Fighting crime, word by word
By MICHAEL SANDLER
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001
NEW TAMPA -- Thirty years of police work can wear even the best officers down. But Sgt. R.J. Reynolds keeps walking the beat in Tampa.
Bullets have whizzed by him twice, but they could never turn him away. Reynolds kept cool in the company of killers, diligently eliciting their confessions. He has even climbed out on the ledge of a three-story building to talk down a suicidal woman.
Using words as his primary weapon, the veteran Tampa police sergeant has spent three decades fighting urban crime, both in uniform and undercover. Now, Reynolds has brought his skills to Tampa's fastest growing suburbs.
"I don't think there is any difference in approach," said Reynolds, 49, who took command of Squad 73 in New Tampa last month. "You get out of that police car and get to know the public."
Reynolds was reassigned from West Tampa to replace the late Sgt. Bob Weinhold, who died Christmas morning from a heart attack.
Instead of combing densely populated city blocks, he surveys wide subdivisions. There are plenty of homes, shopping centers and golf courses spread out over 22 square miles.
"It's easy to ride around in that police car with the windows rolled up," said Reynolds, who joined the department in 1971. "But if you roll that window down, get out and talk to people, you find out what's going on."
Spoken like the true homicide detective who made his bones in plain clothes on several memorable cases.
While responding to a call at a South Tampa night club in 1982, Reynolds heard gunshots and saw two men speeding away in a 1977 Chevy Monte Carlo. He pursued and the car chase ended with Reynolds crouched behind his open car door, the suspects shooting at him.
He was unharmed. The men got away.
"I got lucky," said Reynolds, who was shot at again years later. "I felt them. I heard them. It's part of the job. You don't think about that. If it happens, it happens. You just put your life in God's hands and pray to God you go home at night."
Luck and faith helped keep him out of the line of fire. But his judgment and interviewing techniques made him a standout among his peers.
Reynolds' file is thick with commendation letters from the state attorney's office -- most commend his ability to convince suspects to confess serious crimes.
When police first began investigating the 1984 murder of Richard Miller, they thought robbery was the motive. But Reynolds looked deeper and learned that Miller's wife had been having an affair with his friend, Paul Clifford. Reynolds and his superior officer brought Clifford in for questioning. After hours of intense interviews, Clifford and Reynolds took a break in the hall. In that quiet moment, Clifford confessed.
"I could tell it was eating him up inside," said Reynolds. "He had to go to the little boys' room and he said, "you know what R.J., you are right down the line. I did it.' "
Clifford subsequently pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His confession was the only evidence in the case.
John Skye, then an assistant state attorney, noted in July 1983 that Reynolds has a unique ability to be compassionate yet firm. That year police found a young girl dead, but could not identify her and had no suspects. Tips led Reynolds to California and Vincent Rodney Quevedo. Reynolds persuaded the 19-year-old to return to Tampa. Later Quevedo eventually admitted he killed the girl during sex.
Once again, the confession was the only evidence -- but it was enough to convict Quevedo of manslaughter. "Rather than being as a typical, hard-nosed homicide detective that wanted to see . . . the judge throw the book at this kid, he was basically understanding and compassionate," said Skye, now with the public defender's office.
Reynolds makes a point to be compassionate when interviewing suspects.
"Most people, when they commit a violent crime, they want to communicate," said Reynolds. "The guilt is eating them up. The majority of people have some type of regret or feelings, (and) if they can find somebody to talk to that won't look down on them, they want to clear their conscience."
Sometimes, his ability to persuade can save lives. In addition to tracking down murder suspects, Reynolds has served for two decades on the department's hostage negotiating team, and has been the team's commander the past five years.
But even a stoic officer can be shaken. Reynolds remembers being scared when he climbed out on the ledge of a building at the University of South Florida in 1990 and spent an hour talking a woman out of jumping. He even gave her his jacket when she was cold. Eventually, he calmed her and led her down a fire ladder.
"It was about a 30 foot drop and we did not have a net to break the fall," he said.
Younger officers admire his actions and say he is extremely approachable.
"You can just about ask him anything," said officer Stephen "Shorty" Menendez, who was under Reynolds' command the past four years. "Anything that concerns police work, he can just spit it out verbatim, as if he was the book himself."
Of course, the landscape of crime may differ greatly in New Tampa, where petty theft, teenage vandalism and loose bobcats dominate the police blotter. But that's just fine with Reynolds.
"It's a welcome change of environment," he said, noting that crime comes with growth. "It's huge. Size-wise, it's unbelievable. The potential for growth is unbelievable."
Reynold's scoffs at talk of retirement. Sure, he's felt burned out at times. But experience teaches you to cope with stress, change the scenery every few years and do the job.
Some might not understand his loyalty to police work. He has a family. He is an experienced fisherman who could easily make a living chartering trips. Why continue such a dangerous line of work?
"I love it," he said. "When you can inspire young officers to do a good job, they do it and you feel like you can accomplish something."
- Michael Sandler can be reached at (813) 226-3472 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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