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Video: How high-tech helicopter gives local agency edge in tracking criminals

Doug Newsom has an unparalleled view of crime.

From the pilot’s seat of a helicopter, the Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputy searches for suspicious activity and anything out of the ordinary.

He searches for adults and children who have been reported lost or missing. He watches for criminal activity, sometimes catching — and recording on high-tech, night-vision cameras — a suspect in the act.

“We’ve got this perfect vantage point,” Newsom, the Sheriff’s Office chief pilot, said recently from his office at Witham Field. “We can see everything that’s going on and, honestly, they have no clue they’re being watched.”

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In recent weeks, Martin’s aviation unit has been credited with helping road-patrol deputies nab a man suspected of committing several car burglaries across the county. It helped lead deputies to a 14-year-old as she allegedly broke into cars in a Stuart neighborhood. And it helped to rescue two hikers and a dog who got lost one night on the Halpatiokee Park hiking trail southwest of Stuart.

Since 2015, when the Sheriff’s Office made significant improvements to its helicopter fleet, the aviation unit has been credited with more than 200 apprehensions and located more than 100 people.

“I don’t think it in any way would be an exaggeration to say we have changed our whole patrol response and our patrol platform around the helicopter,” Sheriff William Snyder said. “They are invaluable.”

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The 2015 upgrades were paid for through a state law-enforcement trust that funds itself with forfeited money and the sale of seized property.

They included purchasing a high-definition, infrared camera capable of detecting a person’s heat “signature” at night. That camera has led to remarkably clear black-and-white videos of suspected car burglars. New mapping equipment also has helped guide Newsom and two other pilots as they travel to calls.

The aviation unit has three military surplus OH 58 A-plus helicopters with at least one available for use at all times. Its budget for the current fiscal year is $896,652, which Snyder said is “a fraction of what it would cost if we were using civilian helicopters and having to buy civilian parts. Besides Newsom, the unit has a second full-time pilot, Deputy Sean Marston; part-time pilot Todd Dembowske, tactical field officers Justin Lundstedt and Pat McFall and mechanic Eric Ellington.

Newsom, a former pilot with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, just south of Gainesville, describes the aviation unit as a “force multiplier,” acting as the department’s eyes and ears in the sky.

“If we have this neighborhood that’s an issue, we know that we’re having residential burglaries and they’re occurring in the afternoon while people are at work, that’s when he go up and we hunt,” Newsom said. “Our rule of thumb is, if it’s worth one look, it’s worth a second.”

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Using the night-vision camera to detect heat signatures, Marston and McFall watched during the early-morning hours of Jan. 31 as a 38-year-old Hobe Sound man allegedly went from car to car in search of unlocked vehicles. Scott Board was later charged with multiple burglaries.

Newsom estimates that the aviation unit encounters similar scenarios two to three times a month. He recalled one instance of recording footage of a man driving around randomly firing shots at objects.

“He had no clue we were watching,” Newsom said. “It’s amazing how people act when they think nobody is looking.”

Newsom said calls involving missing persons are some of the most challenging for a helicopter pilot. He estimates that the aviation unit responds to 10-12 such calls each year.

“You can’t outthink them,” he said. They make a pilot wonder ‘where are they going to go? What were they thinking when they left?’”

But for the most part, Newsom said, the job of a sheriff’s pilot is not much different from their road patrol counterparts.

“Anything that would stand out to me as a cop, we apply the same principles,” he said. “We just do it from the air.”

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