On the sweltering summer evening of July 21, 1972, a tall, skinny, 18-year-old – sporting a mustache because it “made him look older” — walked into the Bartow headquarters of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office on Broadway Avenue and started his first official night shift in the communications office, answering emergency calls for help as one of only about 150 employees of then-Sheriff Monroe Brannen.
It was an undistinguished beginning for Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who has since gained national prominence as the no-nonsense, tough-talking sheriff of one of America’s largest counties, whose off-the-cuff quips have earned him a following on Facebook and a tribute in a rap video, along with the scorn of those his agency has caught breaking the law.
LkldNow is looking at the career of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is celebrating 50 years at the sheriff’s office and his 50th wedding anniversary. This is Part 1 of a five-part series.
Today, Judd marks his 50th anniversary with the law enforcement agency and his 16th year as sheriff, a job he says was the only one he ever wanted starting when he was a preschooler. In January, the anniversary of his first swearing in as sheriff in 2005, he will have served longer in that position than any sheriff in Polk County history.
“It was God’s mission for me in life, in law enforcement, to serve others, to help, to be involved, to try to make things better. And I never contemplated anything else my entire life,” Judd said. “This was all — I had planned this out from the time I was a child.”
Throughout his 68 years, Judd has become accustomed to either making things happen or figuring out how to. In the last five decades, Judd quickly rose through the ranks, fast earning additional stripes and stars on his green uniform and garnering him the nickname “Captain Kid” from older deputies, all while maneuvering his way through politically volatile situations under the five men who came before him.
Throughout his career, he has been shot at, wrestled lengthy lawsuits and brought down people peddling pornography, sex parlors and strippers in Polk County. He has also rubbed shoulders with presidents and become a backroom kingmaker, helping to select local Republican candidates for various offices.
On July 6, Judd allowed LkldNow to spend the day with him at his Winter Haven office – long dubbed Grady Palace after he secured the funding to build the state-of-the-art law enforcement headquarters. LkldNow also rode along to various appointments and emergencies throughout the county. His day included:
- His daily roll call meeting with his top staff to discuss crimes that had happened since the previous day’s meeting
- Answering letters and signing dozens of congratulations and thank you cards
- Meeting with a local BBQ restaurant owner, who donated $34,000 worth of meals to PCSO
- Choosing a speaker for an upcoming law enforcement leadership conference
- Attending a retirement celebration for a jail captain
- Grabbing a quick lunch at a Rotary meeting
- Meeting with community leaders to discuss people on parole or probation who were no longer doing their required weekly check-in
- Meeting with two members of a local church who wanted to help men convicted of sexual offenses
- And finally rushing to the scene of a grisly motorcycle accident in Auburndale
Growing up Grady
Judd showed a reporter a framed photograph on a table in his office, a black-and-white image. He is a toddler and he is sitting on the lap of his Great Uncle Joe McCoy while his father, Grady Curtis Judd Sr., stands beside them in his military uniform.
“Uncle Joe was the sheriff in Tennessee when I was just a little bitty fella,” Judd said on one of his Throwback Thursday videos on Youtube. “If you look real close in this very grainy, old photo, you can see I got a star or a badge on.”
Judd said it was his family, particularly his late father, who taught him that “right is right and wrong is never right, and to always do the right thing. And sometimes doing the right thing is going to be painful.”
Between his Uncle Joe, healthy doses of the old television shows “Gunsmoke” and “The Andy Griffith Show” (which he still watches), along with that divine calling, a seed was planted in Judd. During childhood games of cops and robbers on Kiwanis Avenue, off of South Combee Road, he was always the cop.
It was in that working-class neighborhood of modest cinderblock homes that Judd’s father gave the 12-year-old a radio on which he could listen to real police chatter. He immediately dialed in the sheriff’s office channel and started listening, but got tripped up by what are called “10-codes,” cop talk for the various incidents happening throughout the county. For example, 10-4 is acknowledgement that you received and understood the previous message.
“My dad tried to help me get a copy of the 10 signals to better understand what they were saying, but that was confidential back in the days, so I just I would just write them out as I listened to this radio, and I figured them out myself, at 12 years old,” Judd said. “There was enough plain talk and what I call ‘sloppy radio procedure’ that, over time, I figured out the vast majority of all the 10 codes that they used over and over and over.”
Like most working class houses, the Judd’s home didn’t have air-conditioning. But his school, Crystal Lake Junior High, blew cool air all day.
