Sheriff’s latest weapon: The Rook

Alachua County Sheriff's Office uses seized money to pay the $150,000 for it

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell recently bought this Rook, a device her SWAT team will use to deal with barricaded subjects, hostage situations and other times when civilians and deputies could be fired on.

KAREN VOYLES/Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 3:40 p.m.

Sheriff Sadie Darnell has drug dealers and other criminals to thank for her agency's latest acquisition. The Alachua County Sheriff's Office now owns a Rook.

The Rook is a heavily fortified, bullet-proof, customized version of a Caterpillar 287 multi-terrain loader. The low-profile machine was designed — in part by Deputy Jeremy Eckdahl — solely to assist SWAT units with situations they are likely to encounter.

The unit makes it possible for SWAT team members to move in next to a building while behind a bullet-proof wall, be raised up to enter a second-story window, or lift and remove vehicles or punch a hole through a wall to use a camera and microphone to see what is going on inside a building.

"We bought the demo model, which cost $150,000, and it was paid for out of the contraband fund," Darnell said. A new model would likely have cost an additional $50,000 to $100,000 or more, officials said.

Money flows into the fund from seized cash and the sale of assets like cars that are confiscated because they are tied to a crime. Under state law, contraband funds can only be spent on specific purchases, including durable goods like The Rook.

The Sheriff's Office bought The Rook model with an 85-horsepower engine that had been on loan from Ring Power Corp., the Caterpillar dealer for North and Central Florida that manufactures the specialty device.

While testing The Rook, deputies were called to a situation in Lake City where an armed man had barricaded himself inside a home.

"That situation helped us get a good idea of the strengths of The Rook, as well as some parts that needed to be tweaked," Darnell said.

"What we realized is that in one major incident, we could save in overtime and other operational costs what this (Rook) cost," Darnell said.

Sheriff's spokesman Art Forgey said The Rook has a major advantage over the single-deputy, bullet-proof shields that SWAT team members used to hold in front of them while approaching a building or vehicle.

"The individual shields left some exposure like your legs and feet," Forgey said. "Also, in a mass casualty incident, The Rook can carry medical personnel in to the injured."

The Rook has been painted dark green and is stationed behind the Sheriff's Office on SE Hawthorne Road on a flatbed trailer. Darnell, who parks next to the trailer each morning, said she likes seeing The Rook there, ready to go as soon as a truck hooks up to it.

"This is a piece of equipment that we know will save lives," Darnell said.

Karen Voyles is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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