HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office
Sheriffs of Pasco County
Some dates in this list may be approximate. Some early sheriffs apparently took office in the odd numbered year following the election. Grady, Gaines (in 1963), Phillips, and Nocco were appointed officials.
Some of the information used in this article and some of the photos above were taken from the former web site of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Department. This page was last revised on July 31, 2012.
James A. Grady was the first Pasco County sheriff, taking office when the county was created in 1887. He was not an elected official, as the original Pasco County officials were either appointed by the Governor or named by the county commissioners.
The first lynching is said to have occurred in Dade City on Dec. 20, 1887. Two black men, Dick Hines and Charley Metz, were reported to have confessed to having assaulted two women, but were quickly hanged by vigilantes.
The second sheriff, Simeon J. O’Dell, was the first elected sheriff in Pasco County.
Before the first jail was built, prisoners were housed in jails in nearby counties, usually at the jail in Bartow.
The first jail was built in 1892 or 1893. The building, which still exists at the intersection of 10th Street and Robinson Ave., consisted of two cells plus an isolation cell and an east wing used for the Sheriff’s living quarters. A later addition to the west end was the site of the county’s gallows. Two hangings occurred there.
In the primary election of April 28, 1900, H. C. Griffin defeated B. D. Sturkie, 461-402.
A second lynching occurred on Feb. 5, 1901, when a mob, said to have been 30 to 50 men, broke down the outer door of the Dade City jail. Sheriff Griffin refused to give up the keys, and the mob opened fire through the steel bars, shooting two prisoners to death. The prisoners, implicated in a killing, were named Will Wright and Sam Johnson (or Sam Williams).
In 1907 a sheriff’s deputy named Lee Ellis was shot to death at Ehren; the killing was not related to his law enforcement job.
On May 8, 1909, Shelton S. Nicks, who was identified in newspapers both as a Pasco and Hernando deputy, was shot to death at Fivay by a man he was trying to arrest. (See below.)
The first of two legal hangings ever to occur in Pasco County was performed by Sheriff Sturkie in 1913. Tom Bush was hanged for murdering his wife.
A third lynching occurred in 1915. Late on the night of Aug. 5, 1915, a vigilante mob attacked the jail in Dade City, and took with them a black inmate named Will Leach, who had been charged with attempted rape. Leach was subsequently hanged on an oak tree in Trilby.
In his first six months in office in 1917, Sheriff Hudson raided 164 moonshine stills, according to the recollection of one of his sons. Hudson had campaigned on a promise to put a halt to moonshining in the county.
On Dec. 28, 1917, the second and final legal hanging occurred in Pasco County. Sheriff Hudson sprang the trap door as Edgar London, a black man, was executed by hanging at the jail in Dade City for murdering his wife (see below).
In 1920, Sheriff Hudson sought re-election but was defeated in the primary election.
On Aug. 28, 1920, Sheriff Hudson arrested “Uncle” Andy Richardson on a charge of selling intoxicating liquor. He was brought from Lumberton to Dade City but was released without bond. Richardson was said to be 105 years old and a former slave belonging to Henry Hope before the Civil War.
Leland C. Poole recalled in an interview that in the early 1920’s he was the only law enforcement officer west of U. S. 41. He was both a deputy sheriff and a constable.
On Aug. 13, 1921, newspapers reported that Mayor George J. Frese of San Antonio was out on bond pending trial on the charge of violating the liquor law. He was arrested by Sheriff Sturkie, who claimed that Frese was operating a moonshine still on the second floor of his residence, on the most prominent corner in town.
On Jan. 1, 1926, deputy William O’Berry was shot and killed near Dade City by a man he was attempting to arrest. (See below.)
During the administration of Sheriff O. A. Allen (1936-40), a deputy was sent to a fingerprint school and the office began taking prints of each person arrested. He placed deputies on a salary, rather than paying them fees and commissions. Prisoners worked on roads and also were put to work cutting wood. About $700 worth of wood was given to the county during each year of his administration.
