Tupelo Police Chief reminisces long career as retirement looms

Tupelo Police Department Chief Bart Aguirre

It has been a long time coming, but it is getting near. Chief Bart Aguirre leaves the Tupelo Police Department on the last day of this month. After 36 years there, he will be spending future days much differently. “My wife and I went to the post office last week and got our passports,” said the 71-year-old Aguirre. “There are trips we’d like to do. We’ve been looking at Mexico.” Of course, constant travel is not on the agenda for Aguirre and his wife Patty. After all, one must leave time for, well, just hanging out. Aguirre plans to perform no police work, such as consulting, once he leaves his second-floor office on Front Street. Instead, he will likely assist Patty in her quest to acquire and train a service dog; they have two dogs already, one of which is a trained service dog. And Aguirre will have plenty of time to reflect on his career. While he began with TPD in October 1985, Aguirre’s law enforcement career actually started earlier when he was a dispatcher for the Lee County Sheriff’s Department. At one time, Aguirre wanted to pursue a career in forensic science with an emphasis on firearms identification and ballistics (he’s an avid gun collector). Instead, he ends his career at the head of an agency that employs 115 certified police officers and 32 civilians. Looking back on that career, Aguirre can quickly name successes and disappointments. Among his proudest work is Operation Secondhand Smoke, a multi-year, multi-state, multi-agency effort to stop a cigarette black market operation. The effort involved the FBI, ATF and included undercover buys of untaxed cigarettes in 26 states. “It was a tax issue,” said Aguirre, explaining that black market cigarettes don’t pay substantial federal taxes. In one instance, a truck trailer filled with cigarettes was stolen in Kentucky and wound up in a warehouse that stood where the Tupelo Police Department headquarters is today. In fact, the land for the headquarters was one of many forfeitures and seizures secured by the time Operation Secondhand Smoke closed. Another case Aguirre points to as a success was solving the disappearance of John Edward Seal. His murdered remains were recovered from an abandoned well on the Itawamba-Monroe County line 13 years after going missing in 1986; an Itawamba County resident, Ronnie Swann, was arrested and convicted for that murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Two longtime cases that remain open, on the other hand, are among Aguirre’s career disappointments: “I’m still haunted by those cases,” said Aguirre. The Jennifer Jackson Floyd case began in 1987 when Floyd had to leave her job at Hancock Fabrics on West Main Street in the middle of the day. She was never seen again. Her car was found in the parking lot of a convenience store at the intersection of West Main and Coley Road. Despite extensive searches, no trace of Floyd has ever been found. The other “haunting” case happened about five years after the Floyd disappearance. Thirteen-year-old Leigh Occhi disappeared from her home in West Tupelo in August 1992; again, despite widespread searches, no trace of the teenager has ever been uncovered. Aguirre said solving one or both of those cases before he leaves office would cap his career, but he knows that won’t likely happen. One of the lowest points in his career, Aguirre said, was December 2013, when TPD Sgt. Gale Stauffer was murdered by a bank robber on South Gloster Street. Aguirre said that was the only time during his career that a TPD officer died on duty. The murderer was shot and killed days later while attempting another bank robbery in Phoenix, Arizona. “It was a tragic situation,” Aguirre said of Stauffer’s death. “It was quite a manhunt for the next seven days.” The hunt included TPD, the FBI, Lee County Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies. But it’s time to hang it up: “How do you leave a family after 36 years without regret?” Aguirre asked, knowing there is no answer to that question. “I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not going to work. I had the desire in my heart to do this kind of work and the Lord put me here and is now letting me retire.” Aguirre and his wife have three children and five grandchildren. In their leisure time, they spend time with the grandkids, attending their grandsons’ baseball games, and recreating with their two dogs. They owned and rode motorcycles, including on some long cross-country trips, but sold those some years ago. A retirement reception is being planned but has not yet been finalized.

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