Part 4: Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd Becomes a National Figure

Grady Judd, Donald Trump

As Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd’s star rose during the 2000s, so did his political cachet. He has spent time in Washington, D.C., at The White House and at local campaign stops with several presidents. Those meetings stretch back to the early 1980s, when President Jimmy Carter came to Polk County to fish and shook hands with a young aspiring Polk County Sheriff’s captain.

“I was in the Rose Garden with Obama and met Vice President Biden,” Judd said. “Biden was a Democrat in the Senate. He was the military and law enforcement’s best friend. He always had our back. We’re seeing a different Joe Biden now. He’s leaning farther to the left.”


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 4 of a five-part series.


Judd also openly supported Donald Trump during his 2016 campaign, although Judd’s public support was notably absent in 2020.

Provided Photo Grady Judd with then-President Jimmy Carter
which story
Provided Photo Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd in the Oval Office with then-President Donald Trump

“I met with him three times on two occasions — I don’t mean me and 50,000 people,” Judd said. “At one there were 15 or 16 others, and one, eight or 10 people. I invited him to speak to the Major County Sheriffs of America. I walked the corridors and I introduced him. His personality when the cameras weren’t there was a totally different person. He was very calm, was very engaged. All that anger went away.”

Judd talked about the division in America, saying most Americans are centrists, but he blamed the national media for playing to the extremists on both sides of the aisle.

“Biden, instead of leading to the center, he’s skewed to the left and given a voice to the radicals. And Trump did the same thing,” Judd said.

While some have called for defunding the police, Judd cited a Pew Survey, saying 80% of Americans think their community needs the same or more police.

Provided Photo Polk County Sheriff Grady with President George W. Bush

“When has 80% of this country agreed on anything?” Judd asked.

Judd was named this year as “Sheriff of the Year” by the Major County Sheriffs of America, an association of the nation’s largest sheriff’s departments, at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., in February.  He had served as the president of that organization two years previously. 

January 6 hearings

On Jan. 6th, 2021, Judd was as shocked as the rest of the nation to see people attacking law enforcement officers and defacing the U.S. Capitol in what many say was an insurrection and an attempt to stop the election process.

While the nation has been divided over politics, Judd has come down where he always has — on the side of the law.

Last year, the day before Joe Biden was set to be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States, Judd arrested one of his own deputies for allegedly making written threats relating to the violence that occurred Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., according to the Sheriff’s Office.


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

Peter Heneen, 29, a six-year veteran of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, was charged with making threats to kill federal law enforcement officers and those he deemed “tyrants.” He was charged with “written threats to kill, do bodily injury, or conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism,” which is a second-degree felony.

“I am angry beyond words,” Judd said during a news conference. “Having him arrested was important. Having him arrested before Inauguration Day was even more important.”

Heneen was communicating with another deputy the night of Jan. 6, talking about the riot of Trump supporters who had stormed into the Capitol building, leading to the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Police officer. That’s when Heneen allegedly made the threatening comments via Facebook private messenger, according to the Sheriff’s Office. It was the other deputy who turned in Heneen, reporting the threats to his commanding officer and saying he was worried about his friend’s mental state. 

Among Heneen’s alleged statements: 

“Need to make D.C. streets run red with the blood of these tyrants — should have drug those tyrants out in the street and executed them.” 

“I’ll f—ing kill these people. F— the federal government. The FBI are corrupt. They’re all corrupt…I’ll f—ing kill them all… I have my s— next to my bed ready to go.”

According to the Polk County Clerk of Court’s website, the State Attorney’s Office allowed Heneen to agree to a diversion program and the charges were dismissed in December when he successfully completed the program.

Conspiracy theorists have said, without any evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was rigged and votes were changed from President Donald Trump to Biden. That rumor has enraged those who believe it, although five dozen court cases challenging election results have been dismissed by both Democrat and Republican judges at all levels, some of whom were appointed by Trump.

When asked at that January 2021 news conference, as the most notable and widely respected Republican in Polk County, what he would say to conspiracy theorists who think reptilian alien pedophiles are running the U.S. government — as at least one conspiracy theory says — Judd said, “When you have 320 million people in a country, you’re always going to have conspiracy theorists, you’re always going to have people who don’t’ agree with the outcome of the horse race, the football game or the election. It’s clear who won the election and that is President-elect Biden, who is taking office tomorrow.”

