On his first full day of retirement, former Sheriff Rick Roth sat down with The Weekly to share just a few of his memories from more than four decades of service with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
With his wife Sandi having just returned from an Alaskan cruise and preparing now for another Bahamas cruise, he’s left only to supervise the contractors who are expanding his woodworking shop.
Donning his typical casual attire while clutching a hot cup of coffee with a newspaper tucked under his arm, Roth proclaimed, “I’m 70 years old. It’s time for some new life in the Sheriff’s office, some new blood and more vigorous enforcement.”
The U.S. Navy Reserves sent Roth, just 19 years old, out of his native Minneapolis to Key West in 1958. In his new post for mere months, Roth stopped in for a quick bite to eat in Marathon. It was there that he met the young drive-in waitress, and in less than a year, they were married. Sandi had moved with her family from South Georgia some years before, and she was in the last class of high school students to ride a school bus to Key West High School every day for classes.
Roth has seen as much history as he’s been a part of it.
Like every Keys resident and property owner, Conch or not, Roth’s recollections include a hurricane story or two.
His introduction to the annual disruptions came during amidst his decision to relocate permanently.
Shortly after Roth was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1960, he returned to Minneapolis with his new bride and first daughter, Cathy. He took a job in a foundry, but noting his 70-year-old co-workers’ deep raspy voices and bitter demeanor, he decided life as an ironworker in the tundra of Minnesota was not his vision of the future. He and Sandi packed their 1957 Chevrolet with their two young daughters – Deanna having been born in 1961 – two cats, and their life’s possessions and headed south to his wife’s hometown of Marathon.
“We were the only car in the southbound lane on the Turnpike, just watching the masses of people heading north” he laughed. “We had the radio on in the car, but we didn’t know what a hurricane was.”
Hurricane Betsy had just passed through the Keys, flooding the island chain and ripping out parts of the road traversing Lake Surprise north of Key Largo. Roth stopped at the police department in Homestead and explained that he was headed to Marathon to interview for a dispatcher position with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.
“They told me and my wife that they didn’t know if they Keys even still existed after Betsy passed through,” he remembers.
After taking the entire next day to travel from Homestead to Marathon in a caravan of dump trucks, unloading gravel and fill on washed out roads along the way, Roth accepted the dispatcher position and his dream of a career in law enforcement took off.
He chuckles as he remembers his first arrest being what he called “a gimme.” While in the Marathon substation, a traveler who had picked up a hitch hiker along the way dropped Roth his first drug bust.
“The guy told me the hitchhiker had fallen asleep, but that he had marijuana on him and he wanted no part of that. Looking back I feel bad about it now. I woke the guy up and arrested him for having half a joint on him.”
Fast forward to 1980. Roth quickly ascended the ranks from dispatcher to road officer, detective and sergeant in Marathon. Following tensions and unrest in Cuba, Fidel Castro opened the Mariel Harbor port for Cuban emigrants to depart their native country with the caveat that someone had to be there to pick them up. For the first couple of weeks, the boatlift was unrecognized by federal agencies – leaving local law enforcement officials saddled with the responsibility of security for the Keys, Roth said a drive down U.S. 1 showed the most meager boats on trailers along the road with $50,000 price tags.
Cuban-Americans in Miami would drive through the Keys, buy a boat and ride to Cuba to pick up their family members. The problem was, according to Roth, that Castro emptied his jails and asylums during the boatlift. If someone went to pick up three family members, the Cuban government told them they had to also take 50 criminals or vagrants from Cuba back to America. Many of the offenders, Roth confirmed, still remain in local and state jails.
“We had hardly any Spanish speaking staff. It was a hectic time,” he said.
It’s been more than two decades since Roth made an arrest on the street. After he was put in charge of operations in Key West, he continued former Sheriff William Freeman’s reelection campaign of cleaning up corruption within the department. Drug smuggling, particularly marijuana, was rampant through the 1980s and Roth knew there were corrupt officers within the department.
Roth recalled stopping a 35’ motor home passing through Marathon. There was something suspicious about RV’s contents that were smashing its pink curtains against the window. Deputies searched the vehicle and found 300 bails of marijuana fresh off a shrimp boat at Bahia Honda.
“My entire law enforcement career has been with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department,” Roth said.
Since coming off the streets in 1985, Roth continued Freeman’s mission to establish more professionalism and gain accreditation for the department.
At 10 am on Tuesday, Jan. 6. Roth turned his command over to the new Sheriff.
“There is a lot of institutional memory the new sheriff will be able to draw on,” Roth said. “They are in good shape.”
This past Tuesday, Monroe County’s longest serving Sheriff was greeted to a standing ovation from a room packed full of people whose lives Roth touched. “This is a fun job,” he told his predecessor, Bob Peryam (left). Also pictured, Colonel Rick Ramsay.
Sheriff Rick Roth with his wife, Sandra in the early 60s. They arrived in the Keys within days after Hurricane Betsy struck Marathon and followed the National Guard all the way down U.S. 1.