When Sumter County Undersheriff Gary Brannen hangs up his gun and badge at the end of May, he will have accomplished many impressive goals during his 41-year law enforcement career.
But as Brannen walks out of his office for the final time on May 31, he can leave knowing this – he truly has achieved his goal of leaving a positive mark on the sheriff’s office he’s served for the past 29 years.
“It’s been very satisfying, very gratifying,” said the Sumter County native of his law enforcement career. “It gives you a sense of pride to police your own community, to try to make your own community better and safer.”
Brannen said there have been many positives during his time with the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office but having the chance to work for longtime Sheriff Bill Farmer and be his second in command for the past three and a half years ranks high on the list.
“He’s a great man and it’s been a really great experience to work for a man like him,” Brannen said. “He’s genuine. He gives us a direction and a goal and lets his people perform the task. He really gives us a lot of discretion in how we achieve the goal that he wants to achieve.”
Brannen said Farmer, who has been with the sheriff’s office since 1971 and sheriff since 1996, gets asked all the time why he doesn’t retire. He said there are plenty of good reasons Farmer continues to run for office, starting with the fact that he thoroughly enjoys serving the residents of Sumter County.
“He loves getting out in the public and seeing people and communicating,” Brannen said. “He’s talked it over with a lot of other sheriffs that have retired and the majority of those have told him, ‘I wish I hadn’t have done it. I wish I’d have stayed longer.’ You couldn’t have a better person for a sheriff in this county.”
In his role as chief deputy and now undersheriff, Brannen has been known for many things. But one that makes him quite proud is the community outreach that’s taken place under his watch.
“I told everybody we were going to have a bigger presence in the community,” he said. “We were going to go into Facebook and expand our website. But on top of all that, we were going to go out and find community projects that we could be involved in.”
Brannen said it was important to get involved in the community without making a big deal out of the efforts.
“We just needed to go out there and find these projects and build trust with the community through them seeing that we’re invested and we’re not going away,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Brannen said he’s had many rewarding moments while working for the sheriff’s office. But he said the one that stands out the most was being a part of the team that solved the particularly disturbing Ruiz-Wells murder in 2000.
In that case, 72-year-old Margarita Ruiz and her 42-year-old daughter, Esperanza “Hope” Wells, were killed at their home in Tarrytown with no apparent motive. Frankly, Brannen said, it had the signs of a serial killer passing through the community.
“I was fearful that you’d be asking me what’s your biggest regret and I’d say I never solved Ruiz-Wells,” Brannen said. “But I don’t have to say it because we did solve it and we put the guy on Death Row that committed that terrible crime.”
Brannen said the killer, Bill Paul Marquardt, left little evidence behind and it was an extremely difficult case to solve. But he said they got a call from a prosecutor in Wisconsin where Marquardt was from that helped break the case open.
“He thought we might have some common interest in the guy,” Brannen said. “And it worked out that in 24 hours we had the evidence that we needed.”
Brannen is being replaced by new Chief Deputy Chris Haworth – a law enforcement officer he has great respect for.
“I think he’ll do a better job than I have,” Brannen said. “I know he’s smarter than me and he has a great deal of energy. So I have no qualms at all about him continuing what we have achieved over the last 20-something years.”
The respect is mutual, Haworth said, adding that he’s truly appreciated the opportunity to learn from Brannen – especially when it comes to how much he lives and breathes law enforcement and how he takes care of the people who work for him and the citizens of Sumter County.
“I remember when the Pulse (nightclub) shooting happened and he noticed that one of the (officers) had gotten shot at and it hit his helmet and protected him,” Haworth said. “Within a week, we had helmets on order for everyone.”
Haworth said Brannen also has taught everyone he works with one very important lesson – anybody can be a victim of a crime.
“He would really hammer home that everybody be treated with respect and if they’re reporting a crime, that they’re treated as a victim until as such time they’re not a victim,” Haworth said. “But if they are a victim, we’re going to give them the utmost service that we can to provide them what Sheriff Farmer expects.”
As for the residents of Sumter County, Brannen said it’s important for them to feel safe in their homes.
“Sumter County has become one of the safest counties in Florida with one of the lowest crime rates,” he said. “A lot of that has to do with our population and demographics. It’s a very easy community to police.”
Brannen also offered a special thank you to the men and women he’s worked with over the years.
“They’ve made my job easy,” he said. “We have very few citizen complaints for our professional standards people to look at. We have long-term employees and very low turnover. So they have done a fantastic job.”
Finally, Brannen said, when he started with the sheriff’s office in 1990, he didn’t necessarily believe he could rise through the ranks to become second in command.
“I hoped for it,” he said. “I always wanted to be able to put my mark on an agency and be able to do some things that other people probably wouldn’t do as far as community outreach and professional standards. So it was an opportunity for me to be able to leave a mark as to what you can do in the community if you have the resources behind it and the support of the sheriff.”