UNION COUNTY, Fla. – Union County Sheriff Gerald M. "Jerry" Whitehead died Wednesday at the age of 60, the Sheriff's Office said.
Whitehead was elected in 1984 and started serving Union County as sheriff in 1985. He was the longest-serving sheriff in the state of Florida.
Whitehead died about 2 p.m. after a brief illness. He was admitted Tuesday to North Florida Medical Center and died from cardiac failure, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson, who was childhood friends with Whitehead, said he'd been having some health issues of late but was working through them.
"It's going to take us some days to get over the shock. It just happened so fast. No one really knew he was as sick as he was," Dobson said.
Chief Deputy Garry Seay was sworn in as acting Sheriff Wednesday night.
"Nobody can fill his shoes, I can do just do what I can do to keep going on with the Sheriff's Office," Seay said.
"Our prayers are with the entire Whitehead family, and we all mourn the loss of our sheriff," the Sheriff's Office said in a statement.
Whitehead leaves behind a wife and six children. Whitehead's father was sheriff of Union County for 30 years.
"Jerry was a friend to everyone. He went out of his way to help people. He was just like his dad," said Seay. "He was a friend to me and a brother to me. We have worked together for many years. Our hearts are heavy, and everyone in the Sheriff's Office and the whole entire county and state are numb."
Captain Brad Smith with Bradford County Sheriff's Office recalled a time when Whitehead single-handedly stopped a cross county chase.
"We couldn't get them stopped in Bradford County, but they said when they saw that big man in the red shirt, which was Sheriff Whitehead out there ready to stop them, they knew he meant business and they could read it on his face, they just pulled over and gave up. That's the kind of man he was," Smith said. "The state of Florida has lost a true gentleman, a true law enforcement officer, and nobody is going to be able to replace him."
"Sheriff Whitehead was a well-respected man and a humble sheriff who believed a man was only as good as his word, and who was dedicated to doing things the right way," Steve Casey, executive director of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said in a statement. "Today, we pray for his family that they may celebrate his life and his legacy, and we send our appreciation for all that the Whitehead family has given and sacrificed for the safety and welfare of our citizens."
Funeral arrangements will be released when available.