On April 12, 1940, the Dade City Banner reported:
Monday was moving day for the sixteen or more prisoners at the county jail when they were moved from the old jail to the new jail on the second floor of the new addition to the court house. Only the jail part of the addition is complete, this having been rushed to completion because the old jail has been condemned for some time by state officials. The new jail is modern in every way and besides space for as many as sixty prisoners if necessary has a room for the jailer, a kitchen and a laundry room. Side walls on the roof will provide a place for drying clothes without being in view of the street. The new addition to the court house will cost approximately $10,000 when completed and will have on the first floor, additional office space for present crowded offices. A basement for storage of records will be a nice feature of the new building. Offices for the County Agricultural agent are also being prepared in a well lighted part of the basement. Col. Arthur L. Auvil has ably served as chairman of the building project and rendered much valuable assistance. W. B. Madill has been in charge of construction. The work on the court house addition was stopped last week as WPA funds have been exhausted.
A later account reported that the jail in the court house featured 16 two-man cells, two female and two juvenile cells, and a large bull pen holding cell which could hold 20 inmates.
Through the 1940’s the Sheriff’s Office employed fewer than ten personnel, most of those being part-time deputies.
By the 1950’s population growth created the need for several permanent full-time deputies. Sheriff Leslie Bessenger employed Leland Thompson to patrol Dade City and the adjoining areas, Lance Edgeman was responsible for Zephyrhills, and Basil Gaines served the entire remainder of the county westward through Land O’ Lakes to the coastal areas of Hudson, New Port Richey and Holiday.
The sheriff’s web site noted that resident deputies, such as those living and working in the outlying areas as Land O’ Lakes, Hudson and New Port Richey, worked out of their homes. They were on call 24 hours a day, received $350 per week, and had to provide their own patrol vehicle. In fact, deputies were still required to provide a vehicle through the late 1960’s. Resident deputies were dispatched to calls for service from home by their wives, who received $100 per month for this service.
In 1956, for the first time, the Sheriff’s annual budget exceeded $100,000. Sheriff Leslie Bessenger was criticized for what some county leaders characterized as runaway spending in government.
A new court house annex was established in 1961 on Sunset Road in New Port Richey. This building contained cells for twenty inmates, sheriff’s administrative and operations offices, and a west-side communications dispatch center.
In March 1961, seven prisoners escaped from the jail in Dade City after spending three weeks cutting a hole in the steel ceiling.
On May 13, 1961, Sheriff Leslie Bessenger and a jailer, deputy Richard E. (Woody) Johnson, were shot in an attempted jail break in Dade City. Both men survived.
On Oct. 15, 1963, Sheriff Leslie Bessenger resigned to become head of the Citrus Protection Division of Florida Citrus Mutual. Gov. Farris Bryant appointed Basil H. Gaines to replace him. Bessenger was the first Pasco County sheriff to serve more than two terms. Gaines’s father had been a deputy in Pasco County.
In December 1963, chief deputy Billy Smith, 35, was killed when the small plane he was piloting crashed in the Everglades.
In a Democratic primary election on May 26, 1964, Leland Thompson defeated incumbent Sheriff Gaines. There was no Republican candidate.
In June 1965 Hudson was assigned a deputy sheriff. He was Curtis Kuhn.
In June 1965 Sheriff Thompson said that he had requested funds in next year’s budget to keep the sheriff’s office in west Pasco County open 24 hours per day. At that time, the building was closed at night and calls went to the New Port Richey police department. On July 31, 1965, the St. Petersburg Times reported that the West Pasco County Sheriff&’s office will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, beginning Sunday.
In 1966, new jails were built on both sides of the county. The Sheriff’s Office in Dade City moved from the historic Courthouse to its own building on North 5th Street. Administration, Operations and Detention were incorporated in this building, and 124 inmates could be housed in the facility. The New Port Richey facility, which included a court house, had a pair of two-man cells and a 16-man holding cell.
In July 1966, Sheriff Thompson said that he hoped to have 60 cars in operation under the new budget. At this time, deputies furnished their own vehicles and were reimbursed at $100 per month plus $100 per year for tires. The sheriff’s office paid for auto electrical repairs but no other mechanical expenses.
By 1977 the sheriff’s department had grown in size to 210 employees, with 135 of those being sworn deputies.
