As the sergeant of an undercover unit with the Miami Dade Police Department (MDPD), Bill Cegelis caught the attention of the writers on the “Miami Vice” TV show.
“His serious demeanor was what became the model for the supervisor on ‘Miami Vice,’” said Pete Cuccaro, who worked with Cegelis at the MDPD and was also the technical advisor for the show for a short time.
At one point, the writers asked Cuccaro what the department thought of the character of Lt. Lou Rodriguez, played by actor Gregory Sierra.
“He was always yelling and screaming at Crockett and Tubbs, and I told them that our lieutenants, our sergeants don’t do that — Bill didn’t do that,” Cuccaro said. “With Bill, all he had to do was give you a look, and that told you everything.”
So, the show killed off Lou Rodriguez and brought on Edward James Olmos to play Lt. Martin Castillo, a character more like the real Bill Cegelis, and Olmos went on to win both an Emmy and a Golden Globe for the role.
“You could say Bill was stoic,” Cuccaro said. “He didn’t talk about his feelings and you really didn’t know what he was thinking. But he had this vibe that caused people to stop, take notice and respect him.
“You need that kind of a personality in law enforcement," he said. "You can look to that kind of a supervisor and know that he’s got your back; he’s going to stand up for you, which Bill did.”
“Bill had that rare ability to be both your boss and your friend,” said Paul Law, who was also with MDPD.
Their boss and friend, William Vincent Cegelis Sr., died April 6. He was 83.
Before coming to Florida, Cegelis started his law enforcement career with the city of Livonia, Michigan. After that, he spent 28 years with the MDPD, retiring as a police sergeant.
"His investigative background, natural leadership ability and calmness under pressure led to some of the most intense assignments," it says in Cegelis' obituary.
One of his most talked about assignments happened in the late 1970s when the Colombian drug cartels were starting to switch from marijuana to cocaine as the top drug to smuggle into South Florida.
Cegelis, then part of a Vice, Intelligence and Narcotics (VIN) unit, did frequent undercover sting operations, buying illegal drugs.
“Back then there was a rule that if you were going to make a drug buy that cost more than $100, you had to check the money out of the bank, sign for it, then sign it back in,” Cuccaro said. “Well, drug dealers don’t work 8 to 5 like banks do, so if we had a drug deal to do, we had to try to do it (before 5).”
One time, Cegelis needed to make a deal after banking hours. So, instead of cash, he put a couple of telephone books in a briefcase.
He was banking on the dealers trusting him that he had the money, since he had dealt with them before and they knew he was good for it.
“Bill went to the deal thinking he could bluff his way through until he saw the cocaine,” Cuccaro said.
After the deal was made, Cegelis opened the door, gave the signal and the bad guys went to jail.
“It was the only time we knew that anyone ever bought cocaine with no money,” Cuccaro said.
That incident became known around the department as the “Polish Connection,” based on the 1971 movie, “The French Connection,” about undercover narcotics cops.
“It was the ‘Polish Connection’ because everybody thought Bill was Polish,” Cuccaro said. “He was Lithuanian, but no one knew anything about Lithuania, so it was easier just to say he was Polish.”
The funny thing about Bill Cegelis, he could be funny without cracking a smile.
“Bill had a serious facade, and people asked me all the time, ‘Why is Bill so serious?’ But he had a good sense of humor,” Paul Law said.
He could take a joke, too.
At his first firearms inspection of a new squad, his supervisor came to watch.
The officers were to stand at attention, take their gun out of its holster and the sergeant would inspect it. It was always very solemn, very serious.
However, Cegelis’ supervisor had prearranged for everyone’s gun to have something wrong with it — one had only one bullet, one had no bullets, one had a flower in it, another had chewing gum.
“I don’t know if he knew he was being put on, but Bill never cracked,” Cuccaro said. “At the end, Bill said, ‘Order arms,’ everybody put their guns away and he just walked off and didn’t say anything to anybody. It was hilarious.”
In addition to the many awards he earned, Cegelis was selected by the directors of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Highway Patrol, Leon County Sheriff and the Tallahassee Police Chief as one of the Top 10 Law Enforcement Officers of Florida.
After retiring, Cegelis and his wife, Betsy, moved to Vero Beach.
Several years later, they moved to Citrus County to be near a number of retired law enforcement officers from the Miami-Dade area, including Cuccaro and Law.
Thus began what Bill Cegelis called their “Usual Suspects Luncheons.”
“It started out just me and Bill getting together for lunch,” Law said. “Then Bill started adding people.”
Eventually, the list of “suspects” grew as Cegelis started reaching out to former colleagues in Gainesville, Fort Myers, The Villages and all over Florida.
They’d meet at places like the Plantation on Crystal River, Swampy’s or Blue Gator in Dunnellon, Norton’s or Waterfront Social in Crystal River, Crump’s Landing in Homosassa.
“If Bill invited you, you came,” Cuccaro said. “That’s the kind of guy he was ... I’ve never met anyone like him.”
One final Usual Suspects Luncheon in Bill Cegelis' honor is taking place May 7, with as many as 40 or 50 friends getting together to celebrate his life.
“It’s hard to have the respect of the people both above you and below you, but Bill did,” Law said. “If there was ever an opening in his squad, he could hand-pick people for the job because everyone wanted to work for him.
“If you were working late he’d say, ‘Hey guys, get out of here — but I don’t want to see you on the 11 o'clock news.’ He took care of his people."