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Friday, Sep 30, 2016
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Tampa police officers rally for retired comrade in Puerto Rico hospital

Jose Feliciano, who specialized in undercover narcotics but also worked in criminal intelligence and as a robbery and homicide detective during his 26 years with the Tampa Police Department, was flown home this week on a private medical jet paid for with the donations of his former colleagues.

It didn’t take long for them to raise the $30,000 cost once word got out.

In fact, it took about 72 hours.

The money covered the fuel used for Feliciano’s JET I.C.U. plane ride along with the ground transports from the hospital in Puerto Rico and the one that brought him to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa where he is being treated for gastric cancer.

During his time with the Tampa Police Department, Feliciano’s bilingual and chameleon-like talents enabled him to go undercover and land some of the agency’s most high-profile drug busts.

Yet, his peers and attorneys on both sides of the courtroom say it was his honesty and attention to detail that made him an asset to law enforcement and the community he served.

“This guy should really serve as an example of what a law enforcement officer is and ought to be,” said Daniel Fernandez, a Tampa-based criminal defense attorney.

In 2011, Feliciano began his well-deserved retirement and moved to Puerto Rico where he cruised around the commonwealth’s lush, sunlit mountainsides on his Harley Davidson motorcycle.

But the fairytale ending to a revered career did not last long.

In October, just four years after his retirement, Feliciano was diagnosed with cancer and his condition rapidly worsened. The deplorable conditions of the Puerto Rican hospital where Feliciano stayed did not help.

Feliciano’s family members, Tampa police Lt. Ruth Cate said, compared the hospital to that of a third-world country. Feliciano had to provide his own pillow while his wife was responsible for changing the bedsheets. The medical records were filed in a format the U.S. has not used since the 1980s and rather than use the current method of digitally rendered X-rays the images were kept on hard film.

To add insult to injury, Feliciano had to pay a hospital attendant $8 each day so he could use the room’s small television.

“That was the only guy who constantly came to see him,” Cate said.

To make matters worse, Feliciano was malnourished.

“He was not getting any nutrition at all,” Cate said. “He had not eaten in two weeks.”

Cate joined the police department’s narcotics division in 1999 and worked closely with Feliciano for 12 years until he retired.

It was Cate who started a GoFundMe page in the early morning hours of Jan. 15 in hopes of raising enough money to bring him back to Tampa to receive the medical care he desperately needed.

Family, friends and those who appreciate Feliciano’s devotion to his community soon rallied around him.

Feliciano’s retrieval from Puerto Rico did not go smoothly, Cate said.

The JET I.C.U. crew members who volunteered their time had to deal with uncooperative hospital officials who were reluctant to release Feliciano and wanted to remove the I.V. he was using. Yet, the JET I.C.U. crew remained didn’t give up, demanding that the hospital provide the necessary ground transport for Feliciano and allow him to him keep the I.V., Cate said.

“He equated it to a hostage rescue,” she said.

Since his return, Feliciano has undergone a couple of surgeries intended to clean out toxins in his stomach and improve his appetite so he can begin his next round of Chemotherapy.

The GoFundMe page goal has since increased to $50,000 and donations have exceeded $45,000. Cate said the extra money will go toward Feliciano’s medical care.

State Attorney Mark Ober and Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks said they are confident Feliciano’s inner strength will lead him to a full recovery.

“If there’s anybody who could get through this, it would be Jose,” Dirks said.

Even after Feliciano’s diagnosis, Ober said, the former detective traveled from Puerto Rico to the U.S. when he was needed to testify in court.

“When he testified in court, he had always done his homework on the case and knew the facts inside and outside,” Ober said.

Dirks began his career with the state attorney’s office in 1983 and worked on multiple drug busts that required Feliciano’s assistance. Feliciano had to leave his position as an undercover officer, Dirks said, because he was involved in so many dangerous, complex and high-profile cases.

One situation required Feliciano to contact a witness and former defendant and persuade him to testify in a drug-racketeering case that stretched from Florida to Texas, Dirks said.

“His reaction was, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do,’” he said. “He obviously was doing that when he probably wasn’t feeling that well.”

Although the witness was not obligated to testify, the bond Feliciano built with him while undercover led to a testimony, Dirks said.

“When Jose told you something, you could take it to the bank,” Dirks said.

Fernandez agrees.

Fernandez said he has had his fair share of run-ins with officers who adopt an “us versus them” mentality and attempt to get defendants convicted by any means necessary, especially in the early days of his 35-year career. Feliciano, he said, was an exception who always gave accurate arrest reports and testimonies.

“He’s loved on all sides,” Fernandez said. “He really is.”

 

mwolfenbarger@tampatrib.com

(813)259-7619

Twitter: @markofthewolfe