Uniquely Equipped: JRT Kicks Into High Gear

Adversity often brings out the best in people, and Jeepers are no exception. Central Florida law enforcement agencies have long relied on volunteers from the off-road ranks to assist in search-and-rescue missions and disaster relief. Among the more active and experienced are Coty Byers, president of Tampa’s Blackwater Jeepers, and David Gesualdo, the publisher of this magazine. When Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Texas’ Gulf Coast in August 2017, Byers helped lead a convoy of Jeeps, donated U-Hauls, Byers’ tractor-trailer and an SUV from Tampa to Vidor, Texas, ferrying several tons of supplies to grateful Houston-area residents.

“On that original mission to Texas, once we got out there, we realized there was a gap between the big government agencies coordinating the response and the people who needed help,” Byers says. “It didn’t matter if they were rich or poor. They all had the same basic needs. We brought all this stuff, and we’re handing it out, and the FEMA trailers were still locked up.”

Harvey proved to be a turning point. Since that first convoy, whenever a major disaster has struck, Central Florida Jeep groups have risen to the occasion. From Hurricane Irma in South Florida to Florence in North Carolina and Michael in the Florida panhandle, Jeepers have completed a total of 10 disaster-relief missions with convoys as long as 34 vehicles.

Byers says it’s the many volunteers who have bought, collected and transported all those supplies who deserve the credit — particularly those who made possible the trip to the panhandle, which was struck by Michael just weeks after Florence abated.

“We actually found out about Michael right after the run up to North Carolina for Florence. People were still resting and getting ready to go back to work,” Byers says. “We just kicked right back into rescue mode.”

It is in that spirit that the Central Florida Jeep Response Team was formed in November. The team includes representatives from each of the Jeep groups that have participated in the relief missions, and its leaders have ambitious plans for 2019.

Toys donated by Central Florida Jeepers and
delivered by the JRT to local shelters.

We Can Do More

Jeepin’ magazine has been the Central Florida Jeep Response Team’s financial backer, having funded the purchase of a medium tactical vehicle, military-grade trailers, generators, gas, food, water and other supplies. Gesualdo, who has personally participated in each of the hurricane missions, says he was inspired by the grit and determination his fellow volunteers showed on every mission, including his brother, Eric, an experienced search-and-rescue volunteer and now one of the leaders of the Jeep Response Team.

Starting this year, the JRT will also coordinate local missions following the additions of search-and-rescue and rapid-response teams.

“We just felt we could do more,” Gesualdo says. “We’re in touch with so many groups, and their members are always asking how they can make a difference. As the law enforcement-affiliated teams have proven, Jeepers are uniquely equipped for this incredibly challenging and fulfilling work.”

Prospective volunteers are invited to visit Jeepin-USA.com/JRT to learn more about the teams and what will be asked of their members. Reflecting on the relief missions his group and others have completed to this point, Byers says he has come to realize it’s “almost a sense of duty” that compels Jeepers to give of their time and energy to help those in need.

“These are just generous, good people. When other vehicles get stuck, Jeepers start going in and pulling people out,” Byers says. “It’s almost a sense of duty. Good people tend to buy Jeeps.”

Nuts and Bolts

The Central Florida Jeep Response Team is made up of local volunteers from the Jeepin’ community. Prospective volunteers are invited to visit Jeepin-USA.com/JRT to learn more about the teams and what will be asked of their members.

The Sheriff Drives a Jeep

Are you ready for another opportunity to take that Jeep of yours for a spin? It’s time to get out there in your Jeep’s natural habitat and tackle steep inclines, mudholes and much more. Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd and his team are hosting the fifth annual Jeepin’ with Judd at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. The three-day event kicks off on Friday, Feb. 22, with proceeds to benefit Polk Sheriff’s Charities.

Judd says there will be more Jeeps, more spectators and longer trails than ever at this year’s event. Volunteers are building two-hour trails, because they don’t want anyone to wait to have fun.

“We’re fortunate Clear Springs allows us to use their 18,000-acre ranch. We use about 2,000 of it,” Judd says. “Last year, we had 400 campsites and 1,000 campers. Some of our Jeep enthusiasts came from as far away as Texas and California.”

Volunteer Power

Judd says preparations for the event requires the work of about 200 volunteers, 125 of whom come from the Orlando Jeep Club. “They have been our partners for several years and we want to give a shout-out to them for being totally awesome.”

Volunteers work for weeks in advance, mostly building and maintaining trails, wanting each year to be bigger and better than the last. With an attendance of 6,000 people and 1,600 Jeeps last year, 2019 seems poised to continue the exponential growth the event has had over the past four years. All 200 night rides are already sold out, as are all the motels in Bartow, Judd reports, which says a lot about the enthusiastic anticipation of this event.

The sheriff credits the excitement and growth in participation to the skills and dedication of the volunteers. He also feels they have created a truly family-friendly atmosphere. “It’s the kind of event you can bring your kids and grandkids to.”

Plus, he says, pre-order tickets are affordable at $60 a Jeep (or $80 at the gate), which can be loaded up with as many occupants as the Jeep has seatbelts. Specatators are invited to attend for free. Campsites are listed for $20/night. Trail difficulty will range from casual rides to technically advanced obstacle courses.

“Some of the courses are not challenging at all. They’re scenic. We’ve got something for everyone who wants to trail-ride through the woods, to a more challenging course with rocks and everything in between,” Judd says.

There is also a “cheep Jeep” up for grabs, a 2011 JK Sport donated by Kelley Buick GMC, that can be yours with the winning $20 raffle ticket — one of only 3,000 for sale. “And keep in mind, whenever you win a Jeep or any other prize, there’s a pretty steep federal tax involved. We pay that, so there’s no downside,” Judd says. “Buy your tickets early, because they will run out.”

