MANATEE -- It's the most wonderful time of the year for members of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office when they gather to share a special meal and honor some of their own.
At least 11 lives were saved as a result of the heroic acts of all the nominees for employee and deputy of the year, Sheriff Brad Steube told those gathered Friday at Renaissance on the 9th.
"From talking people out of wanting to commit suicide to rescuing people from ponds and burning cars to performing CPR, I'm proud of our deputies and employees of the month this year," Steube said.
Those honored with the sheriff's office's top honors were:
Deputy of the year -- Deputy Billie Wilson.
Employee of the year -- Jill Freel, dispatcher.
Bealls Humanitarian -- Sidney Ettedgui.
Robert and Dan E. Molter Memorial Volunteer -- Deputy Richard Kelleher.
Wilson was spending the day with family in Hillsborough County on Oct. 18, when a man ran past the front yard he was standing in shooting a gun, explained Stephen Fickey, officer improvement committee chairman.
"You got your kids out of the way of danger and identified yourself to the man as a deputy," Fickey said. "The man ignored your comments and continued shooting. You followed the man at a distance and called 911 with a description of the suspect and his location in a residence."
As a sheriff's office firearm instructor, Wilson was also able to provide a description of the suspect's gun. The suspect surrendered and the gun was found after Hillsborough deputies arrived.
"When faced with this situation that endangered your family and others, you demonstrated composure, exercised your training skills and took appropriate action to resolve the incident, for which you are awarded as 2015 Deputy of the Year," Fickey said.
On June 20, Freel handled a 911 call from a man who said his wife was in the bathroom with a gun and refused to come out. With deputies en route, Freel asked the man to hold the phone to the door.
"You were calm and compassionate as you called the name of the woman who you could hear crying behind the closed door," Fickey said. "Keeping officer safety in mind, you were able to convince her to open the door and place the gun on the floor outside the door."
Kelleher has been a volunteer at Bayside Community Church since 2005. Kelleher is a leader in the youth ministries and volunteers hundreds of hours each year acting as a mentor for the children and gaining the trust and respect of adults.
"Your position as a deputy sheriff is common knowledge and gives opportunity to improve the relationship between the agency and the community we serve," said Carol Laudicina, human resources director.
And just one day after holding its annual Flight to the North Pole. which provides terminally ill children a Christmas experience, Ettedgui was honored for the dedication of his time, talent and money for 30 years to the cause.
"The medical expenses for these children often hinders the ability for parents to purchase Christmas gifts, but through your generous work, over 100 children can look forward to this charity event," said Dan Doyle, senior vice president and chief human resources director for Bealls.
During his closing remarks, Steube spoke about heroes and gave examples of the everyday work that happens in some of the units within the sheriff's office. Significant events for the year included undercover operation to bust unlicensed contractors, another Green Sheppard undercover operation to bust those seeking minors for sexual activity, the plea agreement with William Cumber that led to recovering the remains of Sabine Musil-Buehler, and an overall reduction of crime in 2015 of at least 5 percent.
Steube choked up with tears as he spoke his final words.
"There will be over 355,000 calls for service this year that will touch every unit in this agency and, based on what I described today, that's why all of you are my heroes," he said.
Jessica De Leon, Herald law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter@JDeLeon1012.