Dusk falling into darkness: Heart stopping encounters on the Destin beat (PHOTOS)

Laura Hall, Under the Radar

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series involving a ride-along with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office on the Destin beat. To read the first part, click here.

Deputy Tom Piaget has graciously consented to allow me to ride shotgun in his patrol car tonight. I will be riding from 8 p.m. on a Friday night until 3 a.m. on Saturday morning. 

Piaget certainly looks big enough for me to cower behind if necessary.  He retired from the Army Rangers and has worked as a deputy in Destin for 15 months. He is all business when necessary. He quietly states, “When I retired from the Army I tried various unrewarding jobs until I decided to become a deputy sheriff. The fact that I can serve the community appeals to me.”  

Tonight he is on a 12 hour shift from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m.  I meet him at the Sheriff sub-station on Stahlman at 8 sharp.  I have barely said, “Hello” before the first call comes in that two vehicles are racing down Airport Road. I buckle up and we are off.  By the time we reach Main Street, a fellow officer has pulled over one of the cars.  We pull over to see if help is needed.  

“The safety of your partner officers is always your first priority.  We are alone in the car, but we look out for each other,” Piaget says. “We are all on the same channel on the radio, so we can keep up with what is going on all over the district.” 

Within minutes, another call comes in concerning a very suspicious parked car. We carefully drive down Calhoun, take a sharp left onto a dark, unpaved road covered over with bushes.  It looks like the perfect movie set where you don’t want to be.

My heart thumps a bit as we pass an abandoned trailer on my right. Straight ahead is a graffiti covered concrete block house. Oh, heart be still.  I peek over at Piaget to check his reaction. None.

We slowly maneuver past the car, to the crest of the hill, my heart thumps faster heading toward cardiac arrest when lo and behold to my delighted self, I see a partner deputy pulling up the hill with the announcement that he has found the car owners fishing below. I want to clap my hands together and yell “Yea,” but I try to remain stoic and behave in a professional manner. 

I feel compelled to ask Piaget if he has felt any alarm about this situation.  “Well Ma’am, it is what it is.”  I guess that is deputy lingo for “No.”

We move out from here, following the other deputy. A car coming from the other direction has a headlight out. Both squad cars turn around like a flash and it seems like the driver is trying to lose us with quick turns right and then left.

It is pulled over below McGuire’s on Sibert and is found to have expired tags.  (This parking area is already packed with party goers and will get more congested with each passing hour.)  From here, we pull out onto Airport Road where Piaget puts the radar to work. 

“Pulling over a speeder is not what we do for the money making aspect of it and more often than not, I use it as an opportunity to educate and remind the driver how dangerous it is to speed on our highways,” he said. “The safety of the public is the most important aspect to us.  I think speed and inattention do more to cause accidents than anything.” 

At the moment, no urgent calls flash for attention so by 9 p.m. we cruise slowly through Indian Trails subdivision, carefully checking every house and car then on to Indian Woods.  The next area finds residents’ cars parked close to each other, one after the other.

“This is where you often find the ‘Door Poppers’ working. This is where thieves work quickly from car to car, popping the door handle to see which cars have been left unlocked,” Piaget says.  If yours is one of the unlocked ones, thieves will help themselves to the contents and thank you for your carelessness.

It’s hard for me to keep up with happens next. Across the radio I hear, “Shots fired to the left of house, about three doors down, investigation needed.” 

The computer pings, the cell phone rings occasionally and the radio is ever active. I’m relaxing a bit when all of a sudden, the patrol car accelerates quickly, and my neck jerks back.  I haven’t heard anything alarming but Piaget never misses a word.  Off we go to chase down a silver Toyota leaving Target driving erratically. Alabama tag. Traffic closing down on us, another deputy is relayed the information to take over; we can’t catch up. Piaget lets me know that the danger of the chase is not worth the risk to the public.   

With only three deputies covering Destin, calls begin coming fast and furious.  Piaget assures me, “By and large this organization of men and women come out to serve and to help.”  The officers do what they can with the available manpower.

But midnight coming up will test the deputies to the limit, so buckle your seatbelts for a wild ride.

Laura Hall is a longtime Destin resident.  She writes about area topics of interest.  Contact her at hall-destin@cox.net