In 1981 a new Sheriff’s Office facility was built in the Pasco County Government Center on Little Road in New Port Richey. Attached to the Sheriff’s Office Administration Center was the West Side Jail, designed to house 106 male, female and juvenile inmates.
On March 11, 1982, Sheriff John Short temporarily closed the year-old jail in New Port Richey, stating that inmates could easily escape through a crawl space between a false ceiling and the roof of the building. To demonstrate for reporters the ease of escape, a deputy placed in a cell freed himself in four minutes using only his hands.
On Aug. 24, 1984, John Short, who had been sheriff since 1976, was indicted on three corruption charges and was removed from office by the Governor, who appointed J. M. “Buddy” Phillips to replace him. In a series of articles, the St. Petersburg Times had reported that John Moorman, a millionaire who contributed thousands of dollars to Short and enriched the sheriff through business deals, was allowed to outfit himself as a volunteer deputy and help pay for an undercover investigation aimed at several prominent East Pasco men who had earned the animosity of Short and Moorman. In 1985 Short was acquitted of the charges. TV news reports on the acquittal are here and here.
In 1984 the general election for sheriff was between Republican Jim Gillum and Democrat Eddie Hines, who defeated Short in the Democratic primary. A TV news report about the race is here. Gillum won the election, becoming the first Republican sheriff in Pasco County history.
In 1985 an additional wing was built at the New Port Richey facility, increasing capacity to 163 inmates.
An early morning raid on July 27, 1986, by federal authorities and the sheriff’s department turned up a fully operational cocaine laboratory and cocaine worth between $5.6 and $8.4 million on the street.
In 1991, the Pasco County Detention Center opened in Land O’ Lakes. The capacity is 352 inmates, with expansion capability for 1,100 prisoners.
On May 3, 1991, Sheriff Jim Gillum asked the FDLE to examine allegations of record tampering at the sheriff’s office. There had been claims that employees’ personnel records were altered or destroyed, and the allegations led to the firing or resignation of 11 employees in the past year.
In March 1995 the sheriff’s office obtained two surplus aircraft from the federal government. They were used to supplement the department’s only helicopter, a small 1963 Hughes 269A.
In 1998, the Dade City jail reverted to a holding facility for records and property evidence. The New Port Richey jail was renamed the Detention West Facility and transformed to provide secure housing for the more unmanageable inmates in custody.
On June 1, 2003, Capt. Charles “Bo” Harrison, the first black patrol deputy in Pasco County, was shot and killed in Lacoochee. (See below.)
In March 2006 deputies voted to be represented by the Fraternal Order of Police. They had rejected an attempt to unionize two years earlier.
On May 1, 2011, Chris Nocco was sworn in as sheriff. He had been appointed by Gov. Scott because of the resignation of Sheriff Bob White.
On Aug. 2, 2011, three siblings were suspected of firing at least 20 shots at a Zephyrhills police officer who tried to pull them over for speeding in a chase at speeds up to 100 mph. The three were fugitives for several days and the case attracted nationwide attention. Sheriff Nocco was interviewed on national television several times.
Second Legal Hanging Was Carried OutThis article appeared in the Dade City Banner on Jan. 4, 1918.
The second legal hanging to be carried out in Pasco county was performed Friday afternoon in the jail yard, when Edgar London, a negro convicted of murdering his wife, was hanged by Sheriff I. W. Hudson. The execution took place at ten minutes past one in the presence of a large crowd of whites and blacks who had come in for miles around to witness the affair.
The negro was led to the platform by Sheriff Hudson and Deputy Osburn. He was accompanied by Rev. Father Francis, who had been with him all during the day, preparing him for his death. While the noose was being adjusted about his neck by Deputy Osburn, the negro displayed the utmost composure, never flinching once during the nerve-racking ordeal. He had the side of his face to the crowd and his lips could be seen moving in prayer. He never offered to say anything to the crowd, but kept his head well up and an erect position to the last, exhibiting a wonderful nerve. The black cap was placed over his head and the trap was sprung by Sheriff Hudson at 1:10. His neck was broken by the fall, and in six minutes he was pronounced dead by Dr. E. L. Reigle, the attending physician.
The body was prepared for shipment and sent to his mother at Hawthorne.