The weekend will kick off with a huge gathering in downtown Bartow. Judd says the city has embraced the event, blocking off streets for a Friday-night show ’n’ shine and welcoming revelers to its bars and restaurants. He also stresses that the event is not just for hardcore off-roaders.

“If they don’t have a Jeep, they get in for free,” Judd says. “So come on out and enjoy. And if you don’t have a Jeep, maybe next year you’ll have a Jeep too.”

Nuts and Bolts

Grady Judd is the sheriff of Polk County, Fla., and part of the team of organizers and volunteers behind Jeepin’ with Judd, a three-day, family-friendly off-road event that begins Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. For more information, visit jeepinwithjudd.com or connect on Facebook.

Support Your Local C.O.P.S.

When Stephanie Barnes’ brother was killed in the line of duty eight years ago, she couldn’t have imagined that tragedy would lead her down the path to involvement in and leadership of the West Central Florida chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors.

Stephanie, what is COPS about and how long has it been around?

Concerns of Police Survivors is an organization that was started in 1984 by a woman named Suzie Sawyer, after her husband was killed in the line of duty. Her mission in starting the program was to help surviving families and co-workers cope after the loss of a loved one. Among other things, COPS addresses the emotional, financial and legal needs of families; provides training to law enforcement agencies on survivor victimization issues; and provides public outreach and awareness on behalf of law enforcement and the families of fallen officers.

Our West Central Florida Chapter covers a range of nine counties: Citrus, De Soto, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota.

How did you get involved and eventually become president of the West Central Florida chapter?

It was actually my mother that got me involved. My brother Jeff was a police officer for 13 years. He had just recently become a K-9 officer and it was on Jan. 24, 2011, that he lost his life. He wasn’t even supposed to be working that day, so it was a hard situation to handle, in the sense that it was truly a freak accident. … Well, it wasn’t an accident — it was a killing. He was in St. Pete and responding to an “assistance needed” call for a U.S. Marshal who was going to question a woman in the midst of a domestic violence situation. When they found the fugitive in the attic, there was a struggle to get him in handcuffs and, during this time, my brother was shot and killed.

After his death, I accompanied my mother to Washington, D.C., for the ceremony of his name being added to the memorial wall. It was during this trip that other parents and members of COPS reached out to her and when she got involved. It wasn’t until seven months later, when my father passed away, that my sister and I began to accompany her to COPS events, for support. Right away, I realized how much the organization and chapter really did for those families in need, while coping with the loss of a loved one.

When it came time to elect new members to the board, the chapter was still very small, and they asked if I was interested in the vice president position. At the time, I was pregnant and had a lot on my plate, but after some convincing I took on the role until they could find someone else.

However, five years went by with me in the VP seat, and when it was time to replace the current president, Cindy Roberts, I was voted in. It was an easy decision in my mind — If I want to go forth with something, I want to make sure I am doing everything right and supporting the organization the best I can. Because it truly is such a heartfelt organization to me, I didn’t want to let them down. Since taking over Cindy’s role, we have continued to grow.

On Law Enforcement Appreciation Day (Jan. 9), COPS visited several
departments to drop off goodies as a token of appreciation, including Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department at Citrus park.

COPS does so much in terms of raising money and distributing it back into the community. How exactly does your organization raise money and what does that money do to help these families?

Lately, a lot of our donations have been coming in through the help of organizations like Jeeps vs. Harleys and Krawl’n 4 the Fallen, that have learned about who we are and wanted to give back to us. So a lot of our fundraising comes from their help and wanting to do fundraisers on our behalf.

We hold our own fundraisers at times. We’ve done a local COPS Walk. The past three years it was held in St. Pete, the same night as St. Pete’s police memorial in May. We have also done golf tournaments in the past, and we are always looking for new ways to share our mission.

When an officer loses their life, we plan and pay for the trip for surviving family members to go see their loved ones names placed on the memorial wall. Our job is to actually pay for the plane tickets and hotels. It’s hard, though, because you never know how many officers are going to lose their lives in a year, so it is impossible to determine how much will be needed in a given year. When you look at that, you need to have a surplus of money to ensure that when a tragedy does happen, that the money is available to get them there. We don’t want these families coping with their loss to have to worry about it. We don’t want them to not be able to go because they can’t afford it.

We also offer retreats to family members, including specific retreats for spouses, or parents, children, siblings, loved ones. It gets broken down into different levels, so for example when I attend, I am surrounded by other siblings of fallen officers. When my mom goes, she is with other parents. What a lot of officers don’t realize, and what we are really trying to get out to them, is that we also support co-workers.

I can’t tell you how many officers I have run into in the last couple of months who have lost officers years ago and are still traumatically affected by the experience, because they were very close to their co-worker. The way I look at it, No. 1, they are hurting and missing their buddy, but they also have feelings of knowing that could have been them. It’s one of those situations where these officers, whether they don’t realize we also offer support to them, or there are some that do know we offer support to co-workers as well, but they don’t want to take it on the reasoning that they are in turn taking away from resources that could be give to their actual family members.

To me, that is non-negotiable. They need this as much as the family members do.

What is COPS doing to help spread awareness and get the name out there?

Any event that we are invited to, I go to, whether they are donating to us or not. For me, it comes back to how can I get my name out there and we strive to find new and creative ways to do so. As I said, I try to sell items with our name on them, even if it’s just for $1 and I wind up losing money, it’s worth it. We are part of programs that spread awareness in schools. There is National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, which took place Jan. 9, and is run by the national COPS organization, and each chapter participates in their own way. One of the things that we have done the last few years is create goodie bags, or as we call them, “Officer Survivor Kits” to give to all the families of law enforcement officers, in a school. Every little thing counts.

What is your impression of the Jeepin’ community?

I can’t tell you how in awe I am of the support we receive. I am totally sold on the Jeepin’ community. It doesn’t matter which event I go to, they all want to help survivors and want to reach out to see what they can do. I recently told my husband, “We’re buying a Jeep!”

