JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – His colleagues call him a legend. Officer Charlie Wilkie retired this month from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office after 28 years in law enforcement. Wilkie spent almost 18 years in the K-9 Unit, and was able to retire alongside his K-9 partner and loyal friend "Gator."
Both are credited with catching hundreds of dangerous criminals and getting drugs and guns off the streets. The pair also helped solve two of the city's most high-profile and heartbreaking cases involving children -- Lonzie Barton and Cherish Perrywinkle. And now that he's retired, Wilkie is able to share stories he's never been able to talk about before.
Man's best friend
It would be hard to find a stronger bond than the one newly retired Officer Charlie Wilkie has with Gator. In the five years the two worked side-by-side, Wilkie says his four-legged partner saved his life a lot.
"Oh gosh, dozens," he told us about the number of times Gator has protected him. "Everybody in K-9 has been involved in multiple shootings. I’ve been shot at more times than I can count. Sometimes you don’t even know where the gunfire is coming from, you just hear the bullets whizzing by you and you smartly vacate that area because it’s obviously not a safe place to be and you regroup and put a plan together and that kind of thing."
From police chases to manhunts, Wilkie and Gator have been through a lot together.
"I just had one recently where a gentleman had murdered someone earlier on that morning. We had been searching for him. We went to search a house. Had no idea that he was in there, the whole house was locked up. Gator was not one to bark a lot and give himself away. So as we entered into a room, he started just dragging me real hard and I just felt like man I think this next room is probably where he’s at," explained Wilkie. "I released him quietly because the guy is wanted for murder. I’m not going to give him a chance to know the dog’s coming and I’m coming behind the dog. As soon as Gator engaged him, he ended up shooting himself."
While any loss of life is tragic, Wilkie said things could have been a lot different and he was thankful he and Gator weren't injured.
One of the more heart-wrenching cases dealt with missing children. In 2013, Wilkie and Gator were called to help with a kidnapping case. Eight-year-old Cherish Perrywinkle was abducted from a Westside Walmart.
Hours later, the pair and other officers caught their suspect, Donald Smith -- pulling over his white van on Interstate 95.
"I was the one to actually put hands on him just because it's just the way it unfolded," said Wilkie. "I developed some evidence then that'll come out in trial that led me to where I believed her to be."
An hour later, Wilkie and Gator made the horrific discovery behind a Northside church.
"My dog Gator did a phenomenal job. From the time we pulled up on the property where they believed Cherish may be, within seven minutes probably, we had found her," he recalled. "Your mind's racing. Is there anything I can do better? How long has it been? What can I do? Then you realize you can’t. You don’t want to contaminate evidence. There’s nothing you can do."
"All I can do there is stand with her, and keep her company until the rest of the process has to take place," Wilkie explained. "So you feel helplessness, and then you just, you have to wonder 'Who does this? Who does this? Who seeks out these poor innocent children to do such a violent, horrible thing to?'"
Wilkie couldn't go into too much detail because he will be called to the witness stand in Donald Smith's upcoming murder trial. But, discovering Cherish's body haunts him to this day.
"It's just she had the same dress on that my little girl used to wear. I'll never forget that. I'll never forget looking down. She had the same long brown hair and those are just things that are forever etched in your mind."
Two years after the tragic murder of Cherish Perrywinkle, Wilkie and Gator worked another heartbreaking case that gripped the area: the disappearance of 2-year-old Lonzie Barton.
"We searched and searched for months trying to find him," Wilkie recalled.
Finally, Lonzie's mother's boyfriend, Ruben Ebron, agreed to lead investigators to the boy's body in exchange for 20 years in prison. Ebron claimed Lonzie's death was due to an accidental drowning.
"So a big group of us, SWAT and K-9, all went out just about arm-in-arm. If it's on this acre land, we're going to find it."
Eventually, it was Wilkie who found Lonzie.
"I'll never forget lifting up a tire and there were the remains," he said. "It's just, it's somebody's child and when you have children like I do, it really hits you hard. You know to think that somebody could do this to an innocent child like this."
Wilkie was heartbroken to find Lonzie and Cherish, but he knows he did his job and was able to help bring their families closure.
Fellow officers say Wilkie has saved so many lives over his career, there are too many to count. But he's also had to take lives, something he doesn't take lightly.
Decades ago, he had to shoot an armed man in Nassau County who was firing at deputies. In 2015, he shot and killed a man who pointed a rifle at police after threatening to kill his wife. Wilkie was cleared from any wrongdoing in both cases.
"It changes you, it does. It affects you. You know, I won't tell you for a second, there's not a week that goes by I don't think about it. My kids have a birthday. I think about the fact that this gentleman's kids still have birthdays and he's never gonna be around," Wilkie said. "You'd love to have a career where you finish up and go, 'Man, I never had to pull a trigger, not once.' As opposed to looking back and going, 'Man, I really wish these other incidents hadn't happened.' But they did."
28 years in law enforcement
Wilkie says he tries to focus on the good times in his 28-year law enforcement career, most of which he shared with four different K-9 partners.
All of them have been phenomenal dogs," he said.
Together, they caught hundreds of dangerous criminals: murderers, robbers, drug dealers and sexual predators. The worst criminals are spending their lives behind bars, but others doing time and then getting a second chance at life.
"You know, I've actually had suspects come up to me in stores, and I was in plain clothes, and call me out and go, 'Hey, Officer Wilkie. Do I know you? Yeah you arrested me back in…' And so, your first instinct is, 'Oh man, I hope this goes okay.' You know? And then they'll thank you. They'll shake your hand," said Wilkie. "'You know you got me for a DUI back in the day and it was the best thing that happened for me. I got my life straightened out. I got into counseling,'"
Not only is Wilkie proud of what he has done in his law enforcement career, he's proud of his son who has earned his own prestige serving in the military.
"He’s been to Afghanistan and he’s been to Iraq and he’s done such a great job. I’m so proud of him," he said. "They’re fighting terrorists. It’s a whole different thing when you’ve had to engage a terrorist then when you have to engage another American."
What's next for Officer Wilkie and Gator?
Now that Officer Wilkie and Gator have both officially retired from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, life is very different.
The two best friends are now taking it easy on Wilkie's farm on the Westside of Jacksonville. And, Gator has some friends, including a retired police horse.
"It’s a little different not having a police car in the yard, not having to answer calls," he said.
But Wilkie isn't finished with law enforcement just yet. He's applying for jobs at places like the airport, which he said may be a little less stressful. And, no matter what job he gets, he hopes to bring Gator with him.
"I feel great. I would do it all over again. I love the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, always have. I was born and raised here. My Pop Warner Football coaches were all JSO back in the day, and that's probably why I got the bug to want to be a police officer. I knew back then that this is where I wanted to spend my time, and it's been a very rewarding career."