It will be remembered that London killed his wife at Ehren sometime last summer. He was tried and convicted in the October term of Circuit court and sentenced by Judge Reaves to be hung. The first legal hanging ever to take place in this county was performed by Sheriff Sturkie in 1913, when a negro named Tom Bush was hung for a similar crime.
Fallen Lawmen in Pasco CountySHELTON S. NICKS (1886-1909) was shot to death at Fivay on May 8, 1909, by a man he was trying to arrest. Nicks is is identified in Tampa Morning Tribune articles as a Hernando County sheriff’s deputy. However, on July 24, 1909, the Gainesville Daily Sun identified him as a Pasco County deputy. (Although his name is spelled Sheldon Nicks on his gravemarker, the spelling Shelton was written in a family Bible when he died, and both spellings occur in the 1900 census, in which he appears twice.)
Constable ARTHUR FLEECE CRENSHAW (1890-1922) and U. S. Prohibition Agent JOHN VANN WATERS (1876-1922). Crenshaw, 31, of Trilby, and Waters, 46, of Dade City were ambushed Oct. 4, 1922, about 7 miles from Dade City. According to the Officer Down Memorial Page entries here and here, they were killed while investigating illegal stills in Pasco County. Four hours later, their bodies were discovered near the swamps of the Withlacoochee River by five men who said they came across a Ford stopped in the roadway. Unable to reach Sheriff Bart D. Sturkie, they called County Judge O. L. Dayton. Dayton went to the scene and found Waters’ hands still clutched the steering wheel, but his head and shoulders were riddled with buckshot. Crenshaw suffered 37 wounds. About 1,000 people crowded the courthouse lawn, and schools and courts were closed for Crenshaw’s funeral. Crenshaw divided his time between duties as an elected constable in the Dade City area and working as a lamplighter, lighting lamps for switches at Trilby, Fla., for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Crenshaw was buried in Trilby. Waters was buried in Williams Cemetery in Dade City. The Pasco County Commission offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of their killers. Sheriff Bart D. Sturkie and federal prohibition agents investigated. Two days after the murders, six men were indicted. But not all were convicted, and some later died in more gunplay. [Most of this information was taken from a May 31, 2005, Tampa Tribune article by Candace J. Samolinski, who referred to Forgotten Heroes: Police Officers Killed in Early Florida, 1840- 1925 by William Wilbanks.]
Deputy WILLIAM HENRY NIX O’BERRY (1889-1926). On Jan. 1, 1926, the New Port Richey Press reported in an article titled "Elfers Deputy Shot by Negro" that Deputy Sheriff Henry O’Berry was shot and killed near Dade City by Charles Davis, whom he was attempting to arrest. Davis was later seriously wounded and captured near Ocala. A Dade City Banner article of Apr. 30, 1926, reported that Davis was believed to have been lynched when he was being transferred from the Ocala jail to Brooksville for trial. The article said that O’Berry had attempted to arrest Davis at Richloam on a charge of stealing a dog. It reported, "Henry O’Berry, of whose murder Davis was accused, was a member of one of the best known pioneer families in Hernando and Pasco counties." According to information provided by Linda D. Hill and Charles Blankenship, W. Henry O’Berry was the fourth child of Daniel M. O’Berry and Mary Ann Nicks. He was born Jan. 17, 1889, in Spring Lake. Daniel was one of four brothers who came from Ga. Mary Ann was the daughter of William R. Nicks and Sophronia (Mitchell). William was a brother to Henry Robert Nicks.
Constable JOHN HERBERT MCCABE died in a Tampa hospital on June 26, 1948 at age 24. He is listed as a deputy sheriff or a constable or a “sheriff’s constable,” although according to information from Eddie Herrmann, he was a deputy at the time of his death. He was killed in an auto accident on his way to investigate a theft of heaters in an orange grove in Drexel. A truck smashed into the deputy’s car on U. S. 41.
Florida Highway Patrol Trooper JAMES "BRAD" CROOKS and Tampa police detectives Randy Bell and Ricky Childers were murdered by Hank Earl Carr on the State Road 54 exit ramp off of I-75 on May 19, 1998. The section of road and the Gowers Corner highway patrol station now bear Crooks' name. Carr had earlier fatally shot his girlfriend’s 4- year-old son in Tampa. He later killed himself in a Hernando County gas station. Crooks was 23 and in his first year as a law enforcement officer.
