SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley reflects on 10 years before his final day in office

Savannah Evanoff
Northwest Florida Daily News

Retiring from the role of Okaloosa County's sheriff is a little like any retirement, said Larry Ashley, like going to a funeral but you’re happy.

It’s bittersweet.

“(For) most people I’ve talked to who are retired sheriffs, (it) is, they miss being in the know,” Ashley said. “Literally, you know everything that’s happening right after it’s reported. I will certainly miss the people and the environment, the camaraderie.”

Sheriff Ashley has served 10 years in the elected office, and his term will end Dec. 31. The Sheriff-elect, Eric Aden, will begin after being sworn in Jan. 5.

Photos:Sheriff Larry Ashley through the years

‘Stronger, better agency’

Larry Ashley started his law enforcement career 21 years before he became Okaloosa County's sheriff. He worked patrol, with the K-9 unit, in street crimes and investigations.

Ashley started his law enforcement career 21 years before he became sheriff, working patrol, with the K-9 unit, in street crimes and investigations. He always had it in the back of his mind that he’d be a sheriff — though admittedly his perception of sheriff looked a bit different then.

When the time arrived, he didn’t choose the title as much as it chose him.

Ashley, who had been with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office since 1990, became its head man in 2010 when he won a special election necessitated by the arrest of Sheriff Charlie Morris, who had contrived a kickback scheme by which he gave cash to his employees under the condition that they return some portion of the money to him. The taxpayer money Morris stole paid for trips to Las Vegas and to entertain a mistress he employed as a deputy.

“(I) ended up working undercover in my own agency and discovered some fraud and the like,” Ashley said. “That became the subject of multiple investigations and audits, internal and external alike, from everybody from the FBI, the (Florida Department of Law Enforcement), the IRS, internal and external auditors. It was a rough time but it made us stronger. I had one of those goals in the future to be sheriff. I didn’t know the opportunity was going to be thrown upon me so abruptly.”

Larry Ashley is sworn in as Okaloosa County Sheriff in a photo from the 2010 ceremony. Photo provided by OCSO.

Ashley, a major at the time of Morris' arrest, was among the highest-ranking officers in the Morris administration not caught up in the pervasive kickback scandal, and he was largely credited with bringing the illegal scheme to light.

That time was filled with anxiety, he said. The agency lived under a microscope.

“These were folks I was friends with, came up through the agency with, and to see them have go down that path and betray not only our oath but the citizens, that was difficult,” Ashley said.

He was made chief deputy under Ed Spooner, who was chosen by Gov. Charlie Crist to replace Morris and serve as interim sheriff. Morris served a 71-month federal prison sentence for theft, fraud and money laundering. Ashley won the 2010 sheriff's race and was subsequently re-elected in 2012 and 2016.

The scandalous nature of how Ashley entered office affected his job.

“Initially, it was 16-, 18-, 20-hour days,” he said. “It took a lot to remove the stain that had been placed on the badge. It had been tarnished. And it was by a very small group of individuals, but it affected our entire agency. It affected our community.”

The Daily News wrote books about it weekly, Ashley remembers.

“There’s nothing like having your sheriff indicted and his command staff indicted,” Ashley said. “We all felt betrayed and used. The people that suffered the most for it were the people left behind that had nothing to do with it.”

Ashley is proud of the transparency of the Sheriff’s Office in response to the incident.

“As horrible as it was, that made us a stronger, better agency,” he said. “Everything from evidence to our armory to our finances was gone through with a fine-toothed comb. We set up programs of checks and balances where it can never happen again. We have computer-generated reports that happen by themselves that tell us about any anomalies within our financial system, within our armory, within our evidence. We conduct audits on a frequent basis. And we post all of our data online. If you want to know what the sheriff spent this quarter on the budget, you just have to go online and look.”

Larry Ashley, Republican candidate for Okaloosa County sheriff, hugs his youngest son Ryan along with his wife Lanie as vote totals are read during the 2010 election at Indian Bayou Country Club in Destin.

‘Keep our kids safe’

When Ashley reflects on his tenure as sheriff, he feels he accomplished everything he set out to do, and then some.

Among Ashley’s initial goals was to improve the physical fitness of Sheriff’s Office employees, maintaining the state accreditation and consolidating communications resources.

Making physical fitness a job requirement was one of the first goals he tackled.

More:Sheriff Larry Ashley will not seek reelection in 2020, he says

“Anytime you call a deputy or law enforcement for that matter, and you want someone that shows up that is an asset, not a liability,” Ashley said. “You want to make sure they’re in shape physically, mentally, spiritually and ready to do the job and not become an issue as they’re going up a set of stairs, or running down a roadway or trying to free somebody from a vehicle.”

Physical requirements aren’t popular, but necessary in this line of work, he said.

