Thousands mourn slain Polk deputy

Vernon “Matt” Williams is remembered as a top-notch officer, family man and dog’s best friend.

Published October 3, 2006

AUBURNDALE — As Deputy Matt Williams’ fellow deputies lowered his body into the moist ground of the cemetery Tuesday afternoon, the low howls, small yelps and loud barks of more than 100 police dogs could be heard.

It was a fitting tribute to the fallen officer, husband, son, father and man who loved and cared for the dog who died at his side.

The dogs and their caretakers came from all over the country to say farewell to the Polk County sheriff’s deputy, shot and killed five days before by a man pulled over for speeding.

Williams and his dog, Diogi, were put to rest in a funeral that brought thousands of law enforcement officers, friends and family to say farewell.

They came in patrol cars, lights blazing. They came by motorcycle. When the traffic headed toward Victory Church in Lakeland went too slow, some folks started walking.

When the 4,800 seats in the sanctuary were filled, church officials used an overflow room. When that got full, people stood.

Same story at the cemetery.

It seemed all of Polk County stopped for this man, a 39-year-old deputy known for his devotion to his wife, Nancy, and three children, his sense of humor and his love for his dogs.

Businesses posted signs in his honor and lowered their flags to half-staff. Traffic stopped in town for the hourslong procession. People got out of their cars to pay tribute.

Even those going about their daily routines seemed to realize something terrible had happened. At a factory next to the burial plot, a man high up on a tower paused in his work, removed his white hard hat and cupped it over his heart.

If anyone deserved this sort of honor, it was Williams, his fellow law enforcement officers repeated again and again at the service.

“This is a celebration of the life of a great husband, a great son, a great father and a great friend,” said Detective Mike Evans of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Evans described Williams as a role model, a man who truly devoted himself to his work and his family.

He recalled Williams poring over training manuals and studying animal behavior, always trying to improve his relationship with his dogs.

“He was a visionary in the field of canine training,” Evans said.

But he was more than that.

As a father of three children — Amanda, Christopher and Jimmy — Williams was the kind of dad always planning trips and adventures for his family, Evans said. He was a man who realized that “a good night out is actually a good night in.”

Williams loved to tinker with things, a “master engineer,” Evans said. He always wanted to know how things worked and how to fix them.

His natural curiosity is perhaps the reason Williams went on to train other canine deputies, to teach his passion to other generations. He should serve as a role model to those who will follow him, Evans said.

“He’s passed the torch to you,” he said, addressing other deputies in the canine unit. “Take that forward and follow Matt’s lead.”

Evans was among half a dozen who spoke at the funeral, including Williams’ supervisor, Sgt. Jim Bryan, and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd. The service lasted more than an hour as Williams’ colleagues remembered him with stories and song.

More than 30 friends and relatives sat in reserved seats at the front. Williams’ retired canine deputy, Rocky, walked in with the family and was seated near them during the service. His widow shook with emotion during the speeches.
Most of the crowd was in uniform.

Law enforcement personnel from around the Tampa Bay area attended. The St. Petersburg Police Department alone sent 70 officers.

From veteran investigators from as far as Rhode Island, Minnesota and Virginia, to fresh-faced high school-age Explorers from Lakeland, the officers surrounded Williams’ family.

After the church service, the officers stood outside, waiting for the family. There were uniforms as far as one could see.

As deputies carried out Williams’ flag-draped, silver-colored casket, the officers saluted.

A bagpiper, also in uniform, played Amazing Grace as the family climbed into white limousines for the ride to the burial site.

Auburndale Memorial Park is only a few miles from the church, but it took a couple of hours for the entire procession to arrive.

Officers filled the field near the burial tent. They were followed by the line of canine handlers and dogs, who lined up in front of the burial plot.

When the Williams family arrived, they were led under the awning into green velvet-covered chairs. Mrs. Williams, her brown hair pulled in a tight bun atop her head, wore a blue and black dress, silver sunglasses shielding her eyes. Her children sat on both sides of her.

After deputies carried the coffin under the tent, they folded the American flag atop it and the sheriff handed it to Mrs. Williams. He put his hands around her, gently patting her on the back and speaking quietly to her.

Mrs. Williams clutched the folded flag in her arms, cradling it as if it were a baby.