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Remember the man behind the badge and his dream

By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 23, 1998


CLEWISTON -- At first glance, it is a town that seems a long way from sorrow. Why, then, are so many strong men weeping?

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It is a place that calls itself "America's Sweetest Town." Why, then, did the tears seem so bitter?

Nothing much seems to happen here in Clewiston, and the natives seem to like that just fine. There is an innocence that seems unique to small towns, as if nothing terrible could find those who live here among the sugar cane. Yet, they laid a good man down here Friday.

Law enforcement officers from across the nation showed up for the funeral of James B. Crooks, the state trooper killed at the hands of Hank Earl Carr on Tuesday.

There were officers in varying uniforms -- blues, browns and greens, berets, cowboy hats and the circular Smokies of troopers -- and they filled the yard of the John Boy Auditorium as if they were a show of force against the kind of demons that left Crooks a fallen comrade.

There were ribbons over the badges, and a 21-gun salute, and a riderless horse. A radio dispatcher signed off Crooks over a loudspeaker for the final time and an officer played Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. Officers with black gloves folded the American flags and presented them to survivors.

It was fine symbolism, moving and impressive. In a week where our law enforcement officers have seemed especially vulnerable to the type of madness that awaits them, it was important.

But this is important to note, too: It was not only a symbol who was eulogized Friday. It also was a son. It wasn't just James B. Crooks. It was Brad. Good old Brad.

There was real blood on his uniform, real wounds in his body. This was not an unknown soldier to be remembered only as a victim to senselessness. Crooks was flesh and bone, a large smiling and laughing teddy bear to those who knew him. Do not let that get lost in the bigger message. Do not forget who he was beneath the badge.

That's how they knew him here in his hometown, a quiet little place where the multiplex plays two movies and a girl winning a scholarship makes the lead photo of the weekly newspaper. It is one of those nice little Mayberries where people know each other and the boundaries seem endless.

Here, Brad Crooks was more than a symbol. He was the chunky kid with the big smile, the guy who had a simple way to order dinner in a restaurant: "Steak for me, steak for my friends." And woe to anyone who dare apply ketchup to the meat.

He was the kid running his father's cattle in a dune buggy he made from an old Volkswagen. The kid who put on a wig and a dress to perform Respect, the old Aretha Franklin song, in a school skit. The kid who came to school on spirit day, when kids at Clewiston High are supposed to dress in their best western outfit, dressed in spurs, chaps and a long-rider overcoat with a 15-foot bullwhip. Oh, yes. He was riding a horse.

"Telling a story about Brad is like picking one coin out of a stack of gold," old friend Andrew Crouse said. "The only sad memory I have of him is this day. He was just one of those people who liked people and who was determined whenever he went after something. He'd get a wild hair and a gleam in his eye and away you went."

There was the time Crooks and Crouse decided, for a class project, they were going to invent their own anti-car-theft device. Only, their invention was going to be more active. It was going to make the thief pay. So they stayed up nights, fiddling with the car, getting it right.

When it was done, they asked Scott Smith -- the other of the three musketeers -- if he wanted to drive. Every 15 seconds or so, Smith would be shocked from beneath the seat. And his friends would convulse in laughter.

"He was a good man, a good friend," Smith said. "To me, he symbolized everything that is good about humanity."

He didn't drink, he didn't smoke. He showed up every day at school with a large container of sweetened tea and he and his friends would sit in the band room -- he played the clarinet, more with gusto than grace -- and sip and get silly. He loved the Florida Gators and driving fast and his fiancee, Nadine LaMonte. Oh yes, and his job.

"He always wanted to be in law enforcement," James Fielder said. "Since he was 14-15, he'd come up and ask me questions about what we do."

Fielder, in his late 60s, and Mike Moore, 52, used to serve together in Hendry County. Fielder is now an auxiliary officer and Moore works for the Palm Beach schools. They stood outside, talking about the boy they knew, talking about the life they chose.

"He was a good boy," Fielder said. "He used to go with my granddaughter."

"See, everyone knows everyone here," Moore said. "We're all intertwined in this town."

Moore turned to Fielder. "Are both your boys in law enforcement?"

"Yep," Fielder said. "How about yours?"

"He's talking about it. He thinks he's going to try it."

But don't they fear for their sons? After this, shouldn't we all?

"It's their choice," Moore said. "I know a kid who was killed at the sugar mill for not pulling the right switch."

"If they're trained right," Fielder said. "You can reduce the chances of this happening."

Reduce them. Not eliminate them. Ask Col. Charles Hall, director of the highway patrol. His son, Tyler, was in the 91st class with Crooks. When Hall heard what had happened, "the father came out in me."

It was Tyler Hall who told his father of Crooks' determination to be a law enforcement officer, of how much harder it was for Crooks than for most recruits. He was out of shape, struggling to complete exercises at first. But he stuck it with it and he became an officer.

Because of those hardships, the family asked George Ganglfinger to sing The Impossible Dream at the funeral. When you look beneath the symbolism and the ceremony, that's what this was really about. A kid and his dream.

And a town well aware that neither lived long enough.


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