Deputy chief 'a worker's type of boss'
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- While at the pistol range this summer, Largo police Capt. John Carroll received a message that Chief Lester Aradi wanted to see him.
What Aradi told him came as a shock: Carroll would ascend to the rank of deputy chief, the department's second-in-command.
As Carroll, a 22-year department veteran, saw it, there was just one problem: Aradi already had a deputy chief, Judy Gershkowitz, who also had scaled the ranks during a 17-year career with the department. She also had served as acting chief for seven months before Aradi was hired.
Aradi demoted her. She was upset, as were people in the department close to her. Carroll didn't like it much, either. He grimaces when he thinks about that chain of events.
Aradi knew the swap would cause controversy, but he made the move.
The department's guidelines required the deputy chief to have a master's degree, which Gershkowitz has. Carroll has an associate's degree. Aradi tossed out the master's requirement and made Carroll promise to get his bachelor's degree.
In the coming days, Aradi was forced to answer why he demoted a well-educated woman in place of a modestly educated man. Aradi tried to protect Gershkowitz during the process, refusing to publicly fault her or her performance.
But he heaped praise on Carroll, whom officers widely consider a good cop and an even better guy. In a department plagued by officers jumping ship to other agencies, Aradi saw Carroll as a leader whom officers would rally around and emulate.
The relentlessly friendly Aradi also saw Carroll as a second chief, an amiable department leader who could step into a homeowners association meeting or a gathering of politicians and leave people impressed.
It's not that Gershkowitz couldn't do those things, Aradi said. He just thought Carroll was better suited for them. Carroll and Gershkowitz swapped positions in July.
"He's been remarkable," Aradi said last week. "Every day, he demonstrates strong leadership in all areas. There's a high degree of respect on the part of the officers for him."
Who is the man who prompted Aradi to make such a controversial move and now has the second-highest ranking in the department?
Carroll, 43, was born in Oswego, N.Y., the oldest of three children. His parents moved to Largo when he was 9. Carroll wore a blue hooded snowmobile suit on the plane from New York.
Carroll played cops and robbers at an early age. He admired two of his uncles and three of his cousins who were police officers. He heard stories of his grandfather, a New York state trooper who fought crime on horseback.
"He got it from his grandfather. It's in his blood," said Carroll's father, Dick Carroll.
His father ran Goodyear stores. Carroll worked for his father in high school, where he saw a fierce loyalty to customers. When Dick Carroll transferred to a store in St. Petersburg, customers from Clearwater followed him.
Carroll, who was a troop leader in the Boy Scouts, can't remember ever not wanting to be a police officer. After graduating from Largo High School, he was so eager to don a uniform that he skipped college and headed to the Army, which he figured was a quicker way to get a law enforcement job. He was right. He joined the military police after basic training.
"I really saw that as a shortcut to where I wanted to be," he said.
His first assignment was hardly Starsky and Hutch: He was sent to Germany to guard bombs that no one ever tried to steal. He sat and watched nothing happen for a year before getting an assignment in patrol.
Carroll made rank quickly, garnered awards, obtained top-secret security clearance and served as a platoon leader.
After three years of service, Carroll returned to Largo and took a patrol officer job with the Largo Police Department in May 1980. He made an annual salary of about $13,000. He settled into the job easily.
His military experience made him familiar with writing reports. His childhood in Largo made him familiar with the area. And he loved the work.
"I liked the fact that I was familiar with the area and I was finally wearing a uniform," he said. "I just liked dealing with people and resolving issues."
He married Linda, whom he met at Publix while he was in high school. He was a bag boy; she, a cashier. The couple have two children, ages 18 and 15. He eventually moved to the same street in Largo on which his parents live.
Carroll started at the bottom rung of a 67-person department. He didn't take long to start climbing the ladder of a department that, over the span of his career, doubled in size.
Within about a year, Carroll was a leader on the department's newly-formed SWAT Team. He liked helping bring about resolutions to tense incidents, such as hostage situations or attempted suicides. Carroll also liked SWAT, which he has remained involved in, because of its reliance on teamwork. He enjoyed making the group jell.
Carroll showed an ability to think quickly on his feet and innovate. When he entered a home during a SWAT call and was confronted by a growling dog, Carroll opened the refrigerator, grabbed a piece of meat and threw it out the door. The dog chased it. Problem solved.
