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The funerals

Today and Saturday, the area says goodbye to Trooper James B. Crooks and Detectives Rick Childers, Randy Bell.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 1998

The scene -- haunting and moving -- will slowly unfold twice over the next 36 hours.

The silent procession of thousands of uniformed police officers. The firing of a 21-gun salute. The presentation of the American flag to a dead officer's family.

In Clewiston today, thousands of people will mourn Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks at his funeral service.

And while the small agricultural town near Lake Okeechobee buries one of its own, Tampa will prepare for Saturday's funeral of Detectives Rick Childers and Randy Bell.

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Choir members are practicing Amazing Grace. Police Lt. George McNamara must prepare a eulogy for two friends.

The next two days will be perhaps the most difficult period of mourning for the community since Childers, Bell and Crooks were killed Tuesday by Hank Earl Carr.

"More than anything in my lifetime, this has touched every citizen in the area," Tampa Mayor Dick Greco said Thursday. "The people need a forum to say goodbye and to thank public safety officials for protecting us every day."

First will come the goodbye to Crooks.

None of the more than 45 churches in Clewiston where Crooks grew up will be able to hold his mourners.

So the John Boy Auditorium, the town's largest indoor meeting place -- normally known for barbecues, crafts fairs and proms -- will undergo a solemn transformation as law enforcement officers from across the nation squeeze between its walls.

Many people suspect not everyone will fit. While numbers weren't available Thursday, FHP spokesman Lt. Mike Guzman said funerals for other troopers suggest there could be 3,000 people in attendance.

"You'll have a representation there that's absolutely going to boggle your mind," said FHP Sgt. Thomas Przybylowicz of the Bradenton troop, which is helping organize the event.

On Thursday, a closed-casket visitation at the Akin-Davis Funeral Home gave a small-scale preview of what might be in store.

In a town of 22,000, the visitation drew people who knew Crooks not as a trooper, but as the cheery, rosy-faced boy who belonged to the local 4-H Club. They also know the Crooks clan, prominent ranchers who were named Hendry County Farm Family of the Year in 1990.

"Look at the faces of these people coming out," said Guzman, standing just outside the door Thursday. "This community will never be the same."

The visitation drew Hendry County sheriff's deputies, Tampa police and highway patrol troopers, many who never knew Crooks.

One who knew him was Trooper Patrick Conneeley, who attended the highway patrol training academy with Crooks.

Crooks spoke often of his hometown, Conneeley said, and of running horses in his back yard. But Conneeley never visited Clewiston before Thursday, never expected he would come to say goodbye.

"Right now," he said, "it truly hasn't hit me."

Since the Crooks family learned of their son's death, troopers have been stationed with them 24 hours a day. They answer their phones, run errands and shield them from the media. They will remain until after the services.

The funeral, scheduled for 3 p.m. today, will include a fly-over of helicopters from 11 police agencies and the mournful skirl of bagpipes. Delegations from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are expected.

Pasco County sheriff's deputies will handle road patrol in Pasco to permit local highway patrol troopers to attend Crooks' funeral.

Late Thursday, Tampa police officials were finishing arrangements for the morning funeral services planned for Childers and Bell. Crooks' family has been invited to attend. Lt. Gov. Buddy McKay plans to attend both funerals.

The Tampa Convention Center will open its East Hall for mourners at 10. Parking will be available beginning at 9 and will be free in city lots, parking garages and on the street. Message boards will offer guidance to drivers and officers will direct traffic.

Ceremonies will begin at 11.

Convention center officials said they are prepared for 8,000 mourners. Several local businesses have donated carpeting, draperies, plants and a piano.

"We are trying to make this a heartfelt experience for the community," said Robert Rose, interim director for the convention center.

Uniformed officers will usher people into the convention center and hand out programs.

Nearly 150 robed choir members from two churches chosen by Greco -- Riverhills Church of God and Revealing Truth Ministries -- will come together to sing.

Riverhills church pianist John Morgan will first play How Great Thou Art and Wind Beneath My Wings, selections chosen by the families, as they enter the center. During the service, the choirs will sing Total Praise and When Redeemed and conclude with Amazing Grace.

"I look at it as an awesome opportunity to sing to the community that has been hurting and the family," said Steve Allen, minister of music for Riverhills Church of God. "We will bless them in song."

While police officials could not say Thursday who would give the sermon for Saturday's funeral services, McNamara, who once supervised Childers and Bell as homicide detectives and was close to both men, was chosen to eulogize them.

"If you have never been to a police funeral, it will be the most profound thing you have ever experienced," said police Lt. Jane Castor.

Following the service, a police processional, led by the Tampa police motorcycle squad, will travel to Garden of Memories Cemetery where Childers and Bell will be buried.

The route will be closed to traffic, and police officers will be stationed along the way to salute as the hearse passes. Members of the public are invited to stand along the processional route to pay their last respects.

Though most local television stations had not finalized their plans for coverage of the funeral, officials from the four major networks, Channels 8, 10, 13 and 28, and Bay News 9 all said they would offer live coverage.

Greco said Thursday he was grateful to the families of Bell and Childers for agreeing to a large public funeral at the convention center.

"If we had done a number of fragmented things, we wouldn't have been able to get the true scope of the grief this community is feeling," Greco said. "I hope this will bring some closure to a very bad incident and allow us to have a greater appreciation for law enforcement."

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