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Clewiston residents Kyle Watson, 21, left, and Scott Smith, 23, on Wednesday talk about their former classmate James Crooks. Smith and Crooks, who had known each other since they were both 5, were best friends during high school in Clewiston. "I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anything bad to say about him," Smith said. [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]

Hometown mourns for trooper

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 1998


CLEWISTON -- James B. Crooks died a rookie.

The 23-year-old Florida Highway Patrol trooper had been on the force less than a year when he was gunned down Tuesday in Pasco County. For many who knew him in the small agricultural town where he grew up, the badge and uniform never had time to settle into the mental pictures they carried of him.

They knew him as the perpetually smiling boy who rode his family's horse across the Clewiston High School campus during Spirit Week of his senior year, and put on a dress and wig to lip-sync the song Respect at a school talent show.

They knew him as a member of the school band whose zest for the clarinet made up for what he lacked in skill. They knew him as an honors student who was active in a youth group at First United Methodist Church.

"Many people are very devastated by this," said Kay Dyess, the town's chamber of commerce director, who knows the Crooks family. "When something like this happens, you lose part of your family. I'm sure the larger communities don't understand that."

Before he was Trooper James B. Crooks, he was Brad, the hometown boy who loved the University of Florida Gators and put in hard hours on his family's ranch and neighbors' farms.

In their memories, the people of this town of about 22,000 will now carry a grim statistic alongside those idyllic images of an American boyhood.

On Tuesday, Crooks became the 37th Florida Highway Patrol trooper slain on duty since 1939. He was shot to death in a gunman's killing rampage that spanned three counties.

The flags outside his former high school flew at half-staff Wednesday, and Hendry County sheriff's deputies wore black bands across their badges. Clewiston is a city where people speak proudly of their deep roots, and locals said such a death means something different in a town that measures roughly 1 square mile than it would in a big, anonymous city.

On the high school campus Wednesday, band director George Ganglfinger showed visitors a big framed photo collection of the band from 1992-93. At the top is a smiling, stocky James Crooks wearing a light blue band uniform and holding a clarinet.

"He never became a great clarinet player," Ganglfinger said, "but he brought an attitude and spirit to our rehearsals because he gave it everything he had."

Another teacher, Lonzo Griffith, recalled Crooks was once editor of the school newspaper, Tiger Express.

Every death hits hard, Griffith said, but "this one here hits drastically because of the type that he was."

Despite Crooks' dream of working in law enforcement, Griffith said, "he wasn't type that was rugged. He didn't distrust anybody."

Authorities say the trooper met up with 30-year-old Hank Carr on Tuesday on the Interstate 75 exit ramp at State Road 54 after Carr already had murdered two Tampa detectives. How the scene unfolded remains under investigation, but Carr shot him dead, police said.

• Carr stayed free by staying invisible
Outpouring of support is overwhelming
Survivors are offered financial aid

Trooper from small town gave life for job he loved
A grandmother grieves for the boy she raised
'Stress' teams offer comfort to officers

How could such a man have such a lethal arsenal?
• An evil beyond words robs us all
Phone calls to gunman raise concerns about media's role

• Hometown mourns for trooper
Killing leaves student shaken

Standoff leaves Shell in disarray
Killer's shirt gives cafe unwelcome publicity
Police in Citrus reviewing guidelines after officers' deaths

Griffith wondered if the trooper's attitude toward people might have colored that final encounter. "I can't see him as being a cautious person, because he trusted people," Griffith said.

Scott Smith, 23, of Clewiston knew Crooks since they were both 5. Their pictures are side by side in the band photo collection.

"I think you'd be hard-pressed to find anything bad to say about him. You hear people sugar-coat things when people pass on, but this is the legitimate truth."

Smith said Crooks spoke often of joining law enforcement, and that he was driven by a desire to help people.

Smith said he spoke to Crooks only a few months ago, and the trooper was excited by his new line of work.

But when the news accounts from upstate kept referring to the murder of "Trooper Crooks," Smith at first found himself slightly jarred. He knew his childhood friend as "Brad."

"I wasn't used to him being called Trooper Crooks," Smith said. "But then I thought that's the way it should be, because he was really proud of that."


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