“We were in brand new schools — we thought we were the bomb,” Judd said. “We went to junior high and they had air conditioning.”
grady judd: 50 years in law enforcement
So Judd, who was about 13 at the time, looked in the Sears Roebuck catalogue (the Amazon of 1960s America) and saw that a window unit was about $8 a month (about $110 today). He convinced his dad, the service director of a local Cadillac dealership, to buy one.
About that same time, Judd unilaterally decided that their home needed a private telephone line. Back then, multiple homes shared one telephone line and you had to wait your turn to make a call – and sometimes listened in on your neighbor’s call while you waited.
Judd called the phone company and asked how much a private line would be and when the operator said $1 more a month, Judd – who shared a name with his father – said to sign them up.
His mother discovered what he had done when she realized she hadn’t heard from her neighborhood friends all week, who were accustomed to making the Judd’s phone ring – known as “ringing down” back then. She was only irritated that he hadn’t asked permission, but Judd operated then — and continues to do so — on the old adage that it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.
At 16, he talked the Polk County Ambulance Service into hiring him, even though he wasn’t the required 18 years of age. But he did have an advanced first aid card. He attended Lakeland High School during the day and worked for the ambulance service in the evenings.
One day his boss called him in the morning, frantic, and asked if he could fill in for a sick co-worker.
“Yeah, I skipped school to save lives,” Judd said in a Throwback Thursday video.
But he got caught. When he got home, his Mom, Martha Judd, started asking him about how his day at school had gone. Did anything unusual happen? Anything special? He said, “No, ma’am.”
And then she pulled out a copy of that day’s Lakeland Ledger, which was an afternoon paper in the 1960s and early 1970s and was delivered at about 4:30 p.m.
“So mom picks up this newspaper and shows it to me and goes, ‘Well, if you were at school today, why is this your picture, putting somebody on a stretcher at a vehicle accident in downtown Lakeland at 10 o’clock this morning?’” Judd recalled. “I was busted. She caught me fibbing to her. That was not good. That was very bad. I knew better than to lie to my mom. So at that point, I fell on the sword and said, ‘Well, I knew you wouldn’t approve, but I had a chance to work and make more money. And we did save the lady’s life.’ She said, ‘Well, that’s good. But I’m gonna kill you if you ever do that again. Do you understand me, young man?’”
One of the earliest ambulance calls he went on involved Lakeland’s most famous country-singer resident. George Jones was known to drive his riding lawnmower from his home on 540-A to the nearest bar after his wife, Tammy Wynette, and friends would hide his car keys because he was drunk.
As Judd tells in a Throwback Thursday video, one afternoon, they were called to the home to pick up a “Mr. Jones” and take him to the hospital.
“I’m 16 — I didn’t listen to country — I was into a rock music and all that sort of thing and I didn’t know George Jones from math,” Judd said.
When the ambulance pulls up, everyone is standing around outside, even though it’s searing hot.
Judd walked into the home and the first thing he saw was Jones’ hotel keys collection hanging on a hallway wall – dozens of them from back when you got a real key, along with an oval-shaped plastic piece that had the hotel‘s name on it and the key’s room number.
And then he walked into the family room.
“It was totally trashed, totally destroyed, and there’s like this man, passed out drunk on a couch or a sofa. Or as we used to, say, a settee,” Judd recalled. “And I looked around and everything’s torn up. And then it dawns on me why everyone’s outside and they sent me, a 16-year-old kid and the driver, inside.”
He tapped on Jones’ foot to wake him up and that’s when the negotiation began.
“He said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Mr. Jones, we’re here take you to the hospital.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to the hospital.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir. You’re going to the hospital. The doctor said you had to go to the hospital. You’re sick,’ Judd said. Jones shot back, “’I’m not sick.’ I said, ‘The doctor thinks you are. So do me a favor and get on the stretcher.’ Well, he gave me this really mean look and I thought we’re about to have a fight and, all of a sudden he jumps up, hops on the stretcher and says take him to the hospital.”
Judd said everyone outside was shocked that Jones went willingly.
But the story didn’t end there. As they made their way toward what was then known as Lakeland General Hospital, Jones asked Judd if he’d like to hear him sing.
“I said, ‘No, sir. Not really.’ He said, ‘What?! Do you realize how much people pay me to sing? Do you realize hundreds of people show up to hear me and I’m offering the same to you, to give you a private concert in the back of this ambulance. And you tell me no?’” Judd said. “The guy was drinking and I go, ‘Calm down. It’s okay. I don’t like country western music.’ He said, ‘You are one dumb little S.O.B.’ Only he didn’t say S.O.B. And I said, ‘I’m just a kid trying to take you to the hospital. Just chill out.’ And that’s the time I missed the private concert from the famous George Jones, one of the best country western singers of all time.”
