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Fallen officers memorial serves as site of unlikely family reunion

TAMPA — William Suarez has never forgotten Mercedes Cafeteria in Ybor City.

He doesn’t recall a specific meal or much about the decor from the restaurant, which no longer exists. He remembers, though, that his mother, who wasn’t an aficionado of the cuisine, would drive from their Indian Rocks home to Ybor City to dine there.

He never understood why until Thursday night.

That’s when he found out the restaurant was owned by his late-father’s half-sister, the now-deceased Mercedes Hernandez.

William was never introduced to his aunt at the restaurant. He didn’t know he had an Aunt Mercedes.

On Thursday evening, for the first time, Suarez - an 82-year-old resident of Dunnellon - met his Aunt Mercedes’ daughter, his cousin Sandra Gonzalez, a 78-year-old lifelong resident of Tampa.

The occasion was the the dedication of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office memorial at the Fallen Heroes Remembrance Park at Eighth Avenue and 19th Street. More than 200 people braved threatening skies to attend the dedication.

The memorial consists of a large sheriff’s office badge in mosaic tile as the floor, a statue of a sheriff’s honor guard and a granite wall with glass panels containing the names and photos of the 15 county officers who have died in the line of duty. One of them is Suarez’ father, Deputy Robert Maxwell Suarez.

This was a night for William Suarez to honor his father, who was stabbed 17 times and shot to death while serving civil papers over an unpaid furniture bill on Sept. 22, 1944. But it was a family reunion as well, bringing together of two sides of a family who became so estranged that neither knew the other existed until recently.

William Suarez’s paternal grandfather, Jose Suarez, was married twice. He had two children with his first wife, one of whom was Robert Suarez. Following a divorce, Jose married again and had six children, one of whom was Mercedes Hernandez.

William Suarez was only 2 when his father was killed. His grandfather passed away two years later. Without anyone to link the two families, they grew apart.

In late 2013, historians researching fallen Hillsborough County officers discovered the link and put William Suarez in touch with his cousin Gonzalez. They agreed to meet on the night of the dedication.

The reunion occurred inside a conference room in the sheriff’s Ybor City headquarters shortly before the dedication ceremony.

Gonzalez brought her cousin Zolia Rodriguez, another half-sibling of Deputy Suarez’ from grandfather Jose Suarez’s second marriage. Each of their husbands attended as well.

William Suarez brought his wife, three sons, a daughter-in-law and two of his eight grandchildren.

They hugged, made introductions, marveled at the thought of meeting long-lost relatives and discussed their families.

That was when they discovered the Aunt Mercedes connection.

“Did you say your mother’s name was Mercedes?” William Suarez asked his cousin Gonzalez.

When she replied yes, and he said, “That’s a unique name. The only other time I ever heard that name was when my mother would take me to a restaurant named Mercedes in Ybor City.”

“That was my mother’s restaurant!” Gonzalez said.

They wondered if they ever crossed paths at the restaurant and why they were never introduced. In the end, they decided it was best to look to the future rather than the past.

During the dedication ceremony, the immediate families of the fallen deputies were asked to unveil their relative’s photo.

As William Suarez did his part, his wife, children and grandchildren stood by his side.

In the audience, his two cousins bore wide grins as they watched.

Asked if they would remain in touch, Gonzalez said, “Of course. They’re my cousins.”

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