PLANT CITY Officers who rescued boaters in peril, broke up a violent gang of robbers, helped a dying man and killed a suspect who threatened a fellow lawman’s life were honored at an annual appreciation banquet.
The four officers were singled out Tuesday for heroism or just going far beyond the call of duty.
About 450 officers and guests were on hand for the 52nd annual East Hillsborough Law Enforcement Appreciation Dinner. The event was founded in the early 1960s to honor two deputies who were shot, one fatally, in the line of duty near Plant City.
“Thank you for the service you render to the community in East Hillsborough County,” said Bill McDaniel, chairman of the committee that stages the banquet and a retired Plant City police chief.
Each of the four law enforcement agencies that serve the Plant City area choose an officer of the year from their own ranks. The 2014 winners include Detective Robert McLellan, Plant City Police Department; Detective Manny Gonzalez, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office; Officer Craig Baker, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission; and Trooper Matthew Williams, Florida Highway Patrol.
They each received a plaque, $500 in cash and a $100 gift card.
Each winning officer’s supervisor outlined the reasons they were selected for the honor.
Here’s a short bio on each of the winners:
• McLellan, a Plant City native who served in the Navy for eight years, joined the police department in 2003. He was singled out for cracking many cases, most notably helping get confessions from two suspects who helped in a violent August 2013 takeover robbery at the Sweetbay Supermarket at 205 W. Alexander St. A number of heavily armed men stormed the grocery, tied up employees and made off with a large amount of cash, police Capt. Susan Pruet said.
McLellan developed information that helped build the case against several suspects, who pulled similar robberies in Orlando. They face federal charges.
Pruet said McLellan doesn’t shun small complaints, either, including solving a neighborhood feud. He convinced a local resident to quiet a barking dog that had interrupted a neighbor’s sleep for two years, she said.
“There is no case too insignificant or too small for Robert to handle,” Pruet said.
• Gonzalez, who moved to Plant City when he was 10, has had a distinguished career since he joined the sheriff’s office as a detention deputy in 1997, Sheriff David Gee said. He worked in a number of roles, including undercover, before he was promoted to detective.
He helped break up organized gangs that were stealing diesel fuel from farmers and others in East Hillsborough. A year ago, he put his life on the line to aid a fellow officer who was struggling with a wanted man whose rap sheet included a murder conviction, Gee said. The suspect disarmed the officer but Gonzalez rushed to his aid and fired a shot that mortally wounded the suspect, the sheriff said. Had it not been for Gonzalez’ bravery, the confrontation would have probably had a more tragic ending, Gee said.
• Baker has had a distinguished career since joining the wildlife commission in October 2008, commission Maj. Dennis Post said. He takes on tough assignments, but also is eager to serve on community outreach, such as visiting schools for career day events, Post said.
“He always volunteers for everything. He has a can-do attitude,” he said.
Among other actions, Baker braved cold, rough seas to rescue three servicemen whose canoe overturned on Tampa Bay, rescued someone who had jumped off Howard Frankland Bridge on a cold night and was clinging to a piling and solved several complex criminal cases, Post said.
He’s good working with the public, and once helped a man find a place to fish after the man sent an email to the wildlife commission asking for advice, he said.
• Williams has had a distinguished 10-year career as a trooper, patrol Maj. Michael Thomas said. Williams, who works with a K-9, Kahn, approaches every encounter with the public with an eye for anything that might be amiss, Thomas said.
For example, when he stops a car, he is alert for anything suspicious, he said. He’s also good in public outreach, trying to project a positive image for the agency.
“He’s the consummate hard worker,” Thomas said.
Thomas said he selected Williams in particular for trying to save the life of an elderly man in Riverview in February. Williams was working off-duty providing security for a townhome community when a resident rushed up to say his father-in-law had collapsed.
The trooper performed CPR on his own for at least 10 minutes, and then continued the efforts for another five minutes with the help of the victim’s daughter, until an ambulance arrived.
Williams later drove to the hospital to check on the man, who eventually died of cardiac arrest, Thomas said. While he wasn’t able to save the man, Williams showed compassion by visiting the hospital to check on his condition, Thomas said.