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SCC’s Thornton promoted to new post

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Deputy reflects on seven years in the community

By Mitch Traphagen mitch@observernews.net

SUN CITY CENTER — After seven years in town, HCSO community resource deputy Rob Thornton is leaving Sun City Center. Thornton has accepted a promotion to the street crimes unit in Ruskin.thornton2

He arrived in Sun City Center in 2003 at age 34, roughly half the age of the residents he served. Through the years he has gained an impressive knowledge in protecting and serving a unique community and has developed a love and commitment to the community that he hadn’t considered seven years ago.

“I came into SCC with the preconceived notion that I would have nothing but little old ladies baking cookies and little old men playing shuffle board,” Thornton said. “A 34-year-old guy has absolutely no concept of being 55 years old. I had no concept of how active everyone in Sun City Center is.”

He was also not prepared for how active his job would be.   

“I operated on the advice that [former SCC deputy] Joe Burt gave to me when I started,” Thornton continued. “He told me to stop in to a local business or stop to visit with someone before getting to the office in the morning, just to have a normal conversation with someone. Because there are days when I can’t even get the key into the lock before someone yells out, ‘Rob, I’ve got a problem and you’re going to fix it!’. And then there are others waiting outside the office door with other problems.”

In Sun City Center, Thornton is omnipresent. At any of the myriad of events, large or small, held in the community, he can be found — uniform perfectly pressed — directing traffic or shaking hands and chatting with people. But he isn’t just a public relations figure; he is part of the reason crime remains low in the community, although he has no interest in taking credit for it.

“I would love to say that it has something to do with me,” he said. “But it is the Sheriff’s commitment to the community that is the real reason we’ve kept crime down here. I can stand here and thump my chest but it is really those guys out driving around in the green and whites [patrol cars] that is the reason.”

But crime is relentless, even in Sun City Center. He talks of a man who sought and found trouble on a regular basis — while living with his elderly mother.

“We must have arrested him 20 times before he landed in prison,” Thornton said. “I would have pulled out what hair I had left if I had to do that alone, without the street deputies.”

And then, of course, there is the Naked Guy of Sun City Center.

“He would be stark naked walking down the street just doing what he loves to do,” Thornton said. “I first encountered this guy five years ago. He was living with his mom. He moved in with her and suddenly I’m getting reports of a naked man running down the streets.  I could never get a victim who wanted to say, ‘I saw him and I’m willing to go to court to talk about it’. It was five years of chasing this guy around town. Once we had a female detective walk up and down the street trying to catch him. The next day, I went out to see how things are going and someone flagged me down to tell me they just saw the naked guy. In order for me to arrest him, I had to either have a victim willing to go to court or I had to witness it myself. I went to where he was last seen and saw him run back into his house. We kept him in jail trying to find a mental health facility that would take him in, to ensure that he stayed on his meds. We tried for months.”

Eventually, the problem disappeared when the landlords refused to renew the lease on the home in which he lived with his mother. Despite the quirky and humorous side to this and other stories, crime is a very real problem and nowhere is the concern greater than in Sun City Center. Although he would minimize his role in keeping it at bay, Thornton has spent the past seven years fighting endless scams and burglars of all sorts. His job is to protect and serve someone’s parents and grandparents. There is no greater responsibility.

While he is leaving his post as Sun City Center resource deputy, he will still be serving the community through the street crimes unit. His office will move just a few miles down the road to the HCSO District IV headquarters in Ruskin where he will report to former Sun City Center resource deputy, now a sergeant, Joe Burt.

“Rob’s done a great job there,” said Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee. “He really put a lot of effort into the community. He did a commendable job and gave it all he had. Now we can use the knowledge he has gained to continue serving that and other communities.”thornton1

“This is going to really give me the opportunity to give back,” Thornton said. “I think that I have a lot to offer the street crimes unit — I still have a lot of good years left in me.”

The now 41-year-old deputy leaves his post with a new appreciation for the true heart of the community.

“In my 17 years of law enforcement, this seven years here has been the most rewarding,” Thornton said. “There have been challenges but there are also some days when I’m driving home thinking I was able to make a difference. You don’t get the opportunity very often. That’s the whole reason we get up in the morning. To make a difference.”

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