MANATEE -- Five Manatee County Sheriff's Office employees were recognized for their outstanding service in 2012 at the 18th annual awards banquet Friday.
More than 200 people gathered for lunch at Renaissance on 9th, listening to holiday music and visiting with one another for a time of reflection on this year's tragedies and accomplishments.
"It's kind of like a family thing," said Sheriff Brad Steube. "It's good to recognize employees. When people show interest in the good work they do, hopefully that fosters better attitudes."
Deputy Debra Freer, who has worked at the sheriff's office for 17 years, received the Robert Molter Memorial Volunteer of the Year award. In addition to her patrol duties, Freer has participated in children's school activities, served as a guardian ad litem, worked in her church ministry, advised the sheriff's office Explorer/Cadets and is a member of the Family Assistance
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"It was very unexpected," said Freer, who became emotional when accepting the award. "I guess I don't understand being recognized for something I do naturally. I'm very humbled. The biggest thing for me is helping kids and feeling like I've made a difference in the life of a child."
Cheryl Seiss, who has worked 15 years in the records department, was named Bealls Humanitarian of the Year for her work with numerous agency fundraisers benefiting local organizations. After 11 years of coordinating monthly blood drives for the office, Seiss stepped down in July.
"It was such a surprise," Seiss said. "So many people give so much time, dollars and get together in times of grief and times of joy. It's just what you do."
All winners of Employee and Deputy of the Month throughout the year were called to the stage.
Latent print examiner Robert Feverston and former crime scene technician Adrianne Walls shared the title of Employee of the Year for their work in the Kathleen Briles murder investigation. After examining a medical dictionary of more than 1,000 pages, Walls found a fingerprint. Feverston matched that print to Delmer Smith, who was convicted of the Aug. 3, 2009 murder this summer. Both employees testified at the trial.
"That's what I do; that's my job," said Feverston, a patient of the victim's husband, Dr. James Briles. "I appreciate it, and it makes everyone in the fingerprint department feel good. That was a long case. Evidence came in over months and months. When I get up on the stand I get nervous every time, but it felt good when we got the conviction."
After six years at the office, Walls resigned in September to take an out-of-state job and could not attend the banquet. Feverston has been with the department for 15 years.
Deputy of the Year was awarded to Justin Warren, who has worked at the sheriff's office for nine years.
Warren responded to a suicide attempt in February in which a man tried to flood his residence with natural gas from the stove, threatening to ignite the gas if law enforcement arrived. Over time, Warren was able to get into the man's garage. Keeping his weapon holstered, despite the man wielding a knife, Warren established a rapport with the man who eventually exited the house.
"It truly is an honor because there were a lot of good people nominated," Warren said. "We all work great as a team. That night I knew I had good guys watching my back, and I wouldn't trade them for anything."
Steube noted that each individual recognized helped improve the community, but echoed the sentiment of teamwork.
"We've saved more lives this year with people talking a bad guy out of a gun, talking people out of committing suicide," Steube said.
"It's the complaint taker, dispatcher, deputy who responds, supervisor who reads the report, records clerk who files it. It's everybody in this room."
Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.