SPRING HILL, Fla. - A single incident involving a fake law enforcement officer performing a traffic stop is rare enough, according to the Hernando County Sheriff.
But to have three such incidents in the last nine days, all apparently unrelated, defies the odds. In two of the cases, the suspects were driving police-style Crown Victorias complete with flashing lights.
"We go by the premise that people should trust us," said Sheriff Al Nienhuis.
"Anytime there's somebody out there that is putting doubt in the minds of citizens when it comes to their interaction with law enforcement, it's a bad thing," Nienhuis said.
The latest incident happened in the parking lot Monday evening at the Dr. Jimmy Edmond Medical Offices on Spring Hill Road Monday night. A driver in a white, unmarked Crown Victoria with a single, flashing red light pulled over a car. The suspect, a white male, approximately 45-years old, 6'1" and 220 pounds, ordered the female victim to perform field sobriety tests.
A prior incident happened at a Spring Hill Taco Bell. Two people were blocked in the parking lot by a Chevrolet Colorado truck, and two people got out and confronted the victims. One of the suspects showed a badge and identified himself as law enforcement. A victim became suspicious of the suspect's tone, and threatened to call 9-1-1. At that point, deputies said the suspect told the victims "you caught a break tonight" and they left.
After getting a description of the suspects' truck, deputies were able to arrest 31-year old Ryan Romano. Investigators said he was posing as a "retired" sheriff's deputy from Kenosha, Wisconsin, but they found he had in fact been terminated from the department. He was taken to jail on no bond. The second person was not charged.
Mariah Morris of Spring Hill said she met Romano shortly before his arrest, and said he was boasting about being a former deputy.
"He told us he was an ex-cop. He actually showed us his jacket and everything," Morris said.
The third incident happened Feb. 3 at the intersection of Cortez Blvd. and McKethan Road.
Deputies said a white male, possibly 27-32 years old, 5' 8", around 200 pounds, was driving a Crown Victoria complete with red and blue light arrays installed in the dashboard and front grill, similar to an unmarked police car.
The suspect performed a traffic stop on the victim, and particularly alarming was the fact that he was armed with a glock or similar handgun, deputies said.
Wendy Serafin is a regular patient at the clinic where the latest incident happened, and said when she heard about it she immediately called her daughters.
"You know, girls see police lights and get scared," Serafin said. "They're already under enough pressure thinking that they're being pulled over. Now they just don't know if it's by a psychopath," she said.
Keith Villeneuve of Spring Hill said he's not going to worry if he's stopped by an unmarked car.
"I'm not going to change my preference on cops if I know there are fake ones around," Villeneuve said. "I'm going to obey the law no matter what."
Sheriff Nienhuis is advising any driver who's pulled over by an unmarked vehicle to call 9-1-1 as a precaution.
"We will probably know instantaneously if it's legitimate or not," Nienhuis said. If it's not, a deputy will be sent to the location immediately. The sheriff said he's making it a priority to find the remaining phony cop suspects.
"It's something we need to get stopped," Nienhuis said.