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For lawman, one case lingers

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Deputy Peter R. Barnett will leave the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department on Friday with one case he has not solved — yet.

Mr. Barnett, who will retire after a 26-year career, was the lead detective investigating human remains found in Mud Bay and off Grenadier Island; a foot inside a sneaker washed up in 1999 and a human torso wearing gym shorts was found a year later. Forensic testing showed the body parts belonged to the same man, but his identity remained unknown for more than a decade.

In 2011, it was determined the remains belonged to Joseph “Ronnie” Gibbons, a retired boxer from Liverpool, England, who had been reported missing from the Rochester area in 1995. Police later linked Mr. Gibbons to a 1993 robbery of an armored Brinks truck in which $7.4 million was stolen. It is believed Mr. Gibbons met his demise when he tried to collect his share of the money. No one was ever charged in his death, but Mr. Barnett believes he knows who did it, although he lacks the evidence to prove it.

“That is one that I still think about as I go through my daily grind,” he said. “What did we miss? I will continue to work on that until the day I die.”

Mr. Barnett said identifying the body was “very rewarding,” as it gave Mr. Gibbons’s family the opportunity to bury his body in his native land. But he said it was the collaborative effort among many police agencies, as well as his extensive role in the investigation, of which he is most proud.

“We have an idea who is responsible for his death, but we can’t prove it yet. There is a lot of circumstantial evidence,” Mr. Barnett said.

He is also proud of the eight years spent as the department’s DARE officer, visiting schools to warn students of the dangers of illegal drugs. The former member of the Metro-Jeff Drug Task Force said it was a “privilege” to be invited into schools to share his knowledge of ways for children to avoid the pitfalls of drugs.

“As a dad myself, with everything the kids are up against now — social media, peer pressure, the drugs — I’ve found they’re still coachable, still trainable and can realize that life doesn’t have to be like that,” he said. “We don’t do enough of that.”

Mr. Barnett, 50, who started as a deputy in June 1987, said the biggest change he has seen in his career has been the role technology plays in crime, particularly cellular phones and social media websites and their tendency to incite or escalate incidents.

“Boy, things were a lot simpler before the influx of all these electronics,” he said. “The pot just gets stirred 10 times greater than it used to be.”

Mr. Barnett plans to stay active in law enforcement, having received offers to work part time with town or village police forces. He will also continue to officiate high school and college lacrosse games.

He said he recognizes the Sheriff’s Department has had its share of negative publicity in the past year, but said these alleged incidents have not been representative of his experience with the department’s personnel.

“The men and women I’ve worked with over the years, I wouldn’t change anything. I’ll always have their backs, and my prayers for them,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade wearing this uniform and this patch for anything.”

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