In getting to know the Jeep community, I can’t say enough how appreciative our organization is of their support. It brings chills to my arms seeing how kind everyone is. Even those that have no connection to law enforcement, the desire is still there to help us both financially and emotionally. It really means a lot to us, we are truly grateful.

Nuts and Bolts

Stephanie Barnes is president of the West Central Florida Chapter of Concerns of Police Survivors. To learn more about their mission, visit WestCentralFLCops.org.

365JeepLife Is Extremely Active

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your Jeepin’ career?

I was born in Mexico and raised in Eugene, Oregon. I got my driver’s license when I was 18 in 1992, and my first car was a YJ. I have been driving Jeep Wranglers ever since.

As a veteran Jeeper, what advice would you give to someone new to the activity?

My advice would be to let them know what is important when beginning the process of upgrading their Jeep. Parts that affect the performance of their rig, like gears and winches, should be the focus at first — not lightbars and other parts that only affect the look of the Jeep.

When I got my Jeep, I started by spending lots of money on big tires. I ignored the gears and I ended up damaging them. I had to upgrade to the correct ones and now everything runs great.

What is special or unique about your rig?

I have grab handles on my Jeep that I actually make myself!

Tell us about your group, its purpose and the benefits to your members.

365JeepLife is more like a network, not a club or group. We have members from other [area] clubs as well as clubs from all over the world. The benefits of a Jeep network as opposed to a closed group are that you get to meet people from all over the U.S.A and other countries! We like to spread the culture and movement of being an active part of your community.

How long has your group been around?

I founded 365JeepLife in 2015.

How many members do you currently have and what is the process to become a member?

365JeepLife has 15,000 active members. The process is very simple, just join the page and you have access to all of the activities that you can attend. We just ask that all members be respectful to the community and respectful at group activities. Because our events are always family-oriented, we have zero tolerance for non-respectful people.

Do you have group trail rides?

We organize about six camping trips throughout the year as well as at least four to five trail rides for our members. We do our best to keep all rides and activities low-risk so everyone can participate. However, if there are individuals with more experience, we will hold more “hardcore” events as well as to help out those Jeepers with less experience.

Does 365JeepLife support any charities?

We support quite a few charities, including participating with Mission 22, JJ Lyon Guard Foundation, Krawln 4 the Fallen, the Rotary Club, and the Miracle Network.

What other types of activities do you have for your members?

We plan beach trips, out-of-state adventures to meet with other Jeepers, meet-and-greets, parades and the charity events I mentioned earlier. We try to do something at least once per month.

What sets your group apart from others?

I really focus on the group Facebook page to make it better for our members. I don’t compare us with anyone else. Every group has their own style, so everyone is unique, and that is what makes the Jeep community so great!

Nuts and Bolts

Jorge Martinez is the founder of 365JeepLife, a network of Jeepers that promotes family-friendly adventures and connecting with Jeepers across the country and around the world.

The Rematch: Jeeps Vs. Harleys is Ready to Roll

On Saturday, Oct. 6, at 7 a.m., Jeep and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts from Central Florida and beyond will begin to convene at East Lake Center on Bay Center Drive in Tampa, Fla., the starting point for the second annual Jeeps vs. Harleys charity convoy. The proceeds will benefit a number of local causes, including Ferrell Cares and Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).

The assembled vehicles will line up at 9 a.m. and roll out at 9:30 sharp, beginning a 30-mile, police-escorted journey to the Sun ’n’ Fun Expo campus at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, where they will join a massive event that will include food and refreshments, live music and vendors selling Jeep and Harley parts, accessories, equipment and merchandise, and at least two big raffle prizes: a highly modified, customized and off-road-ready 2005 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and a 2003 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy.

It costs $15 per vehicle to participate in the convoy, and participation could easily double from 2017. Last year’s convoy included a total of more than 500 Jeeps and motorcycles, with Jeeps narrowly outnumbering Harleys. Organizer Al Feliz said Central Florida Jeepers will have to step up to maintain bragging rights.

“The word got out to the Harley community last year that the Jeeps took home the trophy, so word has it the Harleys are organizing and coming back strong,” says Feliz, who serves as vice president of Blackwater Jeepers, which has joined with Off-Road Alliance, Trail Monkeys 4×4 and Tri-County Jeepers to support the event.

The Stage Is Set

The inaugural Jeeps vs. Harleys was staged after only three months of planning. It was nevertheless a runaway success, attracting more than 1,000 participants and spectators, raising $16,000 in charitable donations, and setting the stage for 2018.

Although the convoy and the party went off without a hitch, JCF Publisher David Gesualdo identified a missing component: a “big” raffle prize; specifically, an off-road-ready Wrangler. He approached the groups with a proposition: The magazine would buy a used Jeep if the groups would build it into a trail-blasting beast.

They agreed, with Tri-County installing the suspension, lift, wheels and tires, Off-Road Alliance adding fenders and skid plates, Trail Monkeys responsible for the bumpers, a tire carrier, winch and Hi-Lift, and Blackwater is installing a snorkel and relocating the battery, installing lights, and handling all the finishing touches. Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge Ram of New Port Richey helped manage all four phases, sourcing parts, conducting routine maintenance and inspections, and providing leadership throughout the process. Proceeds from the Jeep raffle will be distributed to local charities in partnership with the four participating groups and Farrell Cares.

“I wanted to do something big for the charity — not just a donation,” Gesualdo says. “Thanks to the four groups and Ferman, we have a raffle prize for the ages and one that will undoubtedly sell tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets.”

Don’t Forget the Bikers

With the Jeep build underway, Gesualdo says, it occurred to organizers that one vehicle might not be enough. “Some Jeepers are also Harley riders, just as some Harley riders are also Jeepers, and both groups will be out in force. We wanted both groups to be represented with a big-ticket item.”