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley speaks during a 2013 press conference in a photo provided by OCSO.

“We’re not asking for Olympic athletes; we’re just asking people to touch your toes, be able to run a mile in a decent amount of time,” Ashley said. “We’ve got 18 obstacles on about a half-mile course and you’ve got eight-and-a-half minutes to do it and you could probably do it at a brisk walk if you’re a fast walker. You gotta be able to jump and crawl in this job. We made it happen.”

One of his proudest accomplishments was expanding the school resource officer program. The program was in place, but did not include two SROs in high schools and any in elementary schools.

“That was driven by Columbine,” Ashley said. “Subsequently, you had Sandy Hook. I never wanted to be the sheriff that had to go scrape dead kids off a schoolhouse. I’d much rather take deputies off the road. People can do their own traffic accidents, they can exchange information. There’s a lot of things they can do without deputies, but if we can’t keep our kids safe, what else matters? If you have to take deputies off the road to make sure kids are safe, so be it.”

It was another unpopular venture.

“People thought at first that it was a waste of resources to have a deputy at school,” Ashley said. “There’s so much more than just securing your kids. School resource officers have to be politicians; they have to be politically correct. They have to have a parent mindset in dealing with these young people, dealing with parents and staff. It’s a tough job; it’s a complex job. We’ve got the best in the country.”

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley.

Today, other communities look to the program as a role model, he said.

“School resource officers was not popular at the time; it certainly is now,” Ashley said. “I think anybody who would try to remove them would get run out of office pretty quick.”

The agency was also the first in Northwest Florida to implement body-worn cameras, Ashley said.

“All of these things were generated by national politics,” Ashley said. “The body-worn cameras were right as Ferguson was happening; we were putting body-worn cameras on. That first one never would’ve happened if we had body-worn cameras. There never would’ve been a doubt if the officer was wrong or the suspect was wrong if there had been a body camera.”

Ashley also cites purchasing and expanding the firing range and building a new training center as other accomplishments.

“No one wants to come into an agency that they feel like they’re going to be sitting on a milk crate working at a concrete desk top,” Ashley said. “When they come start a career, they want to know that the facilities and training environment is something they want to spend the next 20 or 30 years in. I think certainly when we take new recruits to our training complex, they will be impressed and we will have a much better chance of recruiting those individuals away from agencies that don’t have those amenities.”

While Ashley labels some of his decisions as less than popular; he felt they were right. And that’s really what a sheriff does.

“When you’re young, you get into law enforcement for the excitement and the adventure,” he said. “As you get older and move into supervision and management, you understand it’s more about resource allocation and trying to address the community needs. It’s a lot more resource management than it is going to catch the bad guy. You want to make sure they have the tools to go catch the bad guy.

“Being sheriff, it’s the only elected law enforcement official in the country,” Ashley said. “There’s a reason for that. In law enforcement, you have unlimited demands and limited resources.”

Okaloosa County Sheriffs Office K-9 handler Deputy Larry Ashley with his partner Jordin in an undated photo provided by OCSO.

‘Expectations’

The job isn’t without challenges.

Ashley will forever be haunted by unsolved cases, he said, referencing the murder of Laurie “Kim” Ball more than 20 years ago.

“I feel confident that I know who killed her, but proving it to this day has not been possible,” Ashley said.

He also is haunted by the deputies who have died in the line of duty under him, he said, rattling off several names he won’t ever forget.

In 2008 Ashley was a major when Deputy Anthony Forgione was killed by a man with a mental illness, and in 2009 Deputies Burt Lopez and Skip York were shot and killed while attempting to arrest a domestic violence suspect at a shooting range in Crestview.

In 2015, Deputy Bill Myers was shot and killed while serving a domestic violence injunction at an attorney’s office in Shalimar. 

Ashley has often voiced his appreciation and admiration for the men and women who risk their lives to protect others. Even when the job isn't life threatening, it's demanding.

The 2012 force reduction of layoffs and COVID-19 make the short list of obstacles, too.

“2020 is — we’re looking forward to 2021,” Ashley said.

It was a year of additional work and manpower to try to do the same job, he said. It is difficult to avoid gathering in large groups in law enforcement.

“Even how we deal with calls for service, the questionnaires we have to ask people before we enter their houses, it feels like an antiseptic,” Ashley said. “It’s very cold and not as personable as we used to be, all for good reasons. We’re all trying to keep the spread of the virus (down), but it certainly has thrown a big wrench into our logistics and how we communicate with the public and even amongst ourselves.”

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, far left, other Sheriff’s Office personnel and emergency crews respond to a law office in Shalimar, where Deputy Bill Myers was shot and killed in 2015.

Even without a pandemic, now is one of the most difficult times to be in law enforcement. Ashley thinks people have stopped agreeing about the law and it has caused a major rift.

