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It's a shame what some local folks have done

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

Pity Hank Baggett, our soon-to-be former Animal Control director. Not only is he about to lose a job he's had for 11 years, but he's going out under a cloud of embarrassment.

Baggett made headlines last week over an incident that happened in February. Called by a resident to get a stray cat out of a tree, he tried a couple of tricks to get the feral feline down from its 60-foot perch. Finally, he used a .22-caliber rifle to, ahem, bag it.

He has been suspended with pay since April 11, and his troubles stem not so much from blasting the critter but for covering up the incident in reports. Baggett will learn this week, when he meets with County Administrator Richard Wesch, whether he still has a job. The likelihood of his surviving that hearing mirrors what he faced during the cat confrontation: It's a long shot at best.

If it's any consolation, Baggett's actions have him firmly entrenched in Citrus County lore with a host of others who have rumbled, bumbled and stumbled their way into the Hall of Shame of Fractured Public Service.

One embarrassing incident does not define an entire career, of course, and these folks can point to any number of constructive experiences in their years of work. And, yes, we all make mistakes, some of them whoppers. But our goof-ups rarely come while we're on the government payroll, which is why these incidents are of particular interest to us all.

The Baggett case led me down memory lane to a number of other Hall of Shame episodes that were just plain weird.

I passed over gems such as the official who miscounted the number of students and cost the school district $3-million in state funds, or the head of the Withlacoochee Technical Institute who turned the automobile program into a cut-rate body shop for his buddies, or the commissioner who forced the county administrator to resign during the Christmas season.

I also left out political tricks and campaign insanity. That's a list for another day.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorites in the Hall of Shame. I'm sure you have your own winners:

Fred and Helen Stahelin just wanted to see the strange-acting raccoon put out of its misery and the possible rabies threat removed from their Inverness neighborhood. Deputy Tim Martin, who responded to the 1989 call, fired several shotgun rounds from 8 feet away, but he missed the small animal. As the raccoon continued to writhe on the ground, Martin tried to shoot it with his pistol but missed. At that point, Fred Stahelin, who had recently had eye surgery, killed the raccoon with a single shot from his own hunting rifle.

Howard Arnold was putting his revolver into a bedside drawer when he either kicked or stepped on a derringer that had not been fired for 30 years, sending a .38-caliber slug into his leg, out his ankle and into a closet door. Arnold, at one time the Citrus County Sheriff's Office's Officer Friendly, received a quarter-sized hole in his left foot and a larger shot to his dignity.

Inverness police seem to have a knack for getting into the Hall of Shame. Remember these beauties?

In a matter of minutes in 1991, Doug Strott went from victim to defendant. The co-owner of Heidi's Restaurant, Strott called police because his business had been burglarized. Strott walked to his car to get a box of frozen french fries, and as he turned toward the restaurant, he bumped into Officer Scott Roush, who arrested Strott on a charge of battery.

Officer Kevin Phillips quit the department in 2001 after running over himself with his own patrol car. According to an investigation, Phillips was standing behind his car when it slipped out of park and knocked him over as he was retrieving gear from the trunk.

Officer David Cropper in 1991 chased a 13-year-old boy who had stolen a pickup truck and fled on U.S. 41. Cornering the teen at the water's edge at Wallace Brooks Park, Cropper yanked open the door and fired his pistol, grazing the unarmed teen. Cropper left the force and was last heard from when he pleaded no contest to smuggling a pound of marijuana into the Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala, where he was working as a library aide.

The entire judicial career of Gary Graham qualifies him for a special wing in the Hall of Shame. The Graham soap opera started with off-the-wall sentences and fights with attorneys in court, progressed to jailing people whose clothing, jobs or looks he didn't like, veered into paranoid rants on cable television shows, and concluded with his being unceremoniously booted from the County Court bench by the Florida Supreme Court.

Local banker and county Mosquito Control Board member Pat Fitzpatrick ran a red light, bounced off another vehicle and fled to his home near Crystal River. Police tracked him to his house, where they found the damaged truck hidden in the woods and Fitzpatrick hiding behind a pile of clothes in the laundry room. With slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, he told police that his brother, attorney Richard Fitzpatrick, had advised him to relax, have a couple of drinks and cooperate with police.

Leaving the realm of law enforcement, we come to Richard Wesch, the county administrator, who forced longtime agricultural adviser Andy Rose out of his job, in part because Rose didn't follow the county's new dress code. Rose, who often spent his days out among farmers and ranchers, couldn't quite get a bow tie to work with his flannel shirts.

Finally, there's the infamous Happy Dayz blowup, in which Inverness Police Chief Joe Elizarde had his officers arrest the restaurant owner after the two argued over the chief's lunch order. The restaurateur was cleared, and Elizarde resigned under fire.

As with all of these shameful events, the less said about that craziness, the better.

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