Former Sheriff Frank Wanicka, 83, dies in N.C. from COVID-19

Former Lee County Sheriff Frank Wanicka, credited with bringing modern procedures to the…

Former Sheriff Frank Wanicka, 83, dies in N.C
Former Sheriff Frank Wanicka, 83, dies in N.C. from COVID-19 1

Michael Braun
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

Former Lee County Sheriff Frank Wanicka, generally credited with bringing modern police procedure to the Sheriff’s Office, died Wednesday afternoon.

Wanicka, 83, had been suffering from COVID-19 and family members said he was on a ventilator for the previous five days. 

“Frank got much worse and his body could not overcome the effects of COVID,” said his wife, Anne, who is also recovering from the virus.

“His heart was weakened,” added Attorney Joe D’Alessandro, a life-long friend of Warnicka.

The former sheriff leaves his wife, a son, Frank Jr., and a daughter, Julie. Wanicka’s twin brother, Don, now living in South Palm Beach, also served Lee County — as director of Fort Myers Parks and Recreation for many years.

Wanicka, 34 at the time, defeated colorful Flanders “Snag” Thompson to become sheriff and served as the county’s chief law enforcement officer from 1973 to 1988.

The defeat of Democrat Thompson by Republican Wanicka was considered a major upset at the time.  One of the only Republican officeholders in Lee County, besides state attorney D’Alessandro, was property appraiser Harry Schooley

“It made it quite an upset,” Anne Wanicka said. “Snag was in office for 24 years. No one thought anyone could kick him out.”

She said her husband ran a clean campaign and Lee County residents, though they liked Thompson, were ready for a change and the young Wanicka was just the ticket.

Wanicka was elected when the county was just starting to experience exponential growth and the problems that came with it such as drugs and gambling.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the Fort Myers-Cape Coral area grew 94.2% between 1970 and 1980 — mostly during Wanicka’s tenure, making it the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the nation, with a county population of 205,266.

Wanicka’s administration is generally credited with bringing the Lee County Sheriff’s Office into the modern law enforcement era.

“Whatever the Sheriff’s Office is now, he was sheriff at a time when it was going from one generation to another,” D’Alessandro said. “He brought it to the modern age.”

A history on the Sheriff’s Office web page outlines those changes:

“Sheriff Wanicka inherited an agency that had made few technological changes since its inception. A study by the President’s Commission of Law Enforcement completed a few years before concluded that departments nationwide were not taking advantage of new technology and were relying on procedures from the 1930s and 1940s. As crime and population grew, new technologies and methods became imperative.

“Under Sheriff Wanicka’s leadership, the agency began the transformation into a modernized policing department. The agency made the jump from paper records and hand-written reports to the use of computers. Computer Aided Dispatch was introduced for the first time in the 1970s, simplifying and expediting dispatchers’ task of processing and responding to emergencies, and mobile VHF radios kept deputies in constant contact with the agency even when they were away from their vehicles. The agency’s first crime lab became operational, significantly cutting down on the time it took to process evidence.”

D’Alessandro added that Wanicka made such advances as starting his own testing lab when drugs started becoming more and more of a problem and lab access was an issue, began the Sheriff’s Office motorcycle unit, and encouraged the Florida Highway Patrol to increase manpower in Southwest Florida.

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D’Alessandro said he spoke with Wanicka weekly and made annual visits to his home in North Carolina.

“I used to tease him,” D’Alessandro said. “Franklin, you’re hair’s gray, but you haven’t gained an ounce since you retired.”

D’Alessandro said he wished everyone in Lee County could have known Wanicka.

Former Sheriff Rod Shoap worked under Wanicka and knew him as a knowledgeable and capable sheriff.

“He was a great leader and a great family man,” Shoap said. “And a great mentor for a lot of us.”

Shoap said Wanicka was fiscally aware as well as interested in pushing the Sheriff’s Office forward, often implementing policy and procedure, such as the use of propane fuel in patrol cars, to help save the office money.

