SEBRING — Deputy Sheriff William J. Gentry Jr. didn’t like rain much, but clouds threatened his End of Watch Call ceremony Tuesday.
Shortly after six police helicopters flew over the ceremony at Firemen’s Field, one veering away as the squadron left, rain clouds in the east began to blow toward Sebring.
Deputies released doves and Guns ‘n Hoses Pipes ‘n Drums of Southwest Florida played “Amazing Grace.” A riderless horse entered the field, boots reversed in the stirrups, followed by a 21-rifle salute, which then set off a volley of barking from K-9 officers.
Then came a radio call.
“Dispatch to 2247. Dispatch, 2247. Final call for 2247,” an announcer spoke on field loudspeakers. “Deputy Gentry proudly served the citizens of Highlands County. He is gone but never forgotten. Rest in peace until we meet again. Deputy Gentry 2247 is 10-7 for the final time. Dispatch clear.”
Sunlight broke through clouds and birds began chirping again as deputies presented Gentry’s family with an American flag.
Rain did arrive, an hour after Tuesday’s funeral services.
His younger brother, Sheriff’s Det. Kevin Gentry, said in a speech read by Sheriff’s K-9 Sgt. Scott Williams that it was ironic rain was forecast.
When William Gentry left law enforcement for four years to make custom pool cues, Kevin Gentry would help him transport heavy lathes in an open trailer. It would rain the whole trip.
Kevin Gentry tagged along with his older brother in childhood and adolescence. After following William into law enforcement, Kevin would then seek his advice.
It was an amazing compliment to Kevin Gentry, after big brother returned to the Sheriff’s Office in 2017, for him to go to little brother for advice, Williams read.
The brothers last spoke at a gas station the night before William Gentry was shot. Kevin Gentry told him, “Watch your back.”
“I miss you and I love you,” his speech ended.
Lt. Chris Smith, William Gentry’s commander in road patrol, recalled a deputy whose attention to detail in one month of being a field trainer ensured his students would continue his legacy of thoroughness.
Smith said “Willie” Gentry had no verbal filter, and “was like a box of chocolates: You never knew what you would get.”
The one time “Willie” lost control of a trainee was when Roni, his K-9 partner, was still training, Smith said. Roni broke loose and took down another deputy: Scott Williams.
“The scars are much more near and dear to my heart now,” Williams later said.
There was a command, at the time, to call Roni back, Smith said: “If only we knew the command to call Willie back now.”
Sheriff Paul Blackman said he prayed each day since becoming sheriff he would not “join the fraternity” of those who lost an officer.
“On May 7, I did just that. It was my worst nightmare come true,” Blackman said.
He said he’s drawn strength from a Bible verse in the book of Deuteronomy: “...the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
He vows to pray no one else’s agency loses anyone.
Of William Gentry, Blackman recalled a man who first served in his road patrol unit. He had a dry sense of humor and went to lunch often with his brother and mother — though she often paid.
Blackman also remembered William Gentry’s pride, enthusiasm and willingness to help others.
Quoting a Bible verse from the book of John, Blackman said “‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ That is exactly what Deputy Gentry did.”
Lake Wales Police Chief Chris Velasquez, whose father served with Sebring Police Department, has recently had officers shot, but not killed.
In one case, a bullet went through an officer’s utility belt and lodged in a clothing belt.
He, like Blackman before him, prays for protection on his officers.
For Nelly Ford and Tiffany Slager, the worry hits hard. Their respective husbands serve with Highlands County Sheriff’s Office and Sebring Police Department. Ford said her husband also studied criminal justice with Kevin Gentry.
Ever since the shooting death of Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Sottile in 2007, agencies have insisted officers wear bulletproof vests. Ford and Slayer say old ones don’t get thrown away. They stack up in the closets.
Slayer said her beau, a lieutenant, always worries about his officers.
Jamie Casey, retired Highlands County deputy, while being interviewed at last Thursday’s processional bringing William Gentry back to Highlands County, recalled a lyric by Luke Bryan: “I believe most people are good.”
The funeral service was attended by Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam, Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis and Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, along with more than 2,000 officers from municipal, state and federal agencies.
Blackman also thanked Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings and Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott for their help in the past week. Pasco County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ben Birge, a 2003 graduate of Sebring High School, was one of 15 Pasco deputies at the funeral.
Law enforcement is the biggest community he can think of, Birge said.
“When a tragedy like this strikes in the state of Florida, it is a really big deal,” Birge said. “Everybody knows everybody whether you never met them before in your life, you know what he was about and you know what he was doing … his whole outlook on society and wanting to help and serve.”
Orange County Sheriff Office Cpl. J. Tart said the turnout was great. Maureen and William Reagan, Highlands County residents, waved American flags.
“We were shocked when we heard Deputy Gentry was shot,” Maureen Reagan said. “It was such a tragedy. The funeral does bring closure.”
Lee Alcorn sang three songs, including his composition “Simple Things,” “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin — in which he led the audience to sing along — and “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw.
Pastor Esa Ontermaa spoke on how William Gentry had exemplified God’s image through his selfless service and work as a peacemaker.
Others said the loss of William Gentry would not break local spirit.
“We are Highlands strong,” said Maj. Shirley Johnson, retired from Florida Department of Corrections and wife of retired Sheriff’s Capt. Booker Johnson. “You can’t stop us.”
Highlands News-Sun staff writers Kim Leatherman and Marc Valero contributed to this story.