One of Deputy Grady Judd’s early arrests came the night of the sheriff’s office Christmas party in the mid-1970s, when he saved the Baby Jesus.
Judd was driving home from the party with his wife, Marisa, in their personal car when they stopped at the corner of U.S. Highway 98 South and A-Z Park Road.
They saw a car parked beside a lighted manger scene. But what the Judds saw next incensed him.
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 2 of a five-part series.
“I saw a guy out at the manger scene and all of a sudden I saw him reach into the manger – did you hear me – and take the baby Jesus! He jumped into the car and off they went,” Judd said in a Throwback Thursday video.
He and Marisa chased the car, which went into a subdivision. But there were no cellphones, no walkie-talkie radios, and no pagers. The couple was on their own to try to apprehend this Baby-Jesus-stealing scofflaw.
“We cornered up the car and I got out and I said, “Deputy Sheriff Grady Judd! You’re under arrest!” Where’s the Baby Jesus?!” Judd said. “And I recovered the Baby Jesus.”
GRADY JUDD: 50 YEARS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT
- Part 1: Early days — as a young child, he knew he wanted to be sheriff
- Part 2: Closing adult businesses, assessing previous sheriffs, bolstering leadership
- Part 3: Controversies: body cams, juvenile detention. Priority one: protect children
- Part 4: Becoming a national figure; coping with deputy deaths
- Part 5: Celebrating another anniversary: 50 years of marriage
He put Baby-Jesus-stealing Dillard Hamilton into handcuffs, but he wasn’t going to put him in his personal car. He asked Marisa to find a payphone to call for help, but she balked at leaving her husband alone with Hamilton.
“I said, ‘Well, the Baby Jesus is watching out for me and besides that, I’ve got a gun and I’ll shoot Dillard Hamilton slap full of holes if he tries to hurt me right in front of the Baby Jesus,’” Judd told her. She left and before long, a multitude of Lakeland Police and sheriff’s deputies arrived.
“Everybody came to see that I rescued the Baby Jesus,” Judd said, smiling. “It was a Christmas I’ll not soon forget.”
As the years rolled by, Grady Judd began to make a name for himself as he moved up in rank and continued with his education. He earned his associates degree from Polk Community College in May 1976 and three months later was promoted to corporal. In 1978, he earned his bachelor’s degree from Rollins College, where he earned a master’s degree three years later. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree.
He was bumped up to lieutenant in 1980 and made captain in 1982, where he headed up the criminal investigations division. In 1986, he earned the rank of major and nine years later was made a colonel.
Beginning in the 1980s, Judd, the Sheriff’s Office and the State Attorney’s Office under Jerry Hill launched a war against obscenity. Nude dance clubs and adult book and video stores had started opening throughout the county, including the Peek-a-Boo Lounge off State Road 92, near Sante Fe Catholic High School, and the Varsity Theater adult movie theater, west of Auburndale. Local clergy had complained to law enforcement, asking what could be done.
The Sheriff’s Department began conducting raids, at first arresting dancers, club managers, and book and video store clerks, charging them under the state’s obscenity statutes. According to the statute, “Obscene means the status of material which:
- The average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest
- Depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct as specifically defined herein
- Taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value
“A mother’s breastfeeding of her baby is not under any circumstance ‘obscene,’” the law states.
But often their cases would be only misdemeanors. Judd and Hill wanted to go after the owners, the real culprits. Judd described some of them as members of old mafia families who were making a lot of money off human weakness.
“We went after the owners for racketeering — it took 15 years,” Judd said.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice website, racketeering is an illegal, coordinated scheme or operation. A “pattern of racketeering activity” requires at least two acts of racketeering, indicating a pattern of continuing activity. Prosecutors must prove that the acts are part of a long-term association that exists for criminal purposes, or that they are a regular way of conducting the defendant’s ongoing business, or that they are a regular way of conducting or participating in an ongoing and enterprise.
The owners and operators faced a first-degree felony, $25,000 and 15 years in prison for each count on which they were found guilty, and they were forced to forfeit any money or property bought through their racketeering activity.
“These are technical cases,” Judd explained. “We trained detectives and prosecutors to make them experts. We closed over 100 businesses.”
Or, he added, the businesses simply closed shop, refusing to comply with the law.
Their efforts came to a two-year halt in 1988 after Circuit Judge E. Randolph Bentley dismissed 47 charges against Varsity Theater clerks, ruling that the state’s obscenity law violated the Florida Constitution’s privacy amendment, according to a Ledger article. In 1989, the 2nd District Court of Appeal reversed the ruling and in 1990, the Florida Supreme Court concurred with the appeal court decision and the prosecutions continued.
