BRADENTON -- As in past years, the solitary riderless horse depicting a fallen comrade was there, complete with boots pointing backward in the stirrups.
There was also the single red rose placed on seven memorial plaques, the haunting sounds of taps played by bugler Al Dugan, a 21-gun salute and the wail of “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes by the Highland Pipers.
But the highlight of the 2011 Manatee County Law Enforcement Memorial Service in front of the historic Manatee County Courthouse Thursday morning was an unexpectedly emotional keynote speech delivered by Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells.
The annual memorial, known for its pomp and circumstance, honors fallen Manatee County law enforcement dating back to 1897, including individuals from Bradenton and Palmetto police departments, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Highway Patrol.
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“I didn’t bring tissues because I thought I have been to enough of these where I could make it,” said Bradenton City Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey. “I was wrong.”
Wells had worked on his speech about fallen comrade Trooper Jeffrey D. Young of the Florida Highway Patrol for a week and when it was done, he didn’t know if he could deliver it without breaking down.
Not only did Wells deliver the speech, he caused the crowd to break down.
Young was shot to death after making a traffic stop on Aug. 18, 1987. His killer awaits execution on death row.
“Jeff was my first training officer,” said Wells, who served in the Florida Highway Patrol at the same time Young was there. “The first time I got in his car, he asked me if I had my bulletproof vest on. I said, ‘Naw, I left it at home.’ He said, ‘Go get it. Put it on and don’t ever come in my car again without it.’
“Jeff was a machine,” Wells added. “He was a model state trooper. He had a knack for finding drugs. He was killed 24 years ago, but to me it is as if it happened today. I remember we scoured the marshes along the Manatee River until we found his killer later that night. I didn’t want to be there on that search. I wanted to be near Jeff.
“I still want to be near Jeff. I feel my responsibility is to keep his memory alive. The next time you cross the Interstate 75 bridge over the Manatee River named for Jeff, think of him. If you can’t remember everything I have said today, remember that Jeff was a state trooper, and a good one.”
There has never been a speech quite like the one Wells gave because it was so personal, Barnebey said.
“We have always had speakers who do a good job; however, this year was different,” Barnebey said. “Chief Wells put a face on it. You can come and see a rose placed on a plaque, but Rick made us see the whole man.”
The seven lawmen who have died in the line of service in Manatee County are: Marshall Joe Terry of Palmetto (1897), Constable Barnie A. Cumbia of Bradenton (1934), Officer Steve Bennett of Bradenton (1934), Constable Shirley Dewey Smith of Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (1950), Officer Carl W. Cox of Bradenton (1970), Sergeant John C. Baxter of Florida Highway Patrol (1985), Trooper Young (1987) and Detective Herbert W. Grimes of the sheriff’s office (1987).