FRUITLAND PARK, Fla. – Residents of the small town of Fruitland Park, in Central Florida, are still stunned after finding out last week that two of their city police officers had close ties with the Ku Klux Klan, the secret hate society that once was violently active in the area.
The link surfaced in a report from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement based on information from the FBI, which learned about the connection during a broader investigation.
As a result, two police officers are no longer with the city department — Deputy Chief David Borst resigned and Officer George Hunnewell was fired last week.
The city of 5,000 residents is located about 40 miles northwest of Orlando. Fruitland Park was once known for its citrus groves and is in Lake County, where KKK violence in the 1940s and 1950s was chronicled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Devil in the Grove.”
James Elkins, a third officer who Ann Hunnewell says recruited her and her husband, resigned in 2010 after his Klan ties became public.
The news about sworn police officers perhaps being part of the Klan doesn't sit well with many in Fruitland Park, which calls itself the "Friendly City," Mayor Christopher Bell said. Adding to the influx of retirees, The Villages has plans to build housing for 4,000 residents, which would almost double the city's population.
"I'm shocked, very shocked," said Chery Mion, who lives in The Villages but works in a Fruitland Park gift shop next door to the mayor's office. "I didn't think that organization was still around. Yes, in the 1950s. But this 2014, and it's rather disconcerting to know."
The violence against blacks that permeated the area was more than 60 years ago, when the place was more rural and the main industry was citrus. These days, the community of less than 5,000 residents about 50 miles northwest of Orlando has been infused by the thousands of wealthier, more cosmopolitan retirees in the area. Those who live in the bedroom community, which is less than 10 percent black, have reacted not only with shock, but disgust that officers could be involved with the Klan, the mayor said.
"Maybe I'm ignorant, but I didn't realize that they still met and organized and did that kind of thing," said Michele Lange, a church volunteer.
Mayor Chris Bell says he heard stories about a Klan rally that took place two years before he arrived in the 1970s, but he has never seen anything firsthand. As recently as the 1960s, many in law enforcement in the South were members but "it's exceedingly unusual these days to find a police officer who is secretly a Klansman," said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.
While the Klan used to be politically powerful in the 1920s, when governors and U.S. senators were among its 4 million members, nowadays it is much less active than other sectors of the radical right and has less than 5,000 members nationwide, Potok said.
"The radical right is quite large and vigorous. The Klan is very small," he said. "The radical right looks down on the Klan."
Fruitland Park, though, has been dealing with alleged KKK ties and other problems in the police ranks since 2010, when Elkins resigned after his estranged wife made his membership public.
Last week, residents were told Borst and the Hunnewells had been members of the United Northern and Southern Knights Chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, though its presence in their town wasn't noticeable.
Ann Hunnewell — who was a police department secretary until 2010 — told Florida investigators that former Police Chief J.M. Isom asked her and her ex-husband to join the KKK in 2008, trying to learn if Elkins was a member. Isom, though, shortly after Elkins resigned, also quit after he was accused of getting incentive pay for earning bogus university degrees.
Current Police Chief Terry Isaacs said he took a sworn oath from Isom, who called Ann Hunnewell's account a lie, and that there was no record of such an undercover investigation.
Hunnewell previously had been suspended for misconduct for the way he handled a case. Last year, he received five "letters of counseling" from supervisors for showing up late and writing reports incorrectly. He was promoted to corporal in 2012 but then demoted the next year for allowing personal problems to affect his job, Isaacs said.
"I felt he was beyond the point of being saved at this point," the chief said of Hunnewell's firing.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.