Enter the 2003 Fat Boy, donated by the magazine and purchased from Harley-Davidson of New Port Richey, where a number of upgrades were performed. The bike is ready to be handed over to a lucky Jeeps vs. Harleys attendee. Proceeds from the Harley-Davidson raffle will go to the West Central Florida chapter of COPS.

“We are anticipating a lot more Harley vendors and sponsors this year,” Feliz says. “But sponsorships and exhibit space are open to anyone who wants to reach a fantastic, fun-loving, civic-minded crowd at what promises to be a massive event.”

Speaking on behalf of the JCF staff, Gesualdo says he is proud that the magazine is associated with the event and inspired by the blood, sweat and tears organizers have poured into it. He encourages anyone in possession of a Jeep or a Harley to join the convoy, enjoy the party that follows, and enter to win the high-dollar items — including the vehicles as well as a long list of upgrades, accessories, merchandise and toys set to be raffled off — in support of our local charities.

“If you have never been in a convoy, you don’t know how cool it is,” says Gesualdo, who, along with his young son, Peter, was nominated to lead last year’s ride. “To see all those people, in all those vehicles, with the police escort — and to hear and feel all those engines revving — was one of the greatest moments of my life.”

Nuts and Bolts

Billed as “The Rematch,” the second annual Jeeps vs. Harleys charity convoy and family-friendly event is set for Saturday, Oct. 6. The convoy will assemble starting at 7 a.m. at East Lake Center in Tampa and start the 30-mile journey to the Sun ’n’ Fun Expo campus at Lakeland Linder Airport at 9:30 a.m. Register by finding the event on Facebook. To sponsor or join the event as a vendor, contact organizers at email hidden; JavaScript is required.

Christmas in July + Tampa Jeep Krewe = Miles of Smiles

For the Tampa Jeep Krewe, the spirit of giving is a year-round exercise that ends with the largest event they participate in: Christmas in July at the BayCare St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital. This year’s event is set to take place on Friday, July 27, from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. There is bound to be fun energy and excitement surrounding this heartwarming event, where adults and kids alike can participate in making children who are in serious need for a pick-me-up that much more optimistic about healing.

“The hospital is so grateful. The toys give the kids a break from the struggle and stress of dealing with their illness,” says Shelley Ziegler, a TJK member and charity lead for the event. This is the fifth year TJK will be participating in Christmas in July’s uplifting spirit alongside Tampa residents, Jeepers and local businesses. Last year’s total donation from TJK was roughly $24,000, setting the 2018 TJK donation goal at $30,000. “We usually pick four or five charities to support throughout the year. This is the biggest.”

As a five-year member of TJK and part of the group’s events committee, she understood the charity wanted to partner up with community-focused groups. TJK was the perfect fit, she says, because you can’t go wrong with a group who is known to be generous, fun and able to bring the show. They plan to pack up their best-looking Jeeps to deliver their bounty of donated toys they have been collecting for a morning drop the day of the event.

Get Involved

Ziegler explains that, leading up to day of the event, the group organizes various toy drives amongst its membership. One can participate with this event in many ways. You can simply purchase a toy — keeping in mind the hospital’s request for nonviolent and easily sanitized items — and donate it to TJK. Cash donations and the proceeds from three months’ worth of events and raffles, including a mini-Jeep worth $3,500 and a heavy-duty winch will fund a shopping spree for durable “experience” items such as tablet computers and gaming consoles.

Drop boxes are installed and monitored by members at local business, office buildings and restaurants. They also host weekly or semi-monthly meetups such as happy hours and beach days. TJK’s main charity drive event will be their July social on Saturday, July 14, 2018 from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 81Bay Brewing Co. on West Gandy Boulevard in Tampa.

Nuts and Bolts

TJK Charity Drive:
• When: Saturday, July 14, 2018,
from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
• Where: 81Bay Brewing Co.,
4465 W Gandy Blvd 33611

Christmas in July:
• When: Friday, July 27, 2018,
from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
• Where: BayCare St. Joseph’s Children’s
Hospital, 3001 W MLK Jr Blvd 33607
• Questions: Child Life department at
(813) 554-8155, ext. 7

New and returning donors and volunteers can keep up by finding Tampa Jeep Krewe on Facebook and checking in on the Jeepin’ Central Florida website. For any questions or clarity on the greatest needs of BayCare Children’s Hospital, call the Child Life department at (813) 554-8155, ext. 7.

“It is a family-friendly event. We will have food trucks, activities for the kids and lots of Jeeps,” Ziegler says. “We’ll also have great raffles and a 50/50 drawing with all the proceeds going to Christmas in July!”

Safer Together: Jeepin’ with Sheriff Judd

Effective policing requires more than law enforcement. Officials must connect with their communities to make them safer. So says Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, the nationally known lawman and namesake of “Jeepin’ with Judd,” a three-day, family-friendly, off-road event set to kick off on Friday, Feb. 23, at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. Jeepin’ Central Florida met with Judd to learn more about the event and the causes it supports.

Sheriff, where are you from, and how long have you worked in law enforcement? 

I’m from Polk County, born and raised here. And I’ve worked for the sheriff’s office since July 1972 after graduating high school in June. It’s the only full-time job I’ve had as an adult. I’ve had the passion to be the sheriff since I was a very young fella. When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I had little police outfits. I thought law enforcement was the greatest thing in the world.

So I got a job as a telecommunicator, married my high school sweetheart, worked my way up, and continued my education. And when the former sheriff retired, I ran for the office. This is my 14th year as sheriff, and I’m living the dream. I always wanted to work in law enforcement and help people who are less fortunate.

You have become a public figure with a national presence. Does that make your workday more complicated or does it help you further your mission? 

