Lt. Robert Pursley, Who Went to Jail to Bust Crooked Cops, Steps Down from Sheriff's Office

Among the high points of his 33 years as a deputy, Pursley started the bomb unit, was a SWAT team officer, went undercover to bust crooked cops and headed up the scene at the shooting of two Santa Cruz Police officers.

Everyone knows Lt. Robert Pursley as the big, ferocious-looking guy at the Santa Cruz Sheriff's office, with the biceps as big as most men's legs.

In 27 years of competing at the Police Olympics, he's won gold and silver medals for heavy-weight body building and the decathlon, which included long jumps,  400 meter, 1,500 meter runs, discus, 110-yard hurdles and a javelin throw.

But Wednesday afternoon as he was celebrated at his last roll call after 33 years of them, he shed a few tears and told his law enforcement cohorts to "hug your family every day when you leave for work and every day when you come home. That's what's most important, your family."

He also told them that with all the high technology that they have adopted, such as computers, cell phones, mobile fingerprinting, "the most important computer is your brain and the ability to read people on the street."

Officers described Pursley, 55, as scary on the outside and gentle in the middle. 

His accomplishments could be made into a movie.

He was awarded a Sheriff's Office Silver Medal of Valor in 2003 after he saved a woman who was about to jump off a 75-foot-cliff over Hooper's Beach in Capitola. He climbed over a railing and found her dangling and risked his own life to rescue her.

In the mid 1990s he was featured on "60 Minutes" after he went undercover for the F.B.I and the Alameda County Sheriff's Department in an investigation of the Oakland Housing Authority police and was falsely jailed and beaten by officers. His testimony helped convict them and shut down the misrun agency.

He built the Sheriff's bomb squad and regularly demonstrated the dangers of fireworks and explosives for the press before July 4 (see video).

Pursley met his wife of 20 years, Ramona, on duty when she was a correctional officer. Both remember celebrating their anniversary on New Year's Eves bundled in flack jackets and helmets, on duty in case of trouble. They would wave to each other from different vans.

Bob's son, Matthew, has followed in his footsteps and has been a deputy for seven years.

Pursley came to Santa Cruz after serving in the Air Force as a flight mechanic for four years in the late 1970s. A musician, he played in bands and worked as a disk jockey at nights when he was off-duty.

He worked for the Livingston Police Department before being hired in Santa Cruz, where, as an African American, he was a rarity. His first beats were in the San Lorenzo Valley, where at 165 pounds and five feet, eight inches, he saw his share of fights. "Like every night," he recalled. 

That prompted him to get stronger and learn self defense.

He is only one of two African Americans in management level jobs in Santa Cruz law enforcement. The other, Santa Cruz Police Sgt. Dave Perry, plans to retire in July.

"We like to think we have a lot of diversity in the county but there aren't a lot of people in law enforcement who look like me," he said. 

Following his passion for physical fitness he started a gym called Functional Interval Strength Training, or FIST, in Aptos geared toward helping people rebound from injuries. He and Ramona, who is also a Police Olympics athlete, developed exercises based on their work in law enforcement that help people use their entire bodies in movement and avoid hurting hips, knees and shoulders.

He will instruct there regularly.

Sheriff Phil Wowak surprised an audience of police, judges, district attorney and media by telling the story of his first encounter with Pursley. Wowak, then a civilian, was stopped for a traffic violation in Aptos in 1982 and Pursley let him off with a warning.

"I knew then he had a big heart," he said. 






Liz Payne March 14, 2013 at 04:27 PM
Thank you Lt. Pursley for helping to keep us safe for 33 years. You are a hero.
Santa Cruz Sun March 15, 2013 at 02:38 AM
We have all been blessed to have you in our community and in our lives. Thank you and God bless you and your family always. You are a hero indeed!
Virginia gallardo March 18, 2013 at 07:06 AM
I have had the pleasure to call this man my father for 20 years...when he married my mom I didn't want to give him the time of day but now I am proud to say that is my dad....I know he is sad to retire but I am even happy to say I would rather him be home and be with us his family who love him..you where an sesame sheriff but an even better dad...love you lots!


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