Austin Chewning first made his name as a cop when he was a young Bunnell police officer in 2011 and, patrolling the streets of the city roundabout midnight in the summer of 2011, noticed something amiss, as cops instinctively do: a truck parked in the parking lot of a local lawyer, filled with dozens of tires and rims.
A check of the truck’s tags revealed that it was registered to Hector Luis Garcia Torres, a man with an extensive history of breaking and entering, trafficking in stolen property, aggravated battery and so on, and three previous stints in state prison. Garcia-Torres was summoned to the scene and gave various stories that didn’t check out. A sheriff’s deputy matched some of the wheels in the truck to wheels at a local shop, whose owner was also summoned, and who identified the wheels in Garcia Torres’s truck as his.
Garcia Torres was arrested, and when the case ended, he’d been charged with grand theft, among other charges, and ended up sentenced to five years in prison. Chewning’s sharp police work earned him notice from city commissioners, who were eager at the time to see the police department pull out of a run of unflattering scandals. John Rogers, who’d been elected a few months before, was especially commending of Chewning, just 22 at the time, seeing him as emblematic of the police department’s turn-around.
Four years later the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office hired Chewning away from Bunnell. In 2016 he survived an unflattering report in the Observer about his fitness during a chase, was the May Employee of the Month last year, then was recipient of a Lifesaving Award last October, when he and Sgt. Daniel Weaver saved a man’s life, and Saturday evening, Chewning was named the 2019 Flagler County Law Enforcement Deputy of the Year.
Chewning, the Sheriff’s Office said, “consistently goes above and beyond in the performance of his duties, remaining proactive throughout his shifts by conducting traffic enforcement, making arrests and seizing narcotics.” Sheriff Rick Staly said Chewning will put in a regular shift but “he’ll give you 14 hours of work.”
Chewning’s was one of several awards handed out Saturday evening at the Hammock Beach Resort in the culmination of the second annual sheriff’s benefit gala to benefit the Employee Assistance Trust fund the sheriff established last year as a non-profit, to financially help law enforcement personnel faced with unforeseen hardships that health and other forms of insurance may not cover. The fund is also on standby to help the family of a deputy injured or killed in the line of duty.
Last year’s gala, attended by 281 guests, raised $70,000. This year’s gala raised over $76,000, according to a sheriff’s release, and was attended by 290 guests, each of whom paid $150 to attend. The money was raised through ticket sales, sponsorships, ads in a glossy, 20-page program, and an auction that included art works by David Bender and Peter O’Neill, a day with the SWAT team, two ride-alongs with Sheriff Staly, who continues to patrol on Friday evenings, a signed cowboy hat, and a chance to ride in a Ferrari around the Daytona Speedway track.
Other winners included Detention Deputy of the Year Sheria Woods, Civilian Employee of the Year Kerri Henderson (she is the Police Athletic League coordinator), Volunteer of the Year Angela Camit (a member of the Citizens Observer Patrol known as COP, who was in the news when an assailant came after her with a knife, while she was on patrol; the assailant, Stephen Goldberg, was found guilty of aggravated assault and sentenced to prison for three years in November), and Citizens of the Year Anthony Butrym and Dawn Butrym. The Butryms were the volunteer searchers who discovered the clothes of missing 17-year-old Ricky Wheeler, which then led to the discover of Wheeler himself, who had been missing several days.
The gala is the main fundraiser for the Flagler Sheriff’s Employee Assistance Trust. “The way I put it is, we are their Go Fund Me page before they need a Go Fund Me page,” Frank DeAngelo, one of the three board members who run the trust, said by way of explaining its purpose. One example, he said, was the case of a detention deputy who last year could not get out of bed: he was paralyzed, apparently from an infection. He lost his law enforcement career, his house had to be retrofitted, the trust helped him with securing a wheelchair, among other supports. Don Madden and Chief Mark Strobridge are the other two board members.
“This community loves to support its law enforcement. It’s truly amazing to me,” Strobridge said during cocktail hour Saturday evening (without a drink in hand). He said in his 27 years as a cop in orange County, where he worked with Staly at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, perhaps once or twice strangers offered to pay his tab when he’d be out at a restaurant. “It happens here all the time. These people love their law enforcement.”
He was explaining how and why so many people had turned up to pay a relatively expensive ticket or place expensive ads in the program to contribute to the trust. But the gala is also a reflection of the sheriff’s continuing popularity, due at least in part to his savvy marketing, but also due to the way he’s steered the agency clear of controversies and scandal for the past two years–something none of his three predecessors, going back to the latter years of the McCarthy era, had managed–as crime has been kept in check.
It’s been also no small achievement that the agency has continued a six-year streak of zero police shootings at a time when such shootings have caught the nation’s eye, and when they have taken place with grim regularity in St. Johns and Volusia counties. In contrast, numerous sheriff’s office’s deputies in Flagler have been involved in at least a half dozen de-escalation incidents where they controlled situations that justifiably could have led to the shooting of civilians, but didn’t.
The agency’s high standing, in other words, is not the result of contrivances.
Staly, who underscores the agency’s work whenever he speaks publicly, was appreciative of the community’s support, and spoke of the evening’s awards to employees as “a way for us to recognize their dedication in the community. All of our employees are dedicated, so they really represent the entire team.”
Congrats Chewgum. I new that day at that “wet lab” that you would do well. Couldn’t find a better deputy.
well done Austin says
I was there the day you found out from Randy you were hired on Bunnell PD. Well done my friend!!!!!
Trailer Bob says
Great Job Sheriff. Keep up the good work.
SO so proud of you! What a beautiful ride my friend. May the angels always watch over you! Xoxo