Judd said the final two places to be raided and closed were massage parlors that were actually fronts for prostitution in Lakeland. But it took longer than usual to make an arrest because early raids proved to be unfruitful. It turned out a Lakeland Police captain, who was head of the vice squad, was tipping off the owner of Pleasure Time Spa.
One of the prosecutors trained in obscenity and racketeering laws was Brad Copley, who still is an assistant state attorney.
“Grady being the sheriff has made a huge difference in this county as far as the quality of life goes,” Copley said. “Polk County could be another Dale Mabry Avenue if it weren’t for Grady Judd. We’d have these places everywhere because we certainly had a vacuum.”
Copley also praised Judd for going after Phillip Greaves II in 2010; he is a Colorado man who was publishing and selling a book on how to molest children, which he titled “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love & Pleasure.”
“No other jurisdiction in the country did a thing,” Copley said. “So I went down and talked to Grady one morning after a briefing and he said, ‘Well, no one else is doing it. (Colorado) is not touching it. That’s where he lives. Let’s prosecute it,’ which we did successfully.”
Copley explained that they had detectives order a book from Greaves and asked him to autograph it, making it out to them to show the book had been in his hands. They sent detectives to Colorado, arrested him four days before Christmas 2010, and brought him back to Polk County.
He was charged with felony selling, lending, and/or transmitting obscenity harmful to a minor. In April 2011, Greaves pleaded no contest and Judge John Stargel found him guilty. Stargel sentenced Greaves to the 3½ months he had already spent in the Polk County Jail and two years of probation, with a condition that he continue mental health counseling.
Judd said “crime flourishes when it’s allowed to. The legislation provides the law. The courts support and enforce the law if you bring the guilty before them, but none of that happens if law enforcement doesn’t do its job.”
Judd found himself recently in the middle of another case some say deals with obscenity.
Members of County Citizens Defending Freedom went to Judd to complain that 16 books found in the libraries of some Polk County public schools were either obscene or age inappropriate. Judd told them to take their cause up with PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid. The group eventually filed a formal complaint with Heid, telling him librarians were guilty of distributing pornography to minors, a felony. Heid immediately removed the books from the library shelves to protect his employees from arrest.
Judd’s recommendation to CCDF and Heid has been to place the books behind librarian’s desks and make them available only with parental consent. After a lengthy review process earlier this year, two panels voted to keep all 16 books available at age-appropriate levels and Heid put a policy in place to follow Judd’s recommendation.
“The key to it is to put the authority back in the parents’ hands and have an opt-in program,” Judd said. “How a child is exposed to the birds and the bees is up to parents.”
Judd said Florida’s obscenity laws are stronger than ever, but he added that “things can be nasty and vile and not be criminally illegal. There’s ways to deal with that that doesn’t involve a legal battle that won’t be resolved until (the students) have children in high school.”
Some CCDF members and supporters are now running for School Board seats. Judd declined to endorse any of them, but said he is supporting incumbent Kay Fields, whose opponent is supported by CCDF. Judd co-hosted a fundraiser for Fields at Cleveland Heights Country Club in June.
As for arresting librarians, Judd is adamant that was never on the table with him.
“I never said such a thing. What nonsense. I’m everybody’s sheriff,” he said.
As Judd rose through the ranks, he worked for five sheriffs and managed to avoid shrapnel as two of them saw their careers explode. He said from some he learned how to be a sheriff and from others how not to do the job.
Monroe Brannen was first elected sheriff in 1961 and served until he was indicted in 1976 on charges that he conspired to discredit a political rival. It took a jury 15 minutes to acquit him, but his political career was over. Former State Attorney Jerry Hill told The Ledger that the former sheriff had always viewed the indictment as a set-up.
Quillian Yancey was appointed interim sheriff and served for three months until Louie Mims was elected in November 1976. He served for eight years.
Judd excelled under Mims and described him as a hard-working sheriff, one who put in long days, but mainly stayed in the office.
“While he was doing the sheriff work, he wasn’t out with the people,” Judd said.
And then Mims got into a political dogfight with the Polk County Commission, which oversees the sheriff’s budget. Mims felt as though he had been shortchanged and appealed their decision to the state.
“At the time, the chairman of the commission came over and said, ‘Sheriff, let’s not appeal this thing. Let’s settle. Settle it and we’ll give you some more money’ and the sheriff said, ‘You’re not giving me enough to take care of the jail and the deputies,’” Judd recalled. “Well, they got to Tallahassee, the sheriff lost the appeal.”
In the meantime, the County Commission hired a man named Dan Daniels to be the Crime Watch director. Daniels was a retired colonel from the U.S. Army Military Police.
“While the sheriff was working 12 or 14 hours building an organization, Dan Daniels” was meeting with citizens all over the county as the crime watch director and apparently as a de facto sheriff candidate, Judd said.
During the official race in 1985, Judd said he saw what was happening and secretly went to The Ledger, then a New York Times-owned paper that was fully staffed, with information about Daniels he had heard from people he had arrested.