One day during the summer between his junior and senior high school year, Judd was at work at the ambulance service office. His colleague’s girlfriend was bringing him lunch and tagging along with her was a friend — Marisa Ogburn.
For Judd, it was love at first sight. For Marisa, she knew by the end of their first date that he was something special.
“He’s just funny,” Marisa Judd said. “He can get on my nerves, but everything he does just about is funny. Just the way he says things.”
At the end of that first date, he booked her for every weekend after that for the foreseeable future. The two high school seniors were engaged by Christmas.
Never taking no for an answer
As his senior year was winding down at Lakeland High School, Grady Judd was winding up for his dream career in law enforcement. Only he couldn’t get past the gatekeepers to start.
“I’d already worked for the ambulance for two years. I knew a lot of the deputies, highway patrol, police officers of the county,” Judd said.
He started hanging out at the sheriff’s office and tried to apply for a civilian job before his graduation, but they wouldn’t take him without a high school diploma. June 1972 rolled around and he applied again, diploma in hand.
“The HR director who was also the property guy – he wore several hats in the small agency at the time – said, ‘Well you know, kid, we just hired an 18 year old. He didn’t work out. He was childish and they fired him. I don’t think we’re going to be hiring any more 18 year olds,’” Judd said.
As usual, Judd found another way. He asked the captain over communications, which handled incoming calls and dispatched deputies, if he could hang out in their office on his nights off.
Judd worked his ambulance job during the day, went to school in the evenings, went out with Marisa on his nights off, took her home by 11 p.m. and then hung out all night in the sheriff’s office dispatch department. This went on for more than a month.
“The captain came in … and he said, ‘Uh, kid how long are you going hang out here?’ I said, ‘Until y’all hire me. I’m not going away.’ He said ‘Why?’ I said, ‘I’m going to be the sheriff one day. It’s time to get started.’ And on July the 21st, 1972, I went on the payroll as a radio operator. And the rest is history.”
He continued with summer classes at Polk Community College, with Marisa tutoring him.
“She had to drag me through community college,” Judd said. “I paid a horrible price for not paying attention in high school. They had to teach me proper English and math to get me through community college.”
He laughs when he recalls an English teacher they both had.
“One night at the break, the English teacher at Polk Community College way back in the day, called her up and said ‘You dating that Judd boy?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well listen,’ he said, ‘You’re really brilliant. And he ain’t going anyplace. You need to dump him. You can do a lot better.’ And she said, ‘I think I’ll hang around a while,’” Judd recalled, chuckling. “And so, despite the English teacher telling my wife, my current wife, my girlfriend then, to dump me, she didn’t and I’m grateful that she didn’t.”
Two months after Grady Judd started at the sheriff’s office, he and Marisa married. He earned $300 a month working in dispatch and she made $250 a month in the finance department at Adams Citrus in Auburndale. Things were so tight, Judd revealed in a Throwback Thursday video, that he would swing by a local cemetery’s garbage pile and pluck still-living flowers out of what had been thrown out and present them to Marisa.
Judd was eager to get his badge and a patrol car and start the work of a deputy, but he was still too young – at the time, you had to be 21. One night in the winter of 1972, he did what’s known as a ride-along with a deputy, which allows a civilian to get the experience of what law enforcement is like. The deputy told him to wear his communications uniform, which looked a lot like a deputy uniform, but without a gun belt and weapon. But, of course, Judd had bought a gun belt and, because you had to be 21 to buy a firearm, his dad had bought him a pistol.
They were patrolling an orange grove in Alturas, looking for thieves stealing pickup-truck loads of citrus and stealing the large tires off the citrus trailers. They spotted a group of men in the process of stealing trailer tires and drove up on them.
“This group of criminals, they ran off into the grove. The deputy tells me stay here with the cars as he runs off,” Judd recalled in a Throwback Thursday video. “And he tells me to call for backup, so I call for another car. Two more deputies show up. They run off into the grove in search of the criminals. We don’t have K9s back in the day. We didn’t have an aircraft that was flying at night. So it was just them, putting their lives on the line chasing criminals through the orange grove.”
While Judd was waiting, one of the thieves returned to the citrus trailer. Judd, who at 18 and undeputized had no legal authority to arrest anyone, pulled out his gun, pointed it at the man, put him in handcuffs and locked him in the patrol car.
He said when his colleagues returned, they were dirty and sweating, their white shirts turned gray from the silty grove soil and dust, while he was standing there cool and clean.
