As the year comes to a close I want to take a moment to look back on 2023 at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO). We had some trying times, but overall 2023 has been a year of progress and success.
Our Cold Case Unit has had a great year, using a combination of good, old-fashioned police work combined with cutting edge technology to solve cases. A deep dive into the 1987 homicide of an elderly woman led to new DNA analysis of evidence found at the scene. From there, we made use of the new field of genetic genealogy to search DNA databases and generations-old family records for a lead to the person who matched that DNA. A lot of hard work and a little luck led to the February 2023 arrest of a suspect in Mississippi.
Law enforcement can’t work without the support and cooperation of the community. PCSO has been searching for missing person Robert Helphrey since he vanished in 2006. But despite our best efforts, it took a partnership with Sunshine State Sonar and Recon Dive Recovery, independent volunteer groups who dedicate their free time to searching Florida waterways for missing persons. In collaboration with our Cold Case Unit, they finally located Helphrey’s missing vehicle, with his remains inside, in April 2023. His grieving family finally has closure.
We had a brush with tragedy in March 2023 when K-9 Corporal Matt Aitken was ambushed and shot three times by a suspect he and K-9 partner Taco were tracking. As Taco jumped on the suspect to save his handler, Sergeant Jake Viano, who was following Aitken on the track, confronted and shot the suspect. Aitken is now on the road to a full recovery.
This has been the Year of the Bloodhounds. In 2022, when we were unable to find the cold trail of the suspect responsible for Deputy Michael Hartwick’s death, we called in bloodhounds from a neighboring county. That made me realize we need bloodhounds of our own. Since January we’ve watched ours grow from little wrinkled puppies to the mighty trackers they are today. Now that they are on the street their main job will be to find missing people – children or the elderly who have wandered away. Unlike most bloodhounds, ours have been taught obedience, so instead of jumping up on a scared child or frail elder they’ll quietly sit still to alert their handler.
In August 2023 we were faced with the possibility of a direct hit from the Category 4 Hurricane Idalia. Though its path turned to the north, Pinellas County got significant storm surge flooding. As soon as the storm passed PCSO sprang into action, launching our helicopter and deploying our high water rescue vehicles and every available deputy to help those in danger. Though there was considerable destruction of property, we were fortunate to have no loss of life in Pinellas. Hurricane Idalia was another reminder that we must always be prepared.
PCSO has been prominent in both local and national media this year. Our social media reach has expanded exponentially, and the print and television media have picked up on many of our positive stories. Prominent among them was the exciting moment when two of our marine deputies stopped a high-speed runaway boat by leaping onto it. It was a scene straight out of a movie, and just one small example of the great work our brave and highly trained members do.
This year, to let even more people know about what we do, we launched 56: A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Podcast, to great success. Our guests have varied from Cold Case to K-9, from Forensics to the Jail. I encourage you to follow us on social media, and listen to our podcast. I look forward to 2024 and another year of leading the way for a safer Pinellas.
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