“Dan Daniels was a train wreck in every sense of the word. I told them Dan Daniels was a KKK supporter, sympathizer at best or a card-carrying member,” Judd said. “I couldn’t prove it. I said he is not good for this county.”
But Mims had made The Ledger fight for information that was public record and so, without documented evidence, the paper declined to look into the allegations until later.
“Dan Daniels never asked me to do anything illegal or corrupt,” Judd said. “He supposedly was going to fire me and didn’t. He put me in charge of narcotics and investigations,” Judd said. “People came to me and said quit making the sheriff look good with all your arrests.”
Judd said Daniels had very different ideas about how to run the law enforcement agency.
“The sky was a different color in his world in 1986,” Judd said. “He had delusional conduct.”
Judd said Daniels came to his office one day and talked about wanting to sell confiscated cocaine to pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, not understanding that there was no quality control in the jungles of South America where it was manufactured illegally. Daniels left Judd’s office after Judd shot down the idea.
“Two hours later, I got a phone call from the head of (the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency) in Tampa,” Judd said. “He said, ‘That crazy son of a bitch asked why we couldn’t sell cocaine to the pharmaceuticals.’ He was just bizarre.”
(Yes, Judd swears. But never in public.)
Eventually, The Ledger did investigate Daniels’ ties to the Klan, a white supremacist group responsible for racial terror throughout the south during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras. Daniels had hired two deputies who were found to be Klan members. They claimed they had gone undercover to investigate the Klan when they worked for Lakeland Police, but LPD officials said that wasn’t true.
The Ledger investigation also uncovered administrative and financial irregularities.
The State Attorney’s office investigated Daniels and came back with a grand jury presentment. Then-State Attorney Jerry Hill told Daniels that if he didn’t resign, he would indict him. Daniels’ two-year, tumultuous term ended. He later formed the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
Lawrence Crow, then the Lakeland police chief, was appointed in 1987 to fill the seat. When Crow came in, he reorganized the office and demoted Judd from major to captain in 1987. But in 1989, Crow restored his shoulder oak leaves.
Crow’s appointment ushered in a new era at the sheriff’s office. It was a time when people felt safe in their jobs, not worrying about being let go when a new sheriff came in. Crow served for 17 years – the longest of any sheriff in the agency’s history.
“Prior to Sheriff Crow, at the Sheriff’s office then, other than our homes, we didn’t buy anything we couldn’t pay off in four years, unless it was an emergency,” Judd said. “You didn’t buy anything you couldn’t pay off by the next election.”
PCSO employees are vested in retirement at 25 years, but few people made it that far under previous administrations. Under Crow and now Judd, people want to remain that long – or longer – at the sheriff’s office.
In fact, Judd has created a wall in the office honoring those long-time employees, hanging their portraits and summaries of their accomplishments.
“The most professional sheriff I worked for was Sheriff Crow,” Judd said. “He is – unless you’ve been around him – he’s an introvert. He quiet. He’s reserved, but he was always a brilliant administrative, police administrative mind and taught me so much about what to do and what not to do and allowed me to thrive and grow and build the organization. So I have a special place in my heart for Sheriff Crow.”
It was Crow’s introversion that lead to Judd’s ascension into the limelight. While the sheriff eschewed being in front of cameras for the most part, Judd excelled at it. And that led to a long-running joke in Polk County: the least safe place here is between Judd and a TV camera.
Judd laughs at the joke.
“I said we’re going to quit fighting with the media,” Judd said. “We’re going to try to use this public record to our benefit. We’ll try it for a year and if it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to the old way. When we were no longer hostile to the media, the media were no longer hostile to us. Transparency is a good thing.”
In 2004, when Crow was ready to step down, he openly endorsed Judd, who was then a colonel. He took office in early 2005 and was handedly elected then and every four years afterwards. In 2020, he ran unopposed.
Judd has taken working with the media to another level. His communications team fulfills public document requests in minutes, rather than days or even weeks. And his social media writers are known for talented writing, including crafting often-funny Facebook posts that have gained a national following.
“I put the right people in the right places,” Judd said of all his staff. “We update and change daily. This is a living organism, a thriving, living organization. If you’re opposed to change, you won’t do well here. We’re the antithesis of a police agency that doesn’t change until you’re forced to change.”
But not everyone is a fan of Judd’s press conferences. He has been known to openly mock suspects, most recently a 22-year-old pregnant woman arrested at a Lakeland McDonald’s for becoming enraged after her online order wasn’t correct. Her tirade was caught on camera.
According to WFLA, when employees tried to de-escalate the situation by offering a discount, Tianis Jones “turned violent” and went behind the counter, where security camera video shows her throwing cups at employees. Judd called her “McMad” and said “she’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal.”