I consider it a blessing. I’m able to make a positive impact in many different areas of our communities. Our job is not just enforcing the law; it’s ensuring there’s peace and tranquility so people can economically thrive and socially thrive. I consider it an honor, I really do. You can get some positive attention — and sometimes negative attention. It comes with the job.

I was impressed with your statement about outlawing bump stocks following the Las Vegas shooting. You made a sound argument. Did you get any blowback from that? 

First, let me say I am a huge Second Amendment fan. I believe those that are adults and don’t have any mental health issues or felony records have not only the right to own a firearm but the obligation to have the tools to protect themselves, their families and their communities. Second, a bump stock is not gun control. It’s just an illegal — or it should be an illegal — way around a law that is clearly in place, that you can’t own automatic firearms if you can’t go through the right legal channels. It’s a shortcut.

I found it not just interesting but hilarious that, as soon as I put that position out, there were a few people who accused me of being anti-Second Amendment. And not two hours later, the National Rifle Association came out and said they approve of the government regulating bump stocks. Now, normally, I let criticism go by the wayside. But I couldn’t resist. The next day, I put out a statement saying, “For those of you who think I’m anti-Second Amendment, then so is the NRA.”

Nuts and Bolts

Grady Judd is the sheriff of Polk County, Fla., and part of the team of organizers and volunteers behind Jeepin’ with Judd, a three-day, family-friendly off-road event that begins Friday, Feb. 23, 2018, at Clear Springs Ranch in Bartow, Fla. For more information, visit jeepinwithjudd.com or connect on Facebook.

Do you worry about public opinion when you craft those statements?

I make decisions not based on my best interest but the best interest of making this community safe. This community has been gracious enough to let me occupy their seat as the sheriff and I certainly wake up every day with that thought in mind. What can I do today to keep the community safe and function in their best interest? I don’t play to the fringes. The far-right fringe, the far-left fringe? Those two groups will never be satisfied. I play to the overwhelming majority of this community. I believe right is right, wrong is wrong, and wrong is never right.

Speaking of the community, where did the idea for Jeepin’ with Judd come from? Are you an off-roader?

Well, I am now. One of my colleagues, Sgt. Doug Tanner, came to me one day — and he deserves all the credit, not me — and he said, “Sheriff, I got an idea for a fundraiser. We need to have a Jeepin’ event. We’ll call it “Jeepin’ with Sheriff Judd.”

Now, I’m picturing some kind of muddy, beer-drinking operation. I’m not comfortable with that concept. And he said, “No, no, no. There’s a Jeepin’ society I’m involved in. It’s much like Harley riders, only they’re Jeep enthusiasts.” He said I would be hugely impressed with the people, their ethics, their morals. They like to trail-ride and climb obstacles. It’s not a bunch of guys driving through a mud pit drunk.

So I said, “Well, how are we gonna pull this off?” He said Clear Springs Ranch had already agreed to give us the property for free. We just had to provide an indemnification policy. My first statement was I want to double whatever they ask for. He said he would put it together and I said “Let’s do it.” I got so excited, I went out and bought a Jeep. In fact, I’ve bought two. The first one was a 2003 and the next was a 2006, both Wranglers. The first was a stick shift, and my wife didn’t like that.

When was that first event?

This is our fourth year, so that would be 2015. But I didn’t make it the first day. We had a SWAT callout the night before, so the day of the event, I was tied up with that. It was a really bad SWAT callout. The guy barricaded himself in the house, shot at us, set a bomb off, shot one of our medics. It was a big deal.

But my wife was there, with our son and our grandchildren. I get a text from her: “This is totally awesome.” You have to know my wife to look at that and know it’s out of character. I called her up. She said that, aside from the fact that Doug Tanner and our deputies were doing a great job putting it on, it’s huge fun. She said, “They’re respectful, they’re family-oriented. There’s no foul language. I’m perfectly comfortable with the kids out here. It’s an unbelievably awesome event.” And then she said, “By the way, I want a Jeep where I don’t have to shift gears so I can come out here and drive.”

Did you get a good crowd?

We had a huge group the first year. We had an even larger group the second year and, since then, within a week or two of accepting reservations, you wouldn’t believe it. They just flooded in. We’ve almost got all the hotels booked from here to Plant City. We’ve raised huge amounts of money for our charity and had a totally awesome time. And now I own a Jeep that’s complete with a lifted body and oversized tires, and I’ve got the Jeepin’ bug.

What charity does the event support?

All the proceeds go to Polk Sheriff’s Charities, and from there, we have a board of directors that allocates the funds. Most recently, we had deputies who were displaced during the hurricane; two of our deputies had horrific damage to their homes. We helped them. We also sent money to help deputies at Monroe County Sheriff’s Office in the Keys. They said this group of deputies — 10 or 12 of them — had suffered terribly and needed help.

We also fund college scholarships. This year, we are funding scholarships in the name of deputies who have lost their lives in the line of duty in Polk County. We have funded Christmas parties for communities in need. We just made a big donation to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. They used it to convert a building into a college dorm so that, when kids age out of the youth ranches, they have a place to stay through college.

It’s all built around what we can do to make the community better. What can we do to help during a time of tragedy? And it’s only possible because of the wonderful people who come out to enjoy the weekend with us at our event.

Sounds like a lot of work. Would anyone blame you if you threw your hands up and said, “I don’t have time for this”?

Let me answer that by giving you a quote from a gentleman I personally knew: George Jenkins, who built the Publix empire. He was once asked, “George, you have a habit of giving away money. If you never gave any away, how much would you be worth?” And he said, “Probably nothing.” And that’s my response. When we give back to the community, our return on the investment is the partnerships with and the trust of the community, we receive 10,000-fold what we give. The deputies put this together and donate their time, all to give back to community we serve, we love, and we respect. We consider it an honor to be able to do it.

What’s new for 2018? We’re told you plan to give away a Wrangler.

