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Attorney General Bill McCollum Press Release
McCollum Names 2008 Law Enforcement Officer Of The Year
TALLAHASSEE, FL - Attorney General Bill McCollum today named Lieutenant Michael Howell, formerly of the Department of Transportation (DOT), as the recipient of the Attorney General's Law Enforcement Officer of the Year award for 2008. Lieutenant Howell, now serving with the Walton County Sheriff's Office, was joined by 12 fellow officers from around the state at a ceremony recognizing them for their dedication to law enforcement and their protection of the public.
“I am honored to be among the very best of Florida's law enforcement community today,” Attorney General McCollum said at the ceremony honoring the nominees. “These men and women have made the safety and security of our state and our families their top priority, and for that they deserve our heartfelt honor and respect.”
Lieutenant Howell served as a member of the DOT Motor Carrier Compliance Office's Contraband Interdiction Program for eight years and was the program's lead K-9 instructor. In 2008, Lieutenant Howell – then Officer Howell – performed 604 safety inspections, issued 93 safety reports, removed 71 unfit commercial drivers and 80 unsafe vehicles from Florida's roadways, and made 48 criminal arrests. According to the Department of Transportation, these actions directly reduced the number of commercial vehicle crashes and related fatalities in Florida.
On October 12, 2008, Officer Howell stopped a commercial motor vehicle to conduct a vehicle inspection. Suspecting criminal activity, he deployed a K-9 Unit to sniff the vehicle, and the dog alerted to the presence of narcotics. A subsequent search revealed 150 kilos of cocaine with a street value of approximately $3 million, as well as $3,000 in cash. Two suspects were arrested on trafficking charges and the truck and trailer were seized.
The Department of Transportation noted that as a result of his dedication, resourcefulness and initiative, Lieutenant Howell is responsible for the largest seizure of marijuana and one of the largest seizures of cocaine in the history of the Motor Carrier Compliance Office.
Each nominee for the Attorney General's award had previously been recognized as an “Officer of the Year” by a Florida law enforcement agency or organization that sponsors such a statewide award. Deputy Howell was nominated by virtue of his selection by the Department of Transportation. A selection committee appointed by the Attorney General considered the distinguished group of nominees from state agencies and organizations including the Florida Sheriff's Association, the Florida Police Chiefs Association, the State Law Enforcement Chiefs Association, the Florida Gang Investigators Association and the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Howell is the fifth recipient of the Attorney General's annual award. Last year's recipient was Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent Tammy Roane. The 2006 recipient was Detective Sergeant Contento of the Tampa Police Department and the 2005 recipient was Detective Kevin Kuschel of the Palm Beach County School District Police Department. The recipient in 2004 was Tallahassee Police Officer Chuck Perry, and Marion County Deputy Sheriff Mike Rolls was honored as the first recipient of the award in 2003.
Nominated by the Florida Police Chiefs Association – Detective Nelson Camacho
Detective Camacho has consistently been recognized by the North Miami Beach Police Department as an outstanding officer, having received three Officer of the Month awards as well as being named 2006 Officer of the Year. During his 12-year career, his keen sense of observation and uncanny ability of locating criminals in the act of committing crimes have resulted in numerous arrests. In several instances during the past year, he was instrumental in apprehending individuals responsible for large numbers of armed robberies in the North Miami Beach area.
Nominated by the Fraternal Order of Police, Florida Lodge – Hialeah Police Officer Gabriel Casco
Police Officer Gabriel Casco is an eight-year veteran of the Hialeah Police Department. On October 26, 2007, in a selfless act of courage, Officer Casco saved the life of a child trapped in a burning apartment. Though he was off duty at the time, he responded to a call and found the apartment fully engulfed in flames. Climbing onto a second story balcony, he managed to gain entry to the apartment, located the child in a bedroom and brought the child to safety. Officer Casco's actions represent the highest degree of dedication and service to his community.
Nominated by the Department of Environmental Protection, Division of Law Enforcement – Corporal Daniel Dickson
During his eight-year career, Corporal Dickson has proven to be an exceptional asset to his department. His emphasis on suppressing property crimes created a more secure park environment, with an 80 percent decrease in burglaries of a conveyance at Wekiwa Springs State Park over the past year. His outstanding interpersonal skills led to the formation of an interagency environmental task force which improved communication and cooperation among several state and federal agencies and local law enforcement offices. Additionally, acting upon information provided by a confidential informant, he worked with the Bureau of Environmental Investigations to locate and eradicate a marijuana cultivation plot on DEP state lands.
Nominated by the State Law Enforcement Chiefs Association – State Trooper Joshua Earrey
Having served almost eight years with the Florida Highway Patrol, Trooper Joshua Earrey is currently assigned to Troop G Contraband Interdiction Team as a K-9 handler. As a member of the North Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) Task Force, Trooper Earrey has seized 10.5 kilos of powder cocaine, 1.5 pounds of crack cocaine, 83.5 pounds of marijuana, 2.5 ounces of heroin, 250 grams of methamphetamines, over $277,000 and 23 firearms, while making over 1,200 traffic citations and 280 drug-related charges over the past year. Information obtained as a result of Trooper Earrey's arrests resulted in a search warrant being issued on a target of a Mexican drug cartel, which led in the seizure of 47 pounds of marijuana, a half kilo of cocaine, $18,000, and a handgun.