Critics said Judd’s comments were insensitive to people with mental illness, although Judd has advocated for treatment for inmates with mental health issues, as outlined in a 2021 Ledger series.
Jones’ lawyer took Judd to task at a press conference.
“The world may see Sheriff Grady Judd as the class clown of all of the Florida sheriffs departments, sheriff offices. I see him as someone who is very dangerous to our judicial system,” the woman’s attorney, Jeremy McLymont, said.
Billy Townsend, a former Polk School Board member who has long been critical of the sheriff, said he does some things well, but sometimes his press conferences are not among them.
“I have always admired the sheriff’s administrative and public communications skill. But there are times I think the Grady Show is both dangerous to the public and harmful to his legacy,” Townsend said. “When the sheriff focuses on being a good sheriff for all the people, he is a real leader.”
Judd said he uses a leadership style he calls “wisdom imposition.”
“Wisdom imposition is a litany of life-work experience, both positive and negative,” Judd said. “I see I see potholes that you don’t see. You step in them until you realize potholes aren’t always evident. How do I know about them? Because I stepped in them. There was no one to teach me about potholes hidden in solid ground.”
He talked about agencies like the one in Minneapolis, Minn., where George Floyd was killed by an officer putting a knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes after he momentarily resisted getting into the back of a police car.
Judd said out of 440 police agencies in Minnesota, not one had a national accreditation in 2020 when that happened, although the Minneapolis Police Department website states that its forensics lab was accredited in 2019. PCSO is a 10-star accredited agency.
“They weren’t following the industry standard,” Judd said. “If you don’t recruit and train the right people, if you don’t hold them accountable, bad things happen. I’m very tough on our industry. There are some that do not run a professional agency.”
Judd said he not only provides training for his deputies, he also invites officers from the county’s smaller departments to participate.
“There’s police agencies that make these same incredible mistakes,” Judd said. “They’re not passing their institutional knowledge or passing on their wisdom. As large as this organization is, as many as tens of thousands of interactions we have with the community, it runs remarkably well. When we have a hiccup, it’s because we have a new superintendent or a new mid-manager. That’s part of leadership and training.”
He sends his top command staff to trainings like the FBI Academy to “add to their toolbelt.”
Judd also trains every PCSO employee in customer service – something he said he learned from watching Publix employees treat everyone with courtesy.
“Many see the green and white car riding around. They don’t see the training and training and training we give to young men and women and they won’t ever see it,” Judd said. “If we do it appropriately, the department will do the right thing at the right time for the right reason.”
It’s that training and professionalism that endears the department and Judd to the majority of county residents.
On Tuesday morning, July 6, Brandon Blackburn, owner of Blackburn’s Southern Barbeque in Eagle Lake, stopped by the department to present Judd with 2,000 vouchers for a $17 meal at his restaurant – one for every PCSO employee, from crossing guards to chiefs.
“I frequently say we’ve never asked the community to help that they haven’t given,” Judd said.
Blackburn, 33, graduated from Lake Region High School in 2007 and said deputies have long supported his efforts.
“A lot of people don’t give them enough credit, especially the world we live in now,” Blackburn said. “I want to create a standard. It’s just money and there will be more of it.”
Blackburn was assured that the vouchers would go to the employees and not be hoarded by the top brass. He had an issue with an area employer doing that recently. As for Judd, Blackburn is a fan.
“I think his no-nonsense approach to any situation is exactly what this world needs,” Blackburn said.
When asked what mistakes he has made, Judd said he sometimes wants to make a decision too quickly and move on.
“My problem is I want to do too much and I get in too big of a hurry,” Judd said. “I want to make a decision and move on. That works well for me the majority of the time. Occasionally I have to slow down. I surround myself at home with my wife and here with my aides, my chiefs, and they say, ‘Slow down.’ I have the faith and trust in them. They have the mandate for me. It’s their job to help me slow down until I have all the information to make the right decision.”
In the morning meeting on July 6, Judd was briefed on several crimes that had happened the evening before, including the rape of a girl and an attack on a deputy by a man who had assaulted a family he was visiting.
An arrest affidavit shows a child called 911 from his Lakeland home to report that Yumerky Cala Gainza was fighting with the child’s family members, cutting one’s head with a wooden chair. He then began throwing concrete stepping stones and a glass bottle through the windows, trying to get into the family’s home. When Deputy Drew Kennedy arrived, Gainza punched him in the face, breaking his glasses, and then grabbed Kennedy’s Taser, trying to pull it out of the holster. The pair wrestled and Kennedy finally placed him under arrest.
PCSO deputies charged Gainza with multiple felonies, including aggravated battery that caused bodily harm and resisting an officer with violence. It’s not a case the public would hear about because everything went as it should.
Part 3: Facing controversies; protecting children
Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native. She can be reached at [email protected]