Courts

170 years of history to fill Hillsborough sheriff’s office museum

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TAMPA — Not even Vicente Martinez Ybor was above the law.

The man for whom Ybor City is named, the father of the hand-rolled cigar industry that made Tampa famous in the early 1900s, has his name inked in a log book documenting criminal offenses during the spring of 1892. The book will be placed on display one day when the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office opens a museum in a 100-year-old Spanish-style house at Ninth Avenue and 19th Street near the sheriff’s Ybor City Annex.

Meanwhile, it joins piles of artifacts and papers that chronicle 170 years of Hillsborough sheriff’s history, all stored in hallways or locked away in a storage closet at the sheriff’s Falkenberg Road Training Center.

Much of the collection tells the tale of those who enforced the law.

But it also documents those who broke it.

There are moonshine jugs, striped prison jump suits, boxes of crime scene photos, folders and logbooks filled with scandalous and bloody reports about gangsters who terrorized the county and forgetful businessmen like Ybor.

His offense: “Engaging a business of cigars without a state license.”

The details remain a mystery, but the sheriff’s office today suspects Ybor forgot to mail in a license renewal.

“It offers a different perspective on him,” said sheriff’s Maj. Alan Hill.

Taken together, the collection offers a revealing look at a significant thread of Hillsborough’s past.

“People will enjoy learning the history of this county as seen by public safety,” said Hill, who along with Lt. James Bradford and Major Clyde Eisenberg has spent the past three years piecing together the history collection. “This museum will tell that story in a visual way.”

Meanwhile, it’s the collection of the three men who compiled it.

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Bradford admits that during breaks or after work, he can get lost inside the old case files from the first half of the 1900s.

“Reports were written like stories back then,” he said. “I sometimes feel like I’m reading a crime novel.”

Boxes of files line walls in the storage closest, each labelled with a specific crime such as gambling or bolita or with the name of notorious crooks such as Charlie Wall, considered the dean of Tampa’s underworld.

Then there are the arrest log books, dating back over a century.

Ybor’s name stands out in a scan of the pages. So do the names Martha Stillinger and Jefferson Turner, Bradford said, because of what their offense says about the time in which they lived.

“The inter-marriage of a white woman with a black man,” said Bradford, reading from the log book.

He wonders who they were, how they were punished and what became of them.

“Maybe somebody has a book somewhere with more info on them and they’ll give it to us,” he added. “You never know.”

The house that will be converted into the museum was relocated to its permanent site in May 2013. At the time, the Sheriff’s Office announced it would finish the museum by the end of 2014. That deadline will not be met.

The Sheriff’s Office must first raise $100,000 to $300,000 worth of in-kind and cash donations.

“We’ve had other projects to complete before we got to the museum,” Eisenberg said. “This is all part of a larger plan.”

First was the memorial at Fallen Heroes Remembrance Park, Eighth Avenue and 19th Street, honoring the 15 Hillsborough deputies killed in the line of duty. Dedicated on May 29, the memorial consists of a giant deputy’s badge made of mosaic tile as the floor, a statue of a sheriff’s honor guard, and a granite wall with glass panels bearing the name and photo of each fallen deputy.

Next will be the unveiling of the adjacent 9/11 Memorial — a statue honoring those who died in the terrorist attack and a metal beam from the fallen World Trade Center.

Afterward, the Sheriff’s Office will focus on raising money for the nearby museum.

❖“When everything is done, it is going to be a great complex honoring our past,” Eisenberg said.

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One challenge for those working on the displays will be how to treat one especially dark segment of the archives — lawmen who strayed from the path.

“Mostly the guys named in the Kefauver reports,” said Maj. Hill, referring to Sen. Estes Kefauver and his U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce.

The committee held hearings from 1950-1951 in 14 cities to expose organized crime.

When the commission met in Tampa, members of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office — including then-sheriff Hugh Culbreath — stood accused of helping the local mafia.

Bradford recalled one story in the vein from the sheriff’s archives — a moonshine report he read.

Law enforcement pursued a suspect down U.S. Highway 41 into the Apollo Beach area.

“A girl jumps out of her car and hides in a nearby bathroom, but a deputy on the scene refused to get involved,” Bradford said. “It turned out it was his car and he was part of the moonshine operation.”

The archives project started as a hobby for Sheriff David Gee.

A history buff and a 35-year-veteran of the sheriff’s office, Gee has been known to ask retiring deputies for keepsakes — patches, badges, ID cards.

As word spread of his hobby, deputies turned over memorabilia they had accumulated, some of it buried in a desk drawer or attic corner.

In 2011, Gee put out a request for members of his office to help energize the search with an eye toward opening a museum. Hill, Bradford and Eisenberg volunteered for the job.

“I provided the inspiration,” Gee said. “But they did all the heavy lifting. They have enough to do without taking on this project. They need to be commended.”

Hill, Bradford and Eisenberg are continually amazed by where material turns up.

A desk belonging to Sheriff James Martin from the late 1800s was in use in a junk yard owned by his great, great grandson.

A scrapbook kept by former Sheriff Malcolm Beard was found in the trash where an office was being cleaned.

“The Sheriff’s Office didn’t do a good job of protecting its history,” Gee said.

Even when the museum is open, he added, the collecting job will continue.

“The more people learn about this, the more will be given to us,” he said. “You never know what can turn up.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7606

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