“They said, ‘They got away, they got away!’ I say, ‘They didn’t all get away. I arrested one. He’s locked up in the backseat of the car. I arrested the criminal when he came back to the scene,’” Judd said. “They go, ‘How did you know he was one of the criminals?’ I said, ‘Well, I saw him when he jumped from the back tire.’ They had to fill out the complaint affidavit and do the formal arrest. But I made my first arrest.”
Within a few months, the law was changed and 18-year-olds could become law enforcement officers. But he had to get Sheriff Brannen to sign off on him attending the police academy. Judd made an appointment to see Brannen – and to a now-19-year-old, it was something akin to going to see the great and powerful Oz. Deputies were required to be in uniform for an appointment or, if you were not on duty, a suit and tie.
“All the guys told me when you go in to meet with Sheriff Brannen, make sure that your shoes are shined. So I made sure my shoes were shined,” Judd recalled.
He showed up for his 9 a.m. appointment at 8:30 a.m. – making sure he didn’t get caught in a traffic jam — dressed in his best suit and tie.
Brannen was sitting behind a large desk he had purchased for his office and was going through his morning mail. Judd said the sheriff never looked up, never looked at him.
“He would ask me, ‘Son, you married?’ ‘Yes sir.’ He said, ‘Is there is there any bread in the breadbasket?’ And I go, ‘Sir?’ ‘You got any children?’ ‘No, sir.’ “Are you going to have any children?’ ‘I hope to,’” Judd recalled. “He said, ‘How long are you going to stay with me?’ I said, ‘All I want to do is be in law enforcement and work for you.’ Of course I didn’t tell him I wanted to be sheriff because I didn’t know how long he wanted to be sheriff — not that I should intimidate him at 19 years of age, but you just didn’t say those things.”
As the interview ended, Judd stood up and thanked Brannen – and that’s when Polk’s elder statesman of law enforcement leaned around that big desk and checked to see if Judd’s shoes were shined. His application to the police academy was approved and just before he turned 20, he was sworn in as a deputy sheriff.
Judd now sits behind that big desk –the same one Brannen used, as well as Quillian Yancey, Louie Mims, Dan Daniels, and Larry Crow.
“I’ll always remember Monroe Brannen, the first sheriff that gave me a chance when nobody else would,” Judd said. “And when they swore me in as a deputy at the ripe old age of 19, I was the first deputy in the history of the sheriff’s office under the age of 21.”
Judd said in a Throwback Thursday video that he learned one of the most important lessons of his life as a young deputy, He was called to a Winter Haven bottle club, where a fight had taken place. He found a man bloodied and filthy, with a broken nose. He offered to give the man a ride home, but the man said he wasn’t going to get into Judd’s patrol car, afraid Judd would take him to jail instead.
“And I looked at him very sternly and I said, ‘You can get in the car on your own and go home or I’ll finish the job that other guy started, put you in the car, and take you to jail. Which do you want?’ He said ‘I’ll get in the car,’” said Judd. He drove the man to his north Lakeland home and helped him to the door. “And he shook my hand and said, ‘Thank you very much. What’s your name?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m Grady Judd.’ He said, ‘Well, thank you, Mr. Judd. You told me the truth.’ He staggered into his mobile home. I went to work.”
About six months later, Judd was called to another barroom brawl, this time in north Lakeland. A man who had been cut was on a stretcher in the parking lot. Judd said when he walked into the bar, it looked like a scene from an old spaghetti western. The bar was overturned, broken glass was everywhere, chairs were smashed. And there sat the guy who had attacked the other man. Judd took him into custody, handcuffed him, pulled the bloody knife out of a pocket and started walking him to the car. He heard a scuffle behind him and looked back to see the man he had helped six months earlier fighting with a man on the ground. That man had a knife in his hand.
“He said ‘Mr. Judd, Mr. Judd, this guy was gonna stick you in the back! Well, I stomped the knife out of his hand,’ and he helped me get him handcuffed and I had two arrests that night,” Judd said. “You know what I learned that night — I learned you treat everybody good. You respect them. You’re honest with them. Because that big old guy who helped keep that person from sticking a knife in my back while I had my back to the crowd, making the arrest, could have sat there with his arms crossed if I had not treated him fairly and said ‘Mmm mmm mmm. I bet this is going to hurt.’ But instead, he saved my life that night. Always treat people good. When you’re nice and you’re good to people. The return could be somebody saving your life.”
Part 2: Judd based a career on ‘doing the right thing’
Correction: The last name of Sheriff Grady Judd’s Great Uncle Joe McCoy was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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