Nominated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Wildlife Federation – Wildlife Officer Robert Johnston
Though Officer Johnston has been with the Fish and Wildlife Commission fewer than five years, he has quickly risen to the top in terms of his work ethic, knowledge of the natural areas and resources in his jurisdiction and leadership abilities. He patrols vast amounts of land and water in the Levy County area, working in five wildlife management areas and the network of waters surrounding Cedar Key. Last year, he participated in eight search and rescue missions, many under the worst conditions. His enforcement of the laws and education efforts ensure the safety of all outdoor enthusiasts and protection of Florida's natural resources.
Nominated by the Florida Retail Federation – Detective James Ostojic
During his 13-year career with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Detective Ostojic has a proven track record. While investigating approximately $4,500 in retail theft of beauty products from a grocery store chain, he recognized it was not an isolated incident, but part of a multi-million dollar retail theft ring. In cooperation with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, a full-scale investigation revealed teams of thieves stealing thousands of dollars worth of products at each stop, hitting numerous stores several days a week, and selling the items to third parties. Losses to retail outlets over a five-year period were estimated at nearly $100 million. In January 2008, search warrants were served in a three-county area, resulting in 18 arrests and criminal charges of racketeering.
Nominated by the Department of Financial Services, Division of Insurance Fraud – Detective Theodore Padich
With over 10 years of service with the Department of Financial Services, Detective Padich has become an expert in the field of mortgage fraud, a growing criminal trend with severe financial impacts on citizens and communities as well as banking and lending institutions. His initiative and innovation have resulted in the development of a streamlined system of mortgage fraud investigation. During the past fiscal year, Detective Padich's investigative work resulted in seven convictions on four mortgage fraud cases, which led to a combined $1.75 million in court-ordered restitution. Through his diligence and resourcefulness, Detective Padich identified dozens of additional victims of an organized mortgage fraud scheme involving condominium purchases in the Orlando area valued at over $8 million dollars.
Nominated by the Florida Gang Investigators Association – Detective Garrick Plonczynski
Detective Plonczynski is the senior investigator in the Gang Unit of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office. Serving five of his 10 years with the department in this capacity, Detective Plonczynski has dedicated his life and career to combating gang crime in his community. He has been recognized for his resourcefulness and ingenuity in utilizing the internet to identify and track gang members and activity. Detective Plonczynski was also vital in identifying a suspect in the murder of an innocent 9-year-old victim of gang-related crime, knowing only the suspected shooter's first name. Detective Plonczynski is also a member of the Attorney General's Tampa Bay Gang Reduction Task Force and dedicates much of his personal time to teaching law enforcement and civilians about combating gang violence and crime in their community.
Nominated by the Florida Police Chiefs Association – Corporal Brent Tyler
A member of the Fruitland Park Police Department for over six years, Corporal Tyler serves as a K-9 officer. He has quickly proven to be an asset to his department and the community, often going above and beyond to provide assistance to other local law enforcement agencies during his off duty hours by aiding in drug searches and tracking. Last year, when a large tornado struck the area, Officer Tyler came to the scene and, with another officer, saved the life of a paralyzed man who was buried in the rubble. He also recently arrested a drug dealer for trafficking in cocaine and methamphetamine, which led to the seizure of over a kilogram of drugs, additional arrests, and an end to the supply of these drugs in a five-county area for a significant amount of time.
Nominated by the Department of Financial Services, State Fire Marshal's Office – Detective Michael Vitta
Detective Vitta is a member of the Fire Marshal's Honor Guard and represents the office on many formal occasions. During the past year, Detective Vitta investigated 119 fires, of which 83 were arson. His investigations resulted in 13 arrests in 11 arson cases. In July 2007, Detective Vitta identified a juvenile diagnosed with autism as a fire setter and over the course of several months, determined this individual was responsible for several other small fires started in the area. Detective Vitta took the juvenile into custody, but spoke at the first court appearance on his and indicated the need for placement in a proper medical facility rather than a correctional setting. Due to Detective Vitta's perseverance, the juvenile was placed in a permanent group home in November 2008.
Nominated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement – Special Agent Ellen Wilcox
A 29-year FDLE veteran, Special Agent Wilcox has become a nationally-recognized expert in the field of mortgage fraud. A member of the FBI Mortgage Fraud Task Force/Tampa Bay, Special Agent Wilcox works with numerous law enforcement agencies, as well as regulatory and private sector organizations, to combat mortgage fraud and economic crimes. As a certified fraud examiner, she led a joint investigation with the Tampa Police Department, Hillsborough County Consumer Protection Agency, Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services, and the Attorney General's Office of Statewide Prosecution into allegations of mortgage fraud which led to the arrests of 10 defendants charged with numerous offenses including racketeering, grand theft, and obtaining mortgages by false representation. Due to her hard work and dedication, an $18 million fraud operation has been dismantled.
Nominated by the Florida Highway Patrol – Trooper Thomas Winders
A member of the force since 2004, Trooper Winders is currently assigned to Troop E Contraband Interdiction Team as a K-9 officer. In June 2007, Trooper Winders and Trooper Christopher Zarazinski arrived on the scene of a vehicle crash in Palm Beach County where a vehicle had become submerged in a deep canal. With no regard for his personal safety, Trooper Winders entered the water to rescue the victims. Neither victim was breathing when brought to shore, but CPR was administered and both were revived and airlifted to an area hospital. Ultimately, only one survived the accident, but without Trooper Winders' courageous actions, both victims would certainly have been lost.