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Security tight as trial set to begin

By JAMAL THALJI
Published April 23, 2007


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DADE CITY - The deputies stroll outside like it's any other day at the Pasco County Courthouse.

But then they strap on body armor and pull out high-powered AR-15 automatic rifles.

This is not just any other day.

This is the Alfredie Steele Jr. murder trial.

The level of security both inside and outside the courtroom for the Steele trial is unprecedented in Pasco County. But then security has always been tight whenever this defendant is brought to Dade City.

"This is probably the most high-profile crime in Pasco County's history," said sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll, "and due to the possible emotions involved, from not only the main players in this trial but for citizens across the county, that need for extra security is warranted."

Steele, 23, is accused in the sniper-style slaying of Pasco sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison in 2003. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

He is also the first defendant accused of killing a Pasco law enforcement officer to stand trial in 85 years.

Federal agent John Van Waters and Constable Arthur "Fleece" Crenshaw were ambushed by bootleggers in 1922. Their attackers were acquitted, but accounts at the time say some later died at the hands of vigilantes.

Charles Davis was accused of killing Pasco sheriff's Deputy William "Henry" Nix O'Berry in 1926. But after Davis' capture, he was lynched by a masked mob, according to accounts at the time, and his body never found. O'Berry was white and Davis was black.

Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James "Brad" Crooks was the third officer killed by Hank Earl Carr in his 1998 rampage. After killing two Tampa detectives, Carr shot the trooper in Wesley Chapel, then took his own life in a Hernando gas station as SWAT teams closed in.

The slaying of a law enforcement officer is wrenching for any community. Harrison was beloved by those on both sides of the law, and that's why Steele isn't in the Pasco County jail.

Authorities feared he might be hurt by deputies or inmates alike. So the extra security comes as no surprise.

Jury selection ended Friday, and Steele's trial starts today. The Pasco County Sheriff's Office believes it's prepared to deal with anyone or anything that might try to disrupt the trial - or Steele's trek to and from the Sumter County jail each day.

The Sheriff's Office declined to comment on the specifics of stepped-up security in and around the Pasco County Courthouse. At the agency's request, the Times agreed not to disclose some of the measures. The agency won't even say that Steele is being held in Sumter (his lawyers will), another security measure in place since his 2003 arrest.

But all one has to do is look around the Dade City courthouse to see how serious deputies are:

- Extra bailiffs are stationed at the entrance. Lawyers don't get free passes through the metal detectors anymore. Everyone must remove his or her shoes and belts and empty his or her pockets.

- Far more deputies are posted throughout the courtroom than in usual criminal proceedings - by the judge, the defendant, the double doors and sitting on the small bench right behind the defendant. Extra deputies are always outside, too.

- Steele has been immaculately dressed throughout the proceedings, in a natty suit and tie provided by his mother. But he wears a bulletproof vest over his shackles and red jail overalls - the color signifies the seriousness of the charge he faces - as he steps out of the rear courthouse door and into a waiting prisoner van.

- Security is at its tightest when the deputies transport Steele back and forth from Bushnell. Rifle-toting deputies patrol the rear courthouse parking lot, clearing the area of anyone - including a Times reporter - before Steele can even step outside. Then a heavily armed caravan whisks Steele away.

Don't think the defense hasn't noticed. Steele's lawyers have complained they can't speak confidentially to their client because of all the deputies standing around.

[Last modified April 23, 2007, 07:11:22]


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