AVON PARK - An undercover deputy who has made a career nabbing criminals said Sunday he learned what its like to be a victim while being part of an operation aimed at catching robbers preying on migrant workers.
The deputy, whose name is not being used because of his undercover work, recalled being attacked by two men that authorities suspect have robbed five or more migrant workers during the past several weeks. However, they have yet to be charged with those robberies.
"You feel so vulnerable," the deputy recalled. "I've never felt that side of it before."
While being attacked, the deputy used one form of defense the other victims didn't have available. He told the robbers he is a deputy, which prompted them to flee. Other deputies arrested them.
Damian Jamal Collins, 19, of 305 E. Ben Hicks St., Avon Park, and Marcus Alex Swinton, 18, 213 E. Ben Hicks St., Avon Park, were charged with robbery and resisting an officer without violence. Swinton also was charged with trespass.
By the time the attackers fled, the deputy said he had a swelling on the back of his head and a scratch on his hand.
At the outset of the undercover operation, the deputy said he tried to blend in on the street, appearing like a typical migrant worker.
The deputy, who is Hispanic, said he wore a necklace, faded out and ripped blue jeans, a Mexican soccer jersey and an old pair of sneakers with holes.
During the evening, he said, he went to several locations near where robberies had occurred and would typically walk around for 30-45 minutes.
"Anybody I saw I would approach them and make conversation," he said. "Other than that, I would just be walking around."
After several attempts failed, the deputy said he went to an area near a laundromat on Walnut Street. He walked around that neighborhood for about 30 minutes and then saw two young men approaching on bicycles.
As they passed, the deputy recalled, "I saw them looking at me and they stared me down."
The two men circled back and they greeted each other, he said. Then they started talking about a possible drug deal and asked him to go in the laundromat to discuss it, he said.
"I pretended like I didn't understand," the deputy said. He added that he felt if he went inside the building he would be in a more vulnerable location that is less public.
The robbers also apparently believed the necklace he wore had some value as they wanted it as payment for the drugs, he said.
Even after he showed them some money from his pocket, they still wanted the necklace, he said.
But when he said he didn't want to pay with the necklace, they ripped the necklace from him and one began attacking him, he said. As he defended himself, he said, the other man attacked and "they both jumped on me and I fell down on the floor."
But, after he told them that he was a deputy, they fled, he said.
The deputy said that other members of the Special Operations Unit and road patrol deputies responded. Through his hidden radio, they heard he was in distress, he said.
He said their sirens helped scare the suspects. The deputy praised the response of the other members of the unit and road patrol deputies.
"It is just critical for your backup to get there as soon as possible and they got there in an amazingly short period of time," he said.
The deputy said that while the operation was in response to five robberies, chances are more of those crimes occurred. That's because the victims are afraid of being deported or of possible reprisals, he said.
But, he said, the sheriff's office's concern in such cases is not immigration enforcement.
"They need to report these incidents," he said. "They do not deserve to be going through these situations."