When Earl Jackson laughed, the sound billowed from the bottom of his belly. When a friend needed help cooking food, he deep-fried for hundreds of people. He coached a woman’s softball team in South Miami-Dade called the Dirt Angels.
Jackson spent 26 years working for Miami-Dade Corrections, peaking at sergeant while transporting the arrested to and from court. Friends, family and former co-workers adored him and say they never noticed any sign of instability.
That’s why Jackson’s death Saturday after a lengthy chase by North Florida law enforcement officers has left the tightly knit South Florida corrections community jarred, and asking more questions than can be answered.
According to the Florida Highway Patrol, Jackson died during a shootout after a harrowing five-hour search through the woods near little Micanopy in Alachua County. A trooper spotted Jackson on the grass near a fence line, aiming and firing his weapon, before he disappeared into the woods.
“When I heard the news it knocked me back,” said retired Miami-Dade Corrections Officer Alphonso Bruton, friends with Jackson for 30 years. “It’s hard to imagine Jackson taking shots at anybody. He was such a warm-hearted friendly guy, with an infectious laugh.”
FHP Sgt. Tracy Hisler-Pace said one of her troopers had no choice but to draw down and take cover after Jackson aimed at the officer.
“The man rolled over and had a gun,” she said.
Hisler-Pace didn’t say if the trooper fired his weapon. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement will undertake the investigation, only to determine if use of force by a law enforcement officer was warranted. Its findings will be passed along to the state attorney in Alachua County.
It’s still not entirely clear, according to law enforcement, if Jackson was shot or if he shot himself.
A friend was quoted by the Gainesville Sun newspaper saying Jackson suffered from mental illness. The woman could not be reached Monday and did not respond to a message left with an associate. If Jackson did suffer, it was news to friends who have known him for decades.
“It’s the first I’m hearing about it,” said Walter Clark, who worked with Jackson for more than 20 years and is now a consultant.
Jackson, 59, who was married and has at least three children, was hired by Miami-Dade Corrections in 1982, worked various positions for the department, and retired in 2008 at its Court Services Bureau. Bruton said one of Jackson’s daughters attends the University of Florida, and that may have been where he was returning from when he died.
According to Hisler-Pace, a trooper traveling north on Interstate 75 saw a disabled vehicle on the side of the road just north of Micanopy on Saturday morning and went to investigate. The car was empty and its passenger door was open.
The trooper then noticed a man alleged to be Jackson lying on the grass near a fence line near the woods. When he approached, Hisler-Pace said, Jackson rolled over and was pointing his gun. When the trooper drew his weapon, then retreated and called for backup, he heard three gunshots, she said.
Over the next five hours, FHP troopers and deputies from Alachua and Marion counties searched the woods for Jackson. Helicopters, SWAT teams and search dogs were sent into the woods between I-75 and U.S. 441. Marion County deployed a vehicle called a Rook, a small, enclosed, one-man vehicle that assists SWAT and can trek through the woods.
Finally, Jackson was spotted by a Marion County deputy. Then gunfire was exchanged, according to the report.
Jackson was killed at about 1:30 p.m. Marion County Sheriff’s Capt. Jimmy Polk said one of his deputies was “involved in the incident.” But he didn’t go into detail, and wouldn’t say if the officer had fired a weapon.
Hisler-Pace said the trooper’s car was likely equipped with a dash-cam video. If so, it would have been turned over to FDLE until the investigation is completed. She said FHP troopers do not wear body cameras.
Bruton, who spoke at Jackson’s retirement in 2008, said he spoke to his friend Thursday about home repairs.
“Sgt. Jackson was a great man, both in the department and out in the community,” said Bruton, who retired from corrections last month. “He was a personal friend, a good friend.”