The plain-clothes deputy radios from outside the courthouse that habitual driving offender Wesley Tunstall is about to walk out the front door and make his way to his pickup truck.
“He’s (also) got a history of battery, fleeing and cocaine charges,” the deputy tells the support team.
Six cruisers are stationed around the courthouse, ready to pounce.
Sgt. Darrell Seckendorf, the commander of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office sting, sits in his unmarked SUV in the small alley between the courthouse and the old police station on Ringling Boulevard. There, he waits.
As Tunstall walks out of the courthouse, where he was fined for driving with a suspended license, and heads toward Adams Lane, the plain-clothes deputy radios more background information.
“(In the past) he rammed a deputy trying to flee,” says Seckendorf.
Seckendorf doesn’t want to take any chances this time, and he again radios to the 14-member team.
“Let’s jump on him before he even moves,” he says. “As soon as he gets in the driver’s seat.”
A deputy in another unmarked car gets on the radio and says Tunstall is getting in the driver’s seat.
Seckendorf hits the gas pedal and speeds onto Adams Lane, with Tunstall’s red pickup straight ahead.
‘Slap in the face’
7:35 a.m. Dec. 21
Thirteen deputies gather on the third floor of the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Ringling Boulevard. Nine are in uniform; four are in plain clothes. A 14th uniformed deputy is on his way.
Seckendorf, the DUI Traffic Unit supervisor, briefs his crew on Operation Gotcha.
The deputies are targeting habitual offenders who have a court date to face punishment for driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license.
The targets will face the judge, be instructed to pay a fine and stop driving. After receiving the instruction to suspend driving, police suspect they will head out of the courthouse door, climb into their vehicles and drive home.
“It’s a slap in the face to the judge,” says Seckendorf. “He warns you not to drive, and you turn around and drive anyway. It’s like flipping the bird to the judge.”
Twenty-four possible violators are scheduled to be in Judge David Denkin’s courtroom at 9 a.m.
Operation Gotcha is performed one or two times a year. The last occasion — Oct. 19, 2009 — netted five arrests.
The four plain-clothes deputies will sit in the courtroom and try to look inconspicuous. Three men are dressed just like many of the justice system’s frequent offenders: jeans, hooded sweatshirts, tennis shoes.
Two men have a couple of days’ growth of stubble on their faces. One dons a light-colored baseball cap with sunglasses perched on top.
The lone female in plain clothes is wearing new jeans, black boots, and a mid-length black overcoat.
“I’m dressed nicer than most,” she laughs.
Their job is to make sure that the suspects do indeed have suspended or revoked licenses and make sure they are not with a friend or family member who may be driving them. After the targets receive their punishment from the judge, the deputies will follow them out of the court and radio descriptions of them and the direction in which they are traveling to the support team.
All four gather in a pre-game huddle to divvy up whom each one will trail.
The 10 deputies in vehicles will be parked in different areas around the courthouse and county parking garage. They will pick up the surveillance and arrest someone as soon as they sit in the driver’s seat and turn the key in the ignition.
The arrestees will be taken straight to jail.
Operation Gotcha begins
“I’d like to get some of these knuckleheads before they get on the road,” Seckendorf tells his crew.
One lives close enough to the sheriff’s office that deputies can try to nab him before court begins.
Jhon Fernandez, 39, is about to pull out of his driveway on Aspinwall Street to head to court. He doesn’t see the deputies parked a short distance away.
The man is about to drive with a license that expired Dec. 9, 2009.
“That’s just dumb,” says Seckendorf. “He’s got no suspensions. You get (the license) renewed.”
Camped out in the alley between the courthouse and old police station, Seckendorf places himself in a position where he has full view of the courthouse door.
Deputy Brian Ivings, who’s sitting in court wearing a faded blue Tampa Bay Lighting sweatshirt, sends a text message that makes Seckendorf laugh.
“We’re going to be busy,” it reads.
“There’s a lot of people up there by themselves with no one else to drive them,” Seckendorf explains.
A call on the radio comes in.
A deputy checking license plates in the county garage finds a violator who was not one of the intended targets.
The man is on his way to drug court and is driving with a suspended license in an unregistered car.
A bonus arrest.
Upon hearing Judge Denkins’ instructions to keep from behind the wheel, the first of the intended targets prepares to leave the courtroom.
A plain-clothes deputy radios down: “Christy Hamrick. Cream jacket. Boots. Long pony tail.”
Seckendorf watches the front door. Hamrick has no idea what’s waiting for her.
“It’s hilarious,” the sergeant says.
Another deputy radios that he’s following a young man in a shirt and tie … and a ski cap.
The man walks out of the courthouse door. The plain-clothes deputy, about 30 feet behind, gives a blow-by-blow description as they walk east on Ringling Boulevard.
“He’s in front of the old police department now.”
“Coming up on the café at the corner.”
“Crossing East Avenue.”
“Passing the parking garage now.”
The man in the ski cap, who lives east of I-75, keeps walking. He heads south on Tuttle Avenue, and deputies eventually stop following him, because he doesn’t appear to be getting into a car.
‘What did I do?’
After leaving the courtroom, Dina King, 32, is followed as she walks east on Ringling Boulevard.
Seckendorf is going to take this one.
He waits until she crosses East Avenue and then slowly makes his way down the street after her.
King walks across Ringing to a silver Mitsubishi.
She inserts the key into the driver’s side door and sits down behind the wheel. Checking her rearview mirror, King pulls out into traffic.
Simultaneously accelerating and flipping on his siren and lights, Seckendorf quickly closes in on the woman’s car. Obviously knowing she’s busted, she immediately puts on her right blinker and pulls into the parking lot next to Checkers.
Seckendorf walks up to her car, and another deputy pulls in to place handcuffs around her wrists.
“What did I do wrong?” King asks.
“You know you’re not supposed to drive,” Seckendorf tells her. “You just came from court. What did the judge say?”
“Pay my fine and don’t drive,” she answers. “But that’s the only way I could get there.”
Hamrick finally emerges from the courthouse. She’s got her keys in her hand, and she’s caught after she gets into a car at Payne Park.
She’s given three criminal citations, because she doesn’t have car insurance.
Camera doesn’t lie
As the last suspect — Tunstall — leaves the probation office, six sheriff’s vehicles descend on his pickup truck. They approach at all possible angles; an escape is impossible.
Four deputies go to Tunstall and open his door. There is a look of bewilderment on his face.
“I was calling someone to pick me up,” Tunstall insists.
He’s asked how he got to his hearing.
“Someone drove me,” he says.
Tunstall parked on Adams Lane. As it happens, he parked directly in front of the new police headquarters, right in front of a surveillance camera.
“We’re going to pull that video right now,” a deputy tells him. “When we do, are we going to see you pulling up in that vehicle?
Tunstall lowers his head. “Yes.”
He’s put into a marked SUV and taken to jail.
And, with that, Operation Gotcha comes to a close.
Two-and-a-half hours of work resulted in four arrests and three written citations. One target got away before he could be caught; a warrant will be issued for his arrest.
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]