COLLIER COUNTY — For nearly 57 years, Carl Strickland rested under a barren patch of grass next to a shade tree.
Nothing in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Fort Myers marked his grave. Nothing identified him by name or as the Naples Police Department’s first black officer who was gunned down in the line of duty.
There was no reason why a visitor to the cemetery would have known Strickland ever existed, much less made the ultimate sacrifice serving his neighbors.
That changed Friday morning — two days shy of the 57th anniversary of Strickland’s killing — when about 40 community leaders, Naples police officers and Lee County sheriff’s deputies held a quiet “end of watch” and headstone dedication ceremony in the cemetery just north of Martin Luther King Boulevard.
“This is the final chapter in finally, finally recognizing Officer Strickland as a hero,” Naples Police Chief Tom Weschler told the crowd gathered under overcast skies.
The ceremony featured a rifle salute, the Naples police and Lee Sheriff’s Office honor guards, and the Naples police bag piper.
The headstone marking Strickland’s grave was paid for by an anonymous donor, said Naples Officer Bill Gonsalves, who spent much of the last two years tracking down records to prove Strickland was not only Naples first black officer, but also the department’s first officer killed in the line of duty.
“Officer Carl Strickland, June 2, 1904 — Nov. 6, 1954. Loving Husband and Father,” the headstone reads. “In memory of Naples first black police officer killed in the line of duty, paying the ultimate price to protect and serve the community.
“Rest in peace.”
The text on the headstone was approved by Strickland’s adopted daughter, Margaret, his only known living relative. She was unable to attend the ceremony due to health problems.
In May, Strickland’s name was etched on memorial walls in Tallahassee and Washington D.C. While Friday’s ceremony may not have received the same attention, it may mean more symbolically.
Strickland has been in Woodlawn for decades. Nobody knew it.
“People can come here, and those that come through the cemetery and look at the different markers will see that there lays Officer Carl Strickland, who was murdered,” Gonsalves said. “It means a lot.”
Strickland was hired in October 1954 to patrol the old McDonald’s Quarters slum in Naples. About a month later he was gunned down after breaking up a fight.
His killer, John Wesley, was caught two days later and eventually convicted of first-degree murder.
“I knew Mr. Wesley. He seemed to be a nice little guy,” said Naples resident Willie Anthony, who remembers the killing from his childhood and attended the ceremony. “I was shocked that he was the one when I heard about it. ... Unfortunately, tragedy took place.”
In the more than five decades that followed the killing, Strickland’s story was lost.
It was only about two years ago that Gonsalves, with the help of former Naples police chiefs Ben Caruthers and Gary Young, started digging into the rumor that a black Naples officer had been killed in the 1950s.
“It would be grand if the family was all here. … But he belongs to another family, ours,” Young said. “We watch out for ours. We were a little negligent on this one, but we finally got it right.”