Okeechobee honors those law enforcement officers who have fallen in the line of duty

OKEECHOBEE — National Police Week was acknowledged by Okeechobee’s local law enforcement community along with supporters, with the attendance of a fallen deputies funeral on Tuesday in Sebring as well as a separate memorial service at the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO) on Wednesday for those officers who have fallen this past year while in the line of duty.

On the morning of Tuesday, May 15, law enforcement agencies, from not only across the State of Florida but the nation, gathered at the Highlands News-Sun Center, located at 781 Magnolia Avenue in Sebring, for the funeral service for fallen Highlands County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) Deputy William J. Gentry Jr.

Deputy William Gentry Jr., badge number 2247, ended his watch at 1:10 p.m. on Monday, May 7. Deputy Gentry was fatally shot at approximately 8 p.m., on Sunday, May 6, while responding to a call about a dispute between neighbors in which a cat was shot.

On May 14, at 5 p.m. the HCSO Facebook page informed its residents that beginning at 6 p.m. that evening until 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, instead of seeing HCSO patrol cars Polk County Sheriff’s Office would be answering the calls from the county to allow those from HCSO to attend the services for Deputy Gentry.

At 9 a.m. personnel from the Okeechobee law enforcement community along with local government officials met and departed from the OCSO – to include Sheriff Noel E. Stephen, Chief Bob Peterson, City Administrator Marcos Montes De Oca and Okeechobee Councilman Mike O’ Connor – to join in the funeral procession for Deputy Gentry.

According to the HCSO Facebook page, there was an estimated crowd of well over 3,500 people. Personnel from over at least 65 state law enforcement agencies were counted as well as some from Boston, California, Chicago and New York that came to pay their respects. OCSO Community Relations Deputy Jack Nash stated, “It’s a bittersweet moment when we as a law enforcement community can come together to celebrate the life of a fallen officer.”

Also in attendance were Governor Rick Scott, State Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, State Senator Denise Grimsley, State Representative Cary Pigman. Gov. Scott ordered the flags to remain at half-staff on Tuesday, in honor of Deputy Gentry.
From the HCSO:

Deputy Gentry, was born November 3, 1977 and grew up in Fort Myers. He moved to Highlands County and attended Lemon Bay and Lake Placid high schools. He graduated in 1996.

He joined the sheriff’s office on March 23, 2005, and “immediately fell in love with the work of the K-9 Unit.” After he joined the unit, he patrolled Highlands County for four years with his K-9 partner and companion, Ronie – who retired in 2012. Deputy Gentry transferred out of the K-9 unit and back to road patrol, after he couldn’t imagine the thought of taking another dog to work in place of Ronie.

Deputy Gentry was also a talented artist and woodworker. He left HCSO in 2013 to make custom pool cues, but returned to the agency on Feb. 1, 2017. In April 2018, he became a field training deputy, mentoring younger deputies to include the night of May 6, when he was fatally shot while responding to a call in a Lake Placid neighborhood.

He was described by those who knew him as a quiet, unassuming man with a dry sense of humor. Deputy Gentry is survived by his parents, William J. “Jack” Gentry and Susan; his younger brother Kevin, who is a detective with HCSO; his former wife, Jennifer; and many aunts, uncles and cousins. He is also survived by his four dogs.

In addition to Ronie, his partner, he opened his home to Sika, Chubbs and Link. The family has requested that donations be sent to rescueranch.com in lieu of flowers. According to a shared Facebook post by HCSO, Sebring Animal Hospital is helping with Deputy Gentry’s four animals. Memorial contributions can be made to HCSO at 400 Eucalyptus Street in Sebring.

The Honors Ceremony concluded the service with a flyover, dove release, “Amazing Grace” by pipe and drum corps, riderless horse presentation, volley of three salute, 10-7 message, “Taps” and the presentation of the flag to Deputy Gentry’s mother and brother. Deputy Gentry’s organs were donated and helped save the lives of six people. On Thursday, May 17 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m., students from the Kindergarten Learning Center will host “Back The Blue Bake Sale: In Honor of Deputy William Gentry” and have sweet treats available for purchase in an effort to raise money for the Gentry Family. If you would like to make a donation to the family via check, please write it to HCSO with Deputy Gentry in the memo line.

Sheriff Stephen gave his remarks on the memorial service. “I really think it’s symbolic in the sense of how to recognize a law enforcement officer that has dedicated their life to our profession, community and to the State of Florida. It’s humbling to see the show, but then it’s also enlightening to see how many people have come together to support the deputy, family and the agency,” stated the sheriff.

“As Sheriff Paul Blackman told us, ‘it’s a fraternity that he now belongs to,’ and it is not only my hope, but every sheriff and police chief’s wish, to never join that fraternity. We struggle every minute of everyday on how best to take care of our men and women doing this job.

In today’s society they’re under appreciated and underpaid, it’s sadly something that needs to change.” Sheriff Stephen said speaking of law enforcement.

He then addressed the strained relations between law enforcement and members of society. “Even with the focus of society and the lack of respect for law enforcement, these men and women still protect and serve. It’s just humbling to say the least to be the leader of such a fine group of men and women.”

City Administrator Montes De Oca said, “Seeing the coming together of so many was truly heartfelt. A hero fell doing his job and will not be forgotten. All those in Okeechobee should pray for his family, friends and their community to gain strength and overcome this tragic senseless loss.”