Judd said recently he has watched some of the January 6th Committee hearings.

“I have seen a compilation of politics, theatrics, and cold hard facts and you just can’t dispute cold hard facts,” Judd said. “What happened January 6, was wrong, wrong, wrong. There is no way to justify that.”

As to whether or not Trump should be held accountable for what happened on Jan. 6, Judd said he doesn’t have enough information.

“I’ve not followed all of that close enough to know if there’s any criminal liability or not,” Judd said. “There’s a large difference between expressing First Amendment rights and being criminally liable. I’m not intimately familiar enough with the details to know that.”

Does he think Joe Biden is the lawfully elected president?

“Oh, absolutely. There was fraud in that election, but there’s always been some fraud,” Judd said. “But the margins are so thin, it makes a difference now. It should be cleared up. It should have been cleared up. DeSantis and the Legislature has this person overseeing the elections. Let’s make sure there’s somebody watching over these elections. Our vote is sacred to this country and we have a responsibility. We have a right to know that when we go to the polls, or vote absentee, or vote early that our vote is accurately counted. We should have it so tight that the conspiracy theorists have to be dismissed.”

But Judd added that there has been what he calls an insurrection going on for the last election cycle in the United States, with protesters burning down stores, police stations, and federal and state courthouses as part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We didn’t get up in arms about it. There were people whose livelihoods were burned down and nobody paid appropriate attention to it,” Judd said. “The whole thing is an abomination. That’s not who we are as America. That’s not the 90 or 95% of us — it’s an infinitesimal number of people. I’m grateful they’re investigating and prosecuting the people who rioted Jan. 6. I want them to take that same energy and prosecute the people who were rioting (before).”

Nearly 850 people have been charged with or are suspects in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Damage costs are estimated at $30 million, including to the Capitol building and for mental health counseling for those trying to defend the seat of American democracy.

Following the 2020 violent riots nationwide, more than 10,000 people have been arrested and charged with everything from misdemeanors to felonies. According to a report by Property Claim Services, protesters caused more than $2 billion in damages.  PCS designated the riots in more than 20 U.S. states as “catastrophic.” 

Deputy Deaths

One of the hardest parts of his job is losing a deputy in the line of duty.  A memorial to deputies killed in the line of duty stands in front of the entrance to the Sheriff’s Office on Winter Lake Road.

And one of the first Judd knew personally was Deputy T. A. Burnham.

According to a Ledger article, on Jan. 9, 1981, Amy Reid and her friend Darrell Ray Beasley, both 21, went to Kissin’ Cuzzins restaurant on Memorial Boulevard after her work shift at the XYZ Lounge ended early that Friday morning.  As the pair, who had known each since school, left the restaurant and walked through the parking lot, a man later identified as Paul B. Johnson approached them, asking if they’d give him a ride to a friend’s house in South Lakeland. He offered to pay them for the ride.

The three drove to Drane Field Road and then west past Lakeland Linder Airport, taking a turn onto Airport Road. It was about 3:30 a.m. and Johnson asked Beasley to stop because he needed to relieve himself. Afterwards, Johnson forced Beasley out of the car and pointed a gun at his head.  Reid saw what was happening and fled in the car, finding a convenience store, where she called the Sheriff’s Office. Two deputies picked her up to look for her friend and the gunman.

They didn’t know that Beasley was most likely already dead, lying in a field near where Reid had left him and Johnson. Beasley’s body wasn’t found until the afternoon. 

Burnham, who had heard the call to search for the gunman, arrived on Drane Field Road and spotted a man walking on the shoulder. He radioed to dispatch that he was stopping to question a suspect.

The other two deputies went to provide back-up, with Reid in the back seat. They saw Beasley’s car on the side of the road and parked near it. The gunman rushed up to them to say a man had just been shot.  As they were getting out of the patrol car, the man fired at them, with bullets hitting the car and pavement, and another trailing off into the air.

The two deputies shot at him, but they lost him in the pitch blackness.

They did find Deputy Burnham lying in a ditch near his patrol car.  His .38 caliber revolver was missing and a .22 caliber handgun was found nearby. Burnham was rushed to what was then called Lakeland General Hospital, where he died.  An autopsy showed that he was shot twice in the leg and another bullet hit a vertebra after slipping past his bulletproof vest by inches.