Within two years, Carroll was a detective. He did that for eight years, a time when he hit a rhythm in his career. Carroll's desire to resolve conflict was well-fed. He developed a strong sense of victim advocacy and sought justice.
"I don't like to see injustice," he said. "I like to see bad guys go to jail."
He became an acting sergeant in 1990 and climbed the ladder until he was appointed captain in 1997. He remained active in detective work, pitching in on investigations.
He was actively involved in two of Largo's most high-profile murder investigations, both of which he helped solve.
He and another detective, Mike Short, investigated the December 1991 slaying of Keith Yunk, who was killed by an intruder in his Largo home. Short was the primary investigator; Carroll, his wing man. Both thought Yunk's wife's ex-husband, Luther Basse, was responsible. They were right.
Basse lived in Boise, Idaho. He had set up an alibi. Carroll flew out to interview him shortly after the crime. Basse never asked Carroll where he was from, assuming he was from Boise. Basse denied having anything to do with the murder.
But Basse -- like many people -- liked Carroll. When Carroll and Short returned months later to interview him again, Basse confessed to the murder.
"When we returned for the interview, Luther and I were like friends," Carroll said.
Basse later was sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years.
"John is a good at making for a very nonthreatening interview," said Short, now a sergeant. "He's an easygoing, likable individual. That kind of set the tone for the interview where he (Basse) confessed."
Carroll was the captain over the detective bureau in 1998 when investigators solved a murder that had been a mystery for 22 years. They arrested Jimmy Kuenn for murdering Carol Jean Hutto in 1976 after noticing entries in Hutto's diaries about Kuenn, a neighbor boy. Kuenn, who had become a Navy petty officer on a submarine, was sentenced to life in prison.
Like the SWAT team, Carroll enjoyed working with others during investigations.
His personnel file is packed with glowing reviews and complimentary letters from residents, one who thanked him for rescuing a dog from a pond. His disciplinary file is bare.
When Carroll became captain, Gershkowitz became the deputy chief. Carroll said he has always respected and liked Gershkowitz, who was considered a good administrator who was strict about following disciplinary procedures. A survey of officers earlier this year resulted in some officers criticizing her.
Gershkowitz criticized Carroll in an evaluation she gave him last year. She said Carroll missed important deadlines, showed favoritism with subordinates, disregarded her direction and went around her when he disagreed.
It was the first time in his career Carroll had been criticized so much in an evaluation, he said.
This spring, Aradi reviewed Gershkowitz. He referred to her "strong ability in processes" but wrote that she was "not in her comfort zone dealing with people."
Aradi noted in the evaluation that he intended to restructure the department's command structure and was looking for a deputy chief who would be a "stronger public figure."
During this time, Carroll never developed aspirations to become chief or deputy chief.
"I still want to be a sergeant," he said. "That's closer to the work actually being done, which I like. The fun part of police work is being out on the street, working cases."
But he accepted the promotion to deputy chief, which upped his pay to about $72,000 per year. He had made $67,682 as a captain.
When Aradi told him he wanted to promote him, Carroll said he felt uncomfortable about it because he would leap-frog Gershkowitz. He still feels uncomfortable.
"To this day, I will always have respect for Judy. She does so well the things I struggle with. The administrative stuff, things like policy and the budget. I'm not the whiz kid at that stuff," he said.
"On the other hand for me, as important as it is to follow the rules ... I kind of have a tendency to use the book as a guideline, not as black and white. I think what we do is a lot of gray."
He will seek a bachelor's degree in business management from Eckerd College, which he hopes will strengthen his administrative skills.
Carroll's No. 1 responsibility is to improve retention of officers. The department has lost nearly a third of its officers in the last two years.
To do that, Carroll must boost morale and build a sense of teamwork, two things he has done well his entire career.
"John is a very thinking, caring diplomat," said his father. "People receive him very, very well. He's a people person."
"He's a worker's type of boss," said Short, the police sergeant. "He doesn't believe in making things difficult. I personally envision the guy being a commissioner one of these days. If he retires from law enforcement, I would want him to run. Because it's not just law enforcement. He's just a good human being."
-- Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or email@example.com.
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