We do. For the last two years, Derrick Kelley from Kelley Buick GMC has bought us a Jeep and then tricked it out. He gives the Jeep to us, we have a drawing, and we donate 100% of the proceeds to the charity.

When you come out there, you see that we have the business owners in the community as sponsors. We have the Jeep family that comes out and plays all weekend with us, different vendors that come out, deputies and others who volunteer. The Orlando Jeep Club gives us a huge amount of volunteer support. Together, they make this Jeepin’ event happen for us.

Who builds the trails?

The trails are built by volunteers. One gentleman in particular does the majority of the work, but he doesn’t want any recognition. I call him the “Heavy Equipment Master.” He comes out Saturday, on his days off, and builds the trails for us. We expanded to add an extra trail this year. We don’t want to make people stand in line to ride once.

Do you have trails for all skill levels?

We do, all skill levels, from simply a ride through the woods to what I would call “exceptionally challenging.”

How do you register?

You can register online at jeepinwithjudd.com or find us on Facebook.

What’s the cost to be a spectator or ride the trails?

Spectators get in for free. Preregistration is $60 per Jeep, and that’s with as many occupants as you have seatbelts. It’s $80 to register onsite.

Anything else you want to mention before we let you go?

My parting statement would be this: Our cost to put this event on is very low, and that’s because of the overwhelming support we get from our volunteers. We’re going to guarantee it’s going to be a huge, fun, family-friendly event where safety and security is paramount. Everyone will have an awesome time, and 100% of the proceeds will go to help everyone from those who are less fortunate to those who are facing a crisis no one could ever dream about. A great amount of appreciation goes out to the Orlando Jeep Club for their time, energy, and resources in developing the awesome trail rides.

It all goes back to the community, and not just Polk County. As I said before, some of the money from the Jeepin’ event will go to those who lost everything to the hurricane while they were out keeping the community safe.

Disaster Convergence: A Human Phenomenon, a Jeepers Natural Instinct

Lorelei and Austin Jackson of Vidor, Texas, started preparing to help their neighbors in Corpus Christi days in advance when Hurricane Harvey was headed toward their state. They organized with other Jeepers to collect supplies. They even offered up their home and business as safe shelters and supply drops. But as the storm took a turn and headed their way, they found themselves having to evacuate quickly with their own safety at risk.

The story that follows is one of true heroism and the phenomenon known as “disaster convergence.” From several states away, the Jacksons had collaborated with fellow Jeepers who offered to bring in truckloads of supplies to their coastal communities in need.

The supply drop point was set up at their primarily Jeep customizing shop, Austin’s Chop Shop in Vidor. Jeepin’ groups from Central Florida and Arkansas were on their way, set to arrive a week after Harvey was to hit land. The North Texas Jeepers had already linked up with the Jacksons’ group, Bottoms Up Jeepers, and other neighbors to store supplies at the chop shop. The plan was to collect and distribute as best they could over the coming days and weeks.

Mission Recap

As a true insight into some of Central Florida’s most active Jeepin’ community members, Coty Byers and Billi Gibson volunteered to load up their semi-truck with supplies and drive it to the Houston area. As you may have read (“Houston or Bust,” September/October 2017, Page 12), Byers had reached out to Austin and the North Texas Jeep Club offering to load up his semi-truck full of donated water, food and first aid supplies.

Central Florida community members generously contributed too many supplies to the Blackwater Jeepers drop points. As Byers and the crew were loading up, they quickly realized they would need two more U-Hauls for the trip — and people to drive them. During the week the storm was lurking overhead and the groups were organizing, Lorelei and Austin’s home and business were still dry. But as the newly formed Central Florida Relief Team was leaving Florida, the original drop point, Austin’s Chop Shop, was soon to be under 10 feet of water.

As a Category 4 hurricane, Harvey first made landfall about a 90-minute drive northeast from Corpus Christi on Friday, Aug. 25, at 10 p.m. Central. As it passed over San Jose Island, Harvey hit land again at 1 a.m. Saturday morning on the northeast shore of Copano Bay, Texas.

Only a four-hour drive away from Vidor, Harvey was downgraded to a Category 3 sustaining 125 mile-per-hour winds. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday the storm crept east up the coast of Texas, dropping a reported 30 to 50-plus inches of rain on Houston. By Wednesday, the record-breaking rain storm headed further east toward the Jacksons.

Jeeps and Boats

With much more rain than expected bringing flash flood emergencies, stranded people needed rescue. On Saturday, the Jacksons were collecting supplies and bringing their family and friends to their house. Come Sunday, they started receiving more and more distress calls.

They turned to their community of Jeepers via social media to get the word out that people needed help. They took it upon themselves to dispatch vehicles to the addresses they were receiving. They originally formed three groups and went out to rescue their neighbors in Jeeps and boats. As Sunday’s daylight turned to night, they worked around the clock, sending out vehicles from their home.

“Several rivers and the bridges were shut down because of flooding,” Lorelei says. “Highway I-10 looked like the ocean. We had to develop more civilian teams.”

The Jacksons used their own Jeeps to transport neighbors back to their house, which sat up on slightly higher ground. Even though the rain kept falling, both the chop shop and their house were dry on Tuesday. They thought the chop shop drop zone would still be good for organizing supplies coming in from the Central Florida Relief Team. … That is, until midday Wednesday.

‘We Have to Go. Now.’

“At 1 p.m. Wednesday, we had 8 inches of water on our road, a normal amount of flooding. I was out getting people in my Jeep. I got back to my house at 3 p.m. and the water was coming into our home. I called Austin and told him, ‘We have to go. Now,’” Lorelei says. “The water was coming up faster than Austin could get back. I had life jackets on the kids inside our home. By the time he arrived, I had called for the tallest Jeep in the area. I grabbed my kids school backpacks and left with the clothes on our backs, nothing else. The only reason we got out was because of the Jeeps. I had to separate from my kids when I loaded them into the Jeep. That was the scariest thing, when we were separated.”