Society needs to determine what it wants from law enforcement, he said.

“You know what the definition of happiness is, right?” Ashley said. “It’s your reality minus your expectations. If your reality is different than your expectations, you’re not going to be happy. The closer your reality is to your expectations, the happier you’ll be. Our expectations for law enforcement should be and what it is in this country are pretty far apart.”

Ashley foresees recruitment and retention as the most difficult challenges ahead because of the negativity surrounding the career field.

He thinks the Citizen’s Academy helps.

“Anyone who’s ever been through our Citizens Academy realizes there’s so much more to the Sheriff’s Office than that deputy pulling you over for a citation,” Ashley said. “That’s how most people think of law enforcement: ‘That’s the guy that’s going to give me a ticket for speeding.’ ‘He’s going to show up at my traffic crash.’ But they don’t think about them as bailiffs in a courtroom, booking officers or serving civil process, like subpoenas. They don’t think of them as the canine or investigations division, or the forensic side or the communications officers, the dive team, marine units and beach patrol units. There’s so many different facets and aspects of the Sheriff’s Office that serve our community.”

Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley administers the oath of office to deputies in this 2010 photo provided by OCSO.

‘On the horizon’

Ashley has little more than a shrug of the shoulders for his retirement.

It’s just time, he said.

“I did what I wanted to accomplish and God blessed me with people who were capable of not only seeing the same vision, but making it happen,” Ashley said. “We certainly had our challenges along the way, but I think we’re one of the most transparent agencies anywhere that I know of. I sat for six years as a commissioner on state law enforcement accreditation. We looked at a lot of agencies over those years, and I’ve never seen one better than Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. I know I’m biased in that regard, but it’s the truth.”

Ashley has much faith in Aden, the sheriff-elect, and his crew, he said.

“He’s just building a really solid team of good folks,” Ashley said. “I don’t think we’re going to skip a beat, and I’m pretty sure he’s going to improve on what we started.”

Aden met Ashley 30 years ago while attending Florida State University. He said Ashley has selflessly served the Sheriff’s Office for 31 years.

“He epitomizes and absolutely exemplifies leadership, and that is a huge understatement,” Aden said. “When me, the new future sheriff, is going to take over this agency, I will truly be walking in steps of giants. I don’t say that just because he supported me; I say that because he’s a true friend. He tells you what you might not want to hear. His integrity is impeccable. He brought integrity back to the Sheriff’s Office in a time when it was in a truly dark place.”

Ashley has been a mentor to him, Aden said. Ashley has made him a better leader and person, he said.

“I truly believe a sheriff is the brand of the Sheriff’s Office, and his or her staff exemplify and should mirror that sheriff,” Aden said. “They truly do here. It’s contagious — his integrity, his professionalism — to every rank. When we go to sheriff conferences, there are a handful of sheriffs everyone stops and listens to, and he’s one of them.”

Okaloosa County Sheriffs Deputy Larry Ashley as a road patrol officer in an undated photo provided by OCSO.

When they interview new employees, they often cite Ashley as the reason for coming to the agency, Aden said.

“I believe Larry Ashley has mentored me in a way that he’s given me every recipe for success,” he said. “He’s showed me how to make tough choices and making the right choice even when nobody else is looking. That’s when you know you have integrity.”

When it comes to his plans for the future, Ashley doesn’t have any.

“We’ll probably venture into something,” Ashley said. “I’m trying to stay out of the political realm. We’ll see. Something I’m in careful consideration about. I’ve got aging parents and a lot of things on the horizon, just not sure which ones will pan out and which ones won’t.”

Okaloosa County Sheriffs K-9 Deputy Larry Ashley with his partner Jordin in an undated photo provided by OCSO.

Ashley has a wife and three children. While his wife knew what she was getting into; he looks forward to 30 or more years of “Yes, ma’am,” “No, ma’am” and “Please, ma’am,” he said with a laugh.

“Family life certainly gets sacrificed with all the demands of being sheriff,” Ashley said. “I had a good balance. I coached my boys in T-ball, coach pitch and basketball, even soccer. Even though I didn’t know all the rules of soccer, I still coached them. Still don’t know all the rules to soccer. Those were memorable times for me and our kids. I try to take the boys fishing as often as I can and make sure I was at all the recitals. Very proud of my kids and where they’re at.”

And as he sits in an almost empty office watching his former walls be repainted for the next tenant, Ashley feels a little like he’s going to a funeral, but he is happy.                                                                 

“My youngest son was helping me move into my new office or at least organize it and said, ‘Dad, you’ve certainly been recognized and had a lot of achievements over the years.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t have enough wall space for all of them,’ ” Ashley said. “Maybe my grandkids will go through the scrapbook one day.”

Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Northwest Florida Daily News using the link at the bottom of the page under Stay Connected.