Florida Keys

Rick Roth, the longtime Keys sheriff who brought the agency into the modern era, dies at 80

Rick Roth, who retired as Monroe County’s sheriff in 2009 after 18 years as head of the department, and 43 years on the force, died at age 80. He is credited with modernizing the sheriff’s office in the Florida Keys.
Rick Roth, who retired as Monroe County’s sheriff in 2009 after 18 years as head of the department, and 43 years on the force, died at age 80. He is credited with modernizing the sheriff’s office in the Florida Keys. Monroe County Sheriff's Office

Rick Roth, Monroe County’s longest-serving sheriff, died Tuesday at the age of 80.

He’s credited among his peers, predecessors and successors with not only modernizing the agency he served for 43 years, but cleaning it up from the days when it was more of a partner in, rather than a deterrent to, the drug smuggling trade.

“He kind of cemented down the legacy of the department as modern and progressive at all costs,” said Allison DeFoor, who was sheriff before Roth was appointed to the position by then-Gov. Bob Martinez in 1989. “When Rick started as a deputy, it wasn’t true.”

Roth retired in 2009, after serving 18 years as sheriff. He was succeeded by Bob Peryam for one term and then Rick Ramsay, who remains in the position.

“I will be forever grateful for his friendship and mentorship,” said Ramsay, a career Keys sheriff’s deputy and one of Roth’s proteges. “He will always be remembered as one of the greatest leaders to wear the badge. Our thoughts are with his family and all who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

Roth died Tuesday night surrounded by his family and friends. Survivors include his two daughters and a granddaughter. His wife of 57 year, Sandra, died in 2016.

The sheriff’s office did not release a cause of death, although Roth had been battling cancer.

Roth as a young man.jpg
An undated photo shows former Monroe County Sheriff Rick Roth at a shooting range in Boot Key. Keynoter archive

Roth’s career as a deputy included serving under then-Sheriff William Freeman in the 1970s, who strove to eliminate drug smuggling in the Keys, and to make sure his men and women were on the right side of the law. This included using polygraph machines for new recruits, an idea the rank and file at the time were dead set against, DeFoor said.

“Billy completely cleaned up the department,” DeFoor said.

Roth also served as a deputy during the Mariel boatlift, the 1980 mass exodus of Cuban refugees to South Florida and the Florida Keys.

“By the time he became sheriff, Sheriff Roth developed the professional vision that shaped the sheriff’s office into the modern agency that it is today,” sheriff’s office spokesman Adam Linhardt said. “He forged goals that made the sheriff’s office a state and nationally accredited law enforcement agency.”

Part of that vision was starting the TraumaStar helicopter air ambulance service in 2002. Begun with one aircraft, the service has grown into a three-helicopter operation that makes more than 1,000 flights a year, Linhardt said.

Roth, born Nov. 19, 1938, in Minnesota, first came to the Keys in 1958 as a sailor serving at U.S. Naval Air Station Key West. During his service, he met Sandra, who worked at a restaurant in Marathon.

The couple married in March 1959, and their first daughter was born in 1960. The Roths moved back to Minnesota, and their second daughter was born in 1961.

In 1965, Roth was laid off from a tractor factory in Minnesota, and the family moved back to the Keys, where Rick found work in construction. But, he had a lifelong dream of becoming a police officer, and he began to think about it again after speaking with a friend of Sandra’s who worked at the sheriff’s office.

They ended up moving back to Minnesota, but shortly thereafter, Rick received an application in the mail for the sheriff’s office. He returned it and quickly received a call saying he could start as a radio dispatcher if he got down to the Keys in the next two weeks.

The Roths packed the car and drove to South Florida, right into the path of Hurricane Betsy in September 1965.

Rick began work later that month and quickly moved up. By 1967, he was a road patrol officer, and two years later, he made detective.

“This is a man that has dedicated his entire adult life to the service of his country and his community, and he has done it with integrity,” Peryam said when he succeeded Roth in 2009. “I think he is one of the best sheriffs the state has seen.”

Roth went on to lead two sheriff’s office substations before heading the department’s internal affairs division in 1989.

That same year, DeFoor resigned to run for lieutenant governor under Martinez, who appointed Roth to fill the rest of DeFoor’s term, keeping the job until his retirement.

DeFoor, who was also a Monroe County judge, prosecutor and public defender, said Tuesday that his only condition to being Martinez’s running mate was that Roth would take his place.

“Rick was my choice. What a great choice,” DeFoor said. “He had a long, good run.”

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.