Capt. CHARLES "BO" HARRISON was shot and killed June 1, 2003, while sitting in his patrol car outside Rumors nightclub in Lacoochee. Harrison graduated from Mickens High School in in 1965. He spent more than two years in Vietnam as a paratrooper. Harrison became Pasco County’s first black patrol deputy. Alfredie Steele Jr. was convicted of the murder on April 26, 2007. Authorities said Steele confessed to the crime, and that Harrison was not the target. Steele was angry at law enforcement because of the May 10, 2003, death of Michael Anthony Reed, 23, killed in a crash while being pursued by a deputy.
Three Counties Pay Respect to Dead OfficerThe following article appeared in the Dade City Banner in 1926.
Pasco, Hernando and Pinellas counties joined hands Sunday afternoon in paying respect to the memory of Henry O’Berry, who was killed Friday morning by Charlie Davis, colored, while resisting arrest at Richloam. An audience of more than a thousand people were present at the funeral services which were held in Townsend House cemetery, one of the oldest burying grounds in this part of the State, and where the remains of several generations of the forbears of the murdered man lie in their last, long sleep.
Mr. O’Berry was a member of one of the oldest of the pioneer families in Hernando and Pasco counties and had hundreds of friends in all sections, all of whom apparently were sat the obsequies.
The services were in charge of the Masonic lodge of Elfers, of which he was a member, and large delegations from the lodges of Dade City, Tarpon Springs and Brooksville were present to pay respects to their deceased brother. Former State Senator Rev. J. M. Mitchell of Elfers delivered the funeral address and in a feeling manner called attention to the manly virtues of the deceased, and endeavored to comfort his sorrowing parents and relatives with the hope of meeting him in a better land "where sorrow and weeping are no more." The floral offering were most magnificent, and attested the great love borne by all to the deceased. A delegation from the Dade City Post of the American Legion attended in uniform as a mark of respect to their departed comrade.
Henry O’Berry was a deputy of Sheriff Hudson and at the time of his death was living in Lacoochee. Sheriff Cobb of Hernando county authorized him to arrest a negro, Charlie Davis, who was visiting at a turpentine still at Richloam in Hernando county, and who was wanted on a charge of forgery.
In furtherance of this duty, Mr. O’Berry drove to Richloam Friday morning and stopped at the house where Davis was staying. He resisted the attempts of the officer to arrest him and a scuffle ensued, during which Mr. O’Berry succeeded in locking his handcuffs about one of the negro’s wrists. The negro finally managed to break away from the officer and ran around the house, pursued by Mr. O’Berry. When back of the house, and out of sight of anyone, two shots were heard, and the officer fell with a bullet wound through his neck.
Following the killing Davis took the dead man’s car and drove to several houses in the neighborhood, finally returning to the scene of the killing and, stopping the car on the dead body. He then abandoned it and made his escape into the swamps close by.
Murderer Shot in Marion County
Sheriff Hudson of Pasco and Sheriff Cobb of Hernando county were immediately notified and hastened to the scene. A large posse was sworn in and for twenty-four hours the entire country was searched without finding any trace of the killer. At the end of that time the tired watchers were relieved and another group of angry citizens took their places.
Saturday afternoon Sheriff Cobb was notified at Brooksville that the murderer had been caught in Marion county and was in jail at Ocala. He immediately drove to that city, only to learn that he had been wounded so seriously that he could not be moved, and probably would not recover. According to the statements of the Marion county officers Davis had managed to elude his pursuers and cross the Little Withlacoochee river, and secreted himself until night, when he slipped on board the night Seaboard train.
He was first seen by a policeman when he climbed down from between the tender and baggage car of this train in Ocala. The police officer gave chase, but lost him, and immediately notified the sheriff. A posse was organized and Davis was finally located about five miles from Ocala. When ordered to halt he started to run, and was shot through the shoulder with a high power rifle carrying a soft nosed bullet, which it is believed entered his lung.