For former Sheriff Mike Scott, whom Wanicka hired, that propane project was a key indicator of the sheriff’s mindset.

“He was ahead of the time and thinking,” Scott said. “(The propane meant) we were running cheaper day-by-day, almost for free.”

Wanicka’s faith was also a critical factor in his life, friends and family said.

The sheriff organized a musical group, long-time friend Susan Bennett said, called “Cops for Christ” and would play at area churches and other events.

Anne Wanicka said the singing group was very important to her husband and his faith.

“He used to joke that, since he was sheriff, they wouldn’t dare turn off his microphone,” she said.

Bennett met Wanicka after she and her husband, Phil, graduated from the University of Florida and settled in Fort Myers.

“I worked in radio as the news director of WMYR and WHEW.  That’s when I met Frank and covered the Sheriff’s Department for my radio broadcasts,” Bennett remembered.  “During one of our conversations, we found that we both played bridge.”

Bennett said the former sheriff was a master contract bridge player who took the game seriously. She noted that when she and her husband would play with Wanicka and his wife, the two women would run afoul of the men for talking during the game.

“Susie and I were there to talk,” Anne Wanicka remembered with a laugh.

Bennett said she and Anne rarely won a game against the men.

“But we didn’t care. We were more about socializing over cards,” she said. “Frank was very serious about it though and would occasionally say ‘shut up and play the game.’  Anne and I would laugh and be quiet – for awhile anyway.”

Bennett also recounted that Wanicka kept a Bible on his desk and a rifle on the wall.

He always worked to make sure that his deputies were fairly compensated, both Bennett and Scott recalled.

Scott said he would often see Wanicka roaming the halls at the Sheriff’s Office headquarters on Six Mile Cypress urging officers and deputies alike to make sure they paid attention to their financial affairs.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office announced the death of Wanicka on Facebook.

“Though I did not have the pleasure of serving alongside Sheriff Wanicka, I would like to take this opportunity to honor a leader who was deeply respected and paved the way for future law enforcement officers,” said Lee County Sheriff Carmine Marceno.

Wanicka was a 1955 Fort Myers High School graduate who attended the University of Florida and served 13 months in the U.S. Army in Korea. He came into the Sheriff’s post in kind of a round-about way.

His chief deputy, Dave Wilson, said Warnicka at first served with the old Florida Marine Patrol, which eventually merged with Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, and also had stints with the Fort Myers Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the old Barnett Bank, before Wilson mentioned he should run against Thompson.

“I was the one who talked him into running,” Wilson said. “He didn’t think he could win but he decided to run after talking with his wife.”

Anne Wanicka said the campaigns were a team effort between her husband and her. 

“I was behind the scenes,” she said. “I didn’t help run the Sheriff’s Office.”

Wanicka won with 60% of the vote.

“He told me “Dan, since you got me to run you have to come work with me,'” Wilson said. “I found him to be a very honest and outspoken individual.”

That feeling extended to others who worked with Wanicka, such as Scott.

“I think he was the best sheriff we had here,” Scott, in Fort Myers, said Thursday. “And I say that obviously looking at myself in the mirror. He’s beyond a legend.”

Scott was hired by Wanicka and worked with him during his administration.

“My mom, who’s now 92, taught him and his twin brother at Fort Myers High School,” Scott said. “We had a deep, rich history with him.”

Such as the respect, Scott said, that his mother, a longtime Democrat, actually changed political parties. 

“Just for one reason only,” he said. “To vote for Wanicka.”

Scott said county residents also loved and respected the former sheriff.

“I feel a loss,” Scott said of Wanicka’s passing. “I wish more people here would understand (Lee County’s) history.”

Connect with breaking news reporter Michael Braun: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook)@MichaelBraunNP (Twitter) or mbraun@news-press.com. Former News-Press reporter Susan Bennett contributed to this report.

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