Chief Peterson weighed in with his thoughts stating, “I’ve been to way too many fallen officers memorials’ over the past 35 years, but this one felt different. Perhaps it was the nature of the call, a neighbor dispute over a cat or maybe my position makes me feel personally responsible when bad things happen to our officers. One thing is certain though, the support from the public we protect was palpable, from the hundreds of school kids lining the streets to the employees of every business along the route showing their support to the rancher standing at attention next to his truck holding the American flag. That kind of support during times like this are felt and appreciated. The message is clear, Rural America has had enough.” Chief Peterson’s message then shifted, “To my fellow officers, stay vigilant and stay safe. To our spouses, thank you for lending us to the job hoping when the phone rings, it’s us on the other end just checking in. Finally, thank you to our citizens for your ability to see there is a person behind the uniform, a person who will protect you at any cost but still wants to get home to their family. Stay safe.”

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, May 16, citizens, members of the Okeechobee law enforcement community and their families and government officials were present at the footsteps of the OCSO, located at 504 Northwest Fourth Street, for its planned Law Enforcement Memorial Service.

Before the service’s commencement, Sheriff Stephen recognized Okeechobee County Commissioners Terry Burroughs, Bryant Culpepper, Bradley G. Goodbread, David Hazellief, Kelly Owens, Okeechobee City Mayor Dowling R. Watford Jr., Okeechobee City Councilman Mike O’ Connor, Okeechobee tax collector Celeste Watford, Okeechobee property appraiser Mickey L. Bandi and former Sheriff Paul C. May who were present and thanked for their attendance.

Sheriff Stephen then began the commencement stating, “In 1962, President Kennedy proclaimed May 15 as National Peace Officers Memorial Day and the calendar week in which May 15 falls, as National Police Week. Established by a joint resolution of Congress in 1962, National Police Week pays special recognition to those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others. National Police Week is a collaborative effort of many organizations dedicated to honoring America’s law enforcement community.”

The 2017 preliminary law enforcement officer fatalities report stated that 128 federal, state, and local law enforcement officers died in the line of duty over the past year. 47 died from traffic-related incidents, 44 were shot and killed, 2 perished in a helicopter crash, 2 died in a boating accident and one officer was stabbed to death. Sheriff Stephen continued, “Among the states, Texas had the highest number of officer fatalities with 14, followed by New York and Florida with nine, California with seven, Georgia and North Carolina each had six.”

“There are more than 900,000 sworn law enforcement officers now serving in the United States, which is the highest figure ever. Crime fighting though has taken its toll, since the first recorded police death in 1791 there have been over 21,000 law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. Currently there are 21,541 names engraved on the walls of the National Law Enforcement Officer’s Memorial. A total of 1,511 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty during the past 10 years, an average of one death every 58 hours. As of Jan. 1, through May 14, this year, there have been over 53 officers killed across our great nation, with Florida leading that number of deaths thus far. This is an unfortunate trend, and if it continues it will sadly surpass last year’s numbers and we’ll be ending our three year decline of in the line of duty deaths across the United States,” stated Sheriff Stephen.

Sheriff Stephen recognized Deputy Gentry at the memorial service stating, “I would like to tell you about a hero we laid to rest just yesterday. HCSO Deputy William J. Gentry was shot May 6, as he responded to an animal abuse case. Deputy Gentry and another officer responded to the victim’s home and made contact with the suspect who lived next door. As Deputy Gentry stood at the front door, the suspect opened fire and Deputy Gentry succumbed to his injuries the following day. Deputy Gentry is the 28th law enforcement officer to be shot and killed and the fourth fatality for the State of Florida in 2018. Even in his death, Deputy Gentry is a hero, his organs were donated and have helped save the lives of six people. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ a verse out of John Chapter 15. I wanted to tell you this story, not because it’s unusual but becoming so tragically typical. We’ve all heard these stories before but with different names.”

Sheriff Stephen continued his statements, “I know that it is difficult for all the law enforcement officers families and friends throughout the State of Florida and our country. I know our first instinct after an incident that I described in Highlands County is to be sad, but our grief always gives way to humility and to pride. We who remain, stay strong, push forward and never give up.”

Just prior to the reading of the fallen deputies names by Chief Deputy Gary Bell, Sheriff Stephen said in closing, “Our hope is that these names that are going to be read shortly remind us of the heroism of the following men and women. They thought that the future and the safety of their fellow citizens was important enough to risk their lives to protect it and our hope for the future is how we honor them. They deserve more than just our sadness, they deserve our pride and the lives they led are hope for the future in our continued dedication to the work of making this country safe. May we all never forget and always remember our very own, OCSO Deputy Glover “Skip” Bryant III, who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the citizens of Okeechobee County on Nov. 8, 1991. May God watch over, protect and bless each and every one of you, and may he continue to bless the United States of America.”

Deputy Chief Bell read the names of the fallen officers; Lieutenant Debra Lucinda Clayton, Master Sergeant William Bishop, Sergeant Joseph Ossman, Sergeant Richard Howard III, Deputy First Class Norman Lewis, Deputy Julie Ann England-Bridges, Special Agent Rickey O’ Donald, Officer Joseph Sanchez Montaad, Officer Matthew Baxter, Officer Joe William Heddy, K-9’s Freckles and Diesel.

At the close of the memorial service, Sheriff Stephen asked those in attendance to take a moment and thank first responders who keep the people of Okeechobee safe each and every day.

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