“The car wash and store at the end of the road was the only place for the neighborhood to go. After that we moved everyone and the supplies to the Turning Point Church. They opened the doors for the whole neighborhood when it was going under. Once we unloaded the Jeeps there, we went back into the neighborhood with the Jeeps to rescue people throughout the night,” Austin says.

“It was like a movie. Helicopters dropping baskets to pick up our neighbors. We support first responders through charity and there just wasn’t enough trained people. Without Jeepers and the Cajun Navy with their boats, there would have been a lot more loss,” Lorelei adds.

As a tropical storm, Harvey made its third landfall a little over an hour southeast of Vidor on Wednesday, adding to the reported total of 35 inches of rainfall on the area. Flash flood emergencies rendered the interstate nearly useless to the Jeepers looking to bring supplies. The Jacksons knew how much help they had coming in from Jeepers, including the Central Florida Relief Team. They had to think fast and savvily to determine where to safely drop the supplies.

Nuts and Bolts

Lorelei and Austin Jackson live and work in Vidor, Texas. They own Austin’s Chop Shop, a Jeep customizing fabrication shop, that was used for a supply drop for Hurricane Harvey support. They also ran a Jeep rescue dispatch out of their house during the weeklong storm.

“I contacted another church that was accessible. Nobody could get in to us because the highways were flooded. It also took a lot of work to get around the curfews.” Lorelei says. “We knew we had supplies coming in on Friday, and knew that our local people needed them. The Love and Truth Church was one of the few high and dry points. The pastor and his group helped organize. The city manager is a Jeeper. He was the one who cleared the out-of-state Jeepers to enter with the supplies. It all fell into place with all the right people.”

The Central Florida Relief Team only had a small window of opportunity to drop the supplies before the water took over the roads. It took most of the day to unload Byers and Gibson’s 53-foot trailer by hand. They had to leave the U-Hauls a few towns away and return to unload them later in the day.

The Recovery

The Jacksons couldn’t get into their shop without a boat for another week after the storm passed. Shortly after the water receded, their friends and neighbors threw a fundraiser to raise enough cash to reopen their doors. Austin’s Chop Shop is predominantly a Jeep shop, specializing in custom fabrication, suspensions and some mechanical labor. Many of his customers lost their vehicles and are working with their insurance providers to replace them.

“I didn’t know they were planning a fundraiser. A bunch of our customers all chipped in to get our doors open again. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it,’ they told me,” Lorelei says. “To be honest, it was the perfect amount to get back on track. We’ve been so busy since we opened the doors, mostly trying to help customers recover and get their vehicles back.”

The area where the Jacksons live and work is not considered a flood zone. They never thought they would see such immeasurable damage.

“Right now, while I’m talking to you, we are sitting in the shell of our business’ building. We have literally lost everything. We live in an RV with our children on our property. There are still debris piles everywhere. People ask us how we are living after losing everything. I say it’s easy, because we were once scared for our lives. We have each other. That’s all that matters.”

The Jacksons hope to have the business and store fully repaired and running by January. Their home will take much longer, but they may be able to use and live in some of the rooms again by February. Lorelei reports that most of their neighbors are rebuilding and morale is still high.

“We’ve affected so many along the way and have so many people call or keep checking in. For several weeks after, we’ve had lots of help. We have felt very supported through this.”

The Growth of a Giving Community

In May of this year, Alex Perez was made vice president of Tampa Jeep Krewe. As a member since nearly the beginning, and as an admin for most of the group’s existence, Alex is “honored to be a representative of TJK.”

Jeepin’ Central Florida caught up with Alex for a look inside one of Central Florida’s largest Jeepin’ communities. We learned that the group’s reach extends beyond the state of Florida and that TJK has always been about family, philanthropy and four-wheelin’ fun.

Can you tell us a little about yourself, and how long you have been a Jeeper?

I am a service writer at Jerry Ulm Jeep in Tampa, Fla. I build custom Jeeps. I bought my first Jeep back in 2013. I told myself I was going to leave it stock. I started seeing Jeeps riding around town and was tempted to start modifying mine. Now, I understand the saying: “A Jeep is never done being built.”

Jeep owners start with wanting to do a lift and tires. Then you have Jeepers coming in every Friday to get something else done to their rig. It’s really rewarding to hear an owner’s idea for their completely stock Jeep and take it to the next level for them. It’s great to see the pride they take in it. I’m looking for that smile.

As a veteran Jeeper, what advice would you give to someone new to the activity?

When it comes to upgrading and wheelin’, I like to do it once, do it right, take it slow, and learn from my mistakes. Get everything you can out of that Jeep and you’ll have a great time. People spend ungodly amounts of money because they try to go the cheap way first.

Before you start shopping online or going to your local Jeep shop to start the upgrade process, find a Jeep group. Go see what everyone is running, then tag along on a local ride with what you have. Once you get out on the trail you will learn how capable your rig is in its current state. You will see what type of driver you want to be. This way, when you start the modification phase, you will have an idea of what you want. You might save some money by doing certain things only once.

What kind of Jeep do you have?

I have a 2006 Wrangler TJ. It is the last year they made the TJ body style. It’s my favorite body style, the true Jeep look. I always wanted one, so I’m glad I was able to make the purchase.

What was the most necessary upgrade for your Jeep?

The lift, tires and wheels. That gives the Jeep its personality. You can accentuate it all you want, but that is the base.

What is special or unique about your rig?

If I were set my rig aside from everybody else, I’m not sure. We all have lights and big tires. I built it for myself. It is simply to my liking and fits my needs.

Can you tell us a Jeepin’ lesson you had to learn the hard way?

