The West Tampa Police Department in 1919. Standing left to right: Frank Fernandez, A. Morjo, Charles Brown and T. Martinez. Seated, left to right are, Lorenzo Nales; R.A. Acosta, Chief of Police; and Juan Nales. Juan Nales was the only member of the West Tampa Police Department killed in the line of duty. The City of Tampa annexed West Tampa in 1925. Photo courtesy Arsenio Sanchez and La Gaceta Newspaper.
While flipping through a book detailing the history of the Tampa Police Department, something caught Vince Rabelo’s eye. It was a brief mention of Juan Nales, the only member of the West Tampa Police Department to be killed in the line of duty. But when he turned back a few pages to the section that listed officers who died while serving the community, Nales wasn’t listed. So, he went downtown to the Tampa Police Museum on Franklin Street. He scanned a wall bearing the photographs and names of Tampa’s fallen officers. Some of the photos date back to 1895. There was one problem: Juan Nales was nowhere to be found.
On Sunday, July 18, 1920, officers Tranquilino Martinez and Juan Nales stopped and questioned a “suspicious character” near the Tampa-Cuba cigar factory on the corner of Armenia Avenue and Pine Street in West Tampa. Nales arrested the man and escorted the suspect to the West Tampa jail on the corner of Main and Albany. That’s when Martinez, following a short distance behind Nales, heard the shots.
Reports in the Tampa Tribune and Tampa Daily Times are sketchy, but it appears the apprehended suspect tried to escape, and a struggle ensued. The assailant knocked out several of Nales’ teeth before shooting him several times and fleeing on foot. Newspaper accounts indicate that Nales was shot with his own gun. The pursuing officers lost the suspect near Grand Central (today’s Kennedy Blvd.). Nales’ sidearm was found a few feet from where he was shot. He died soon after.
Just 25 years old when he was killed, Nales left behind his young wife, Concepcion, 20, and their 13-month-old daughter, Celia. What’s worse, Concepcion was pregnant. John Nales was born six months after his father died in the line of duty on the darkened streets of West Tampa.
Eighty-eight years later, Vince Rabelo is working to give Nales the recognition he deserves. Rabelo began calling to see if anyone knew why Nales and Tampa’s other slain officers were not honored. He contacted Major George McNamara with the Tampa Police Department for answers.
West Tampa City was incorporated in 1895 and remained separate from the City of Tampa until 1925. Therefore, “Officer Nales was not a Tampa Police officer,” said Major McNamara. In 2003, The Florida State Fraternal Order of Police honored Nales’ contribution with a memorial in Tallahassee, but locally he remains unknown until now.
Major McNamara meets monthly with the Police Memorial Committee, comprised of volunteers and TPD staffers. They plan to honor Nales, and another officer killed while serving on the Port Tampa Police Department. Port Tampa was annexed into the City of Tampa in 1961.
Rabelo feels the city has a responsibility to honor Nales even if he wasn’t technically a member of the Tampa Police Department. “In 1925, the city took responsibility for West Tampa. That means they are responsible for honoring Juan Nales,” he said. “You can’t sweep him under the rug.”
Information in this article was taken from Forgotten Heroes Police Officers Killed in Early Florida 1840-1925 by Dr. William Wilbanks.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- JULY/AUGUST 2008
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
Manny Leto is the Executive Director for the Preserve the 'Burg in St. Petersburg, Florida. He also worked as Director of Community Outreach for the Ybor City Museum Society, then became the managing editor of Cigar City Magazine and Director of Marketing for 15 years with the Tampa Bay History Center.
FOLLOW CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE