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This Cowboy put the bad guys in jail

He shaped lives and careers in the Tampa Police Department.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003

Robert L. 'Cowboy' Jones Jr.
1939 -- 2003

* * *

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS -- His name was Sgt. Robert L. Jones, but his colleagues at the Tampa Police Department knew him as Cowboy.

"I don't think anybody even knew his real first name," said longtime friend Russell Smith, a fellow retired sergeant. "He was always Cowboy. Cowboy Jones."

Cowboy Jones died Jan. 23 after a long battle with cancer and other illnesses at age 63. A legend among police, he's remembered as a quiet, unassuming man who helped shape the lives and careers of many current Tampa police officers.

"He was instrumental and important in my life," Lt. Larry Pinkerton said. "He was like a father figure to a lot of us, even in his younger years. He made each man feel that he was important. I'll remember him until I die. He was a hero to me, and to a lot of us."

Cowboy Jones may not be a household name outside the police force, but the people who knew him say that Tampa is a noticeably better place because of him. In 1971, Tampa brass named him Officer of the Year.

"He was the first uniform officer to recognize the need for street-level, anti-drug squads," Pinkerton said.

In the '80s, at a time when almost all law enforcement agencies around the country were focusing on high-level drug dealers, Jones saw that street dealers and users were just as much of a problem.

With volunteer officers and virtually no budget, Jones developed a program that helped eliminate drug activity in two Tampa Heights neighborhoods and one notorious downtown intersection.

In a 20-day period in 1982, Jones and his volunteers made 95 arrests while working three locations -- Frances Street and Florida Avenue, Central Avenue just south of Columbus Drive, and Zack Street at Nebraska Avenue. Those arrests involved 165 criminal charges, including 101 felonies, all of which resulted in a conviction, a colleague said.

Jones would typically get a pickup from the police impound lot and hide an officer in a large cardboard box in the back. The officer would watch criminal activity from several blocks away through a telescope.

"We actually witnessed an armed robbery in progress and stopped it," said retired Detective Roy Pierce, who worked on those operations.

"He was brilliant," Pinkerton said. "We put bunches and bunches of bad guys in jail."

On the last day of the operation, Jones, Pierce and another officer tried to make an arrest at a bar at Zack and Nebraska. The suspect pulled a gun and shot Jones in the hand and leg.

"Cowboy grabbed him and held him while myself, my partner and the bad guy were in a shootout," Pierce said. "It's hard to do that with all that lead flying. The suspect died.

Because of his injuries, Cowboy Jones retired from the police department shortly after the shooting and spent the last years of his career with Bank of America, where he was the chief fraud investigator for the entire state.

"He recovered millions and millions of dollars for Bank of America," said his son, Alan Jones. He retired from the bank in 2002.

Nobody's sure how Jones got his nickname. Fellow officers say it might have come from his easy smile, his boundless energy or the swagger in his walk. His son guesses it was because his idol was John Wayne.

And while those officers remember Cowboy as a hero who helped make several Tampa neighborhoods livable again, his son remembers him differently. In fact, his family didn't learn about many of his police exploits until after his death.

To his wife, Martha, son Alan, daughter Kimberly and three grandchildren, Cowboy Jones was an unassuming man with a powerful presence who cherished being a father and grandfather.

"We all went to him with problems. We all went to him for advice," Alan Jones said. "None of us are ready to face the world without him, even as old as we are."

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