I’ve had a couple off-road experiences, and I have taught a few classes. Momentum is key. If you do not have momentum, you are not going to make it over the hill and rocks, or through the mud.

The hardest lesson I have learned is from mudding. Mudding breaks a lot of stuff. The mud gets in your seals and always cakes somewhere. I would recommend staying away from mud unless you want to spend a lot of money on your vehicle.

Another thing, play around in two-wheel drive. Start in two-wheel drive and find out what your vehicle is capable of. If necessary, recover in four-wheel drive. If you go in with four-wheel drive, chances are you’re not going to make it out.

What do you have to fix the most?

The most I usually have to fix on my Jeep is the low gas light and the alignment. Nothing big.

Do members get together to work on their Jeeps?

I do a lot of work at my shop because I can, but there are a ton of people who hold wrenching parties. They do lifts, rotate tires, and install aftermarket accessories. It’s a great time for new Jeepers to learn how to do upgrades and repairs on their own.

Please tell me a little about your group, the purpose, and the benefits to your members.

The Tampa Jeep Krewe was founded by first responders and veterans. Our primary focus is to bring all types of Jeepers together, introducing them to enhance their overall Jeep experience. Our second mission is to give back to our awesome community. Last year TJK came together as a group and was able to donate over $23,000 to local charities.

The Tampa Jeep Krewe includes (from left to right) Vice President Alex Perez,
Events Director Gabby Vargas and President Tony Wright.

How long has your group been around, and who were the charter members?

The Tampa Jeep Krewe was officially started on April 28, 2013. After finishing the Jeep parade for Jeep Beach in Daytona, Fla., the original founders, Rob Traynham and his wife, went out for brunch with Terry and John Montaldo, David and Jessica Bass, Larry and Christy Bronson, Brint and Sarah George, Adam Washburn and Darrell Seelochan.

They were talking about how they all wanted to start doing great things in the Jeep community. Seeing they already had a great base group right there at the table, they decided to make it official. They came up with the name for the group that day. They used “K” for “Krewe” because they were all either driving a TJ or a JK, and found it to be neat to have those as initials, hence “TJK.”

Once, back in Tampa, Bob Briskie and Rob decided to come up with a design for a banner to be flown on the front windshield. They researched several fonts and wanted a pirate theme, simply because of Tampa’s history.

Without any of these folks, TJK would never be the group it is today.

How many members do you currently have, and what is the process to become a member?

We currently have around 6,600 followers from all over the U.S. The majority of members are located in Central Florida, about 95%. Since we are not a club, we don’t have any official requirements. The No. 1 unofficial requirement is you must be a good person. We also never wanted to require any dues. We don’t believe in that. You just come hang out. If you like it, join our Facebook group so you can be informed about events and gatherings. If you want to buy a banner or sticker to represent TJK, all the proceeds are for charity.

Is your group family-friendly or is it mainly for adults?

The goal was to have a group that we could bring families around. We wanted children to be able to grow up being involved with it. Our Facebook group page is probably the cleanest and most family-oriented page in the area. We have admins that monitor it daily. Tony Wright, our president, along with Mike Cote, Harvard Jones, Paul Huggins, Dave Meyer, Gabby Vargas, Tonya Braun, Frank Colucci and Ashley Greene, all do their absolute best to make sure our page is free of profanity and focused on family-oriented Jeep topics.

Nuts and Bolts

Alex Perez is vice president of Tampa Jeep Krewe and a service writer at Jerry Ulm Jeep in Tampa, Fla., where he specializes in building custom Jeeps. He is proud to be a part of TJK, which counts more than 6,600 members and raises tens of thousands of dollars for charity every year.

Does TJK host group trail rides, and if so, how many times per year?

We take smaller groups, usually limiting the sign-up spaces to 20. This way, if there is a recovery or something breaks, we aren’t holding up a large group. There’s usually a group every week going out. We are always getting together. We have weekly meetings and get-togethers for dinner at restaurants.

We had a group of people who were camping for a TJK appreciation weekend. There were day and night wheelin’ rides and movies in the evening for the kids. Some smaller groups of TJK members will go out of state. Some have gone as far as Utah. There’s always something going on.

Are these trail rides available to Jeepers of all levels of experience?

Members take it upon themselves to spread the word on what they have learned. We will do an event on Facebook that includes the experience level, how many Jeeps we can take, and who is leading the trail. I have lead groups of all levels — stock Jeeps through advanced rides.

Do you provide any safety and rescue training for your members?

If a member wants to, there’s usually a few Jeep groups that come together to do training. The group originally started as a trained Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). There are certain sections of the group that have chosen to go further with their training and help local law enforcement with search and rescue missions.

I know the Jeep community is very active in supporting charities. Does your group support any charities, and if so, which ones?

We support several. This year, we have supported the Mary Martha House, a domestic violence shelter here in Hillsborough County. A couple times a year we collect gift cards and give them to the children at The Children’s Home in Tampa. During Memorial Day weekend, we place flags on the headstones of our veterans at the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, Fla. We also return to place wreaths in December.

Our biggest charity of the year is collecting toys to donate to Christmas in July. This is an awesome charity that sees to it that the children who are being treated at the local St. Joseph Children’s Hospital receive a comforting gift or toy during their treatment. This year, over two months, we were able to collect and donate $20,000.

We really enjoy supporting Krawl’n For the Fallen, which is an awesome off-road event held in November. This event is put on by Chrissy Johnson, and all proceeds go to Concerns of Police Survivors (COPS).

Most recently, we were able to put together and send 100 pallets of food and water aid to Puerto Rico. We were fine here in Florida after the hurricanes, but our friends in Puerto Rico were not. We were happy to be able to get that together for them.

Anything to leave our readers with?

I wish I had gotten into the Jeep community when I was younger. You’re not only buying a vehicle, you are buying into a lifestyle and a community of good people. It’s such an awesome vehicle to own.