A massive manhunt got underway, with county, state and city law enforcement searching on foot, in cars, and on horseback for Johnson, a 31-year-old unemployed carpenter with a long arrest record. Johnson was arrested after midnight, when he surrendered at a house in the Sheffield Road-Spirit Lake Road area. After three trials, Johnson was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1988. He remains in prison at Union Correctional Institution.

Burnham was 27 years old and had served with the Sheriff’s Office for nine years. He was survived by his mother and wife.

“We went to Lakeland High School, Polk Community College, and the police academy together, and we went to Rollins together – we rode together to work on our undergraduate degree” Judd said. “That was the first time someone that I had a close, personal relationship with got killed in the line of duty.”

Judd went to Gentry-Morrison Funeral Home after Burnham’s body was brought there.

“You never forget going to the funeral home after they dressed him in his class A uniform.” Judd said. “I had to change the brass around on his uniform shirt. They didn’t have him appropriately dressed. And you never forget that.”

The death of Deputy Matt Williams, 39, and his K-9 partner Diogi placed Judd at the center of a controversy because of his remarks about the shooting of the suspect, 27-year-old Angilo Freeland.

According to a Ledger article, Deputy Doug Speirs had pulled Freeland over for speeding on the morning of Sept. 28, 2006.  Freeland, who was in the country illegally, gave a fake name and had no identification. As Speirs used the radio in his patrol car to call in the name Freeland had given him, Freeland ran into a wooded area near Kathleen High School. What was unknown at the time was that he was armed with a .9 mm semiautomatic pistol.

Williams and Diogi were called in as back-up. When Williams arrived, he good naturedly ribbed Speirs about not being able to catch Freeland as Williams got Diogi ready for the search. Speirs, Williams and Diogi walked into the woods as the dog picked up Freeland’s scent. Williams had Diogi on a 20-foot leash and Speirs trailed about 30 feet behind them. They found Freeland’s cellphone and his knit cap as they walked.

Speirs went to retrieve the cap when he heard Williams shout “I know you’re in there! Come out before I release the dog!” Freeland yelled something back and gunfire erupted.

Freeland shot Diogi before shooting Williams.

Speirs spotted Freeland, who appeared to be kneeling and reaching down.

“I heard one more pop,” Speirs is quoted in a Ledger article. His comment came from a statement he made to investigators. “At that point, I knew he shot Matt at point-blank. … In my head, I know he just killed Matt, and there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.”

Speirs began firing his own pistol. Freeland returned fire and struck Speirs’ right leg. He then grabbed Williams’ .45 caliber service pistol and two extra magazines.

Freeland later also fired at two Lakeland Police officers as they searched for him, spotting him behind a nearby house.

Freeland ran back into the woods and a perimeter was set up.  He remained there all night. In the morning, officers walked shoulder-to-shoulder to search for the gunman.

Van Streety Jr., an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, spotted Freeland under a fallen oak tree about five feet in front of him, curled up inside his own shirt. Streety began screaming, “Let me see your hands!” Other officers joined Streety.

Freeland’s empty left hand unfurled from the shirt, but Streety said Freeland’s right hand held a silver pistol — it was Williams’ .45 caliber service weapon. One officer fired his shotgun at Freeland and another officer fell to the ground.  Surrounding officers thought the fallen officer had been shot and all nine began firing at Freeland, hitting him 68 times.

Freeland’s family complained about how many times he was shot – why was more than five dozen times necessary?

A reporter later asked Judd what he would tell people wondering why Freeland was shot 68 times.

“I would tell them I guess we ran out of ammunition,” Judd said.

The comment drew a firestorm of attention and criticism from Civil Rights groups.

The nine officers who shot Freeland fired 89 rounds, but had more than 400 rounds of ammunition left, according to an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Judd has never apologized, nor regretted making that statement – and likely never will.

“You can’t unsee what I saw that day,” Judd said. “But unfortunately I had dealt with a lot of tragic deaths.”

When asked what regrets he has about his career, it’s that he wishes he had more time.

“I regret that I need to sleep because if I didn’t, I’d have more hours to serve,” he said, adding that he wakes up after about five hours of sleep, choosing to think about positive things. “I regret that there are people who need our help that we never hear about.”

And he gives credit to his team, rather than himself.

“They make the music — I’m just the conductor,” he said.


NEXT
Part five: Celebrating another anniversary — 50 years of marriage


Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected]