‘He was the best of us.’ A town mourns 30-year-old Florida wildlife officer Julian Keen

Janine Zeitlin
Fort Myers News-Press

Branches of massive oak trees seemed to cradle a grieving town and their memories as thousands convened for a candlelight vigil for Julian Keen. The Florida wildlife officer was killed June 14 while he was off duty.

It was a scene unlike many had ever witnessed in LaBelle, a rural Hendry County town that counts fewer than 6,000 residents.

Keen’s high school football number — 44 — and #BeLikeJulian were everywhere.   

Julian Keen

There was talk of naming a boat ramp, a park, a road after Keen. Maybe even erect a life-size bronze statue. “We’ve got a long list,” said Cory Raborn, 37, an organizer of the Wednesday vigil who helped set up a scholarship fund in Keen’s name.  

There were so many stories to be told.

How Keen spiked slushies with sliced pickles. How he set up a fake Facebook account, so it looked like he was married to his celebrity crush Carrie Underwood. How he’d stand near the bridge on holidays waving and holding cheerful signs. How he was a brother and son to more than those related by blood.

A service will be held in LaBelle on Monday. 

“Julian didn't care if you were a Black person, a white person, a Mexican person, none of that phased him. It didn't matter if you were low-class, high-class, in jail, out of jail, he didn't care, he would help,” said close friend Chris Wills. "He was the best of us.”

Keen was a hometown hero, gone at 30, shot and killed after trying to stop a reckless driver, investigators say. But the stories that night were about how he lived.  

More:Thousands mourn FWC officer Julian Keen in LaBelle candlelight vigil

'He became one of us pretty quickly'

Julian Keen arrived in LaBelle around middle school from Immokalee, where he mostly lived with his grandmother, relatives said.

Shirley Cohens, now 68, raised eight grandchildren in a three-bedroom home she inherited from her mother, a farmworker.

The town of LaBelle held a candlelight vigil Wednesday June 17, 2020 for Julian Keen, a popular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer, who was found shot to death while off duty when he attempted to stop a hit-and-run suspect in LaBelle. Eliceo Hernandez, 20, faces a charge of negligent homicide.

Just as her mother did with her, Cohens took them to church, Sunday school. “He was a good boy,” she said. “He didn’t give nobody no trouble.”

They didn’t live in luxury. Cohens is a housekeeper at a fancy hotel on Marco Island, a nearly two-hour bus commute each way. But they had enough, she said. A trampoline. A yard. Cohens would allow each grandchild to pick five special things from the grocery store. Julian liked sausage sandwiches.

Julian is squarely in the middle of her seven children, said his mother, Delores Keen, 49. "He was always laughing." 

She lived in public housing in Immokalee and Julian spent time with her too, but he and his sisters chose to be with their grandmother, Cohens said. “She was just in and out and they just had to have a stable place, so they came here.”

His father wasn’t around much, his mother and grandmother said. 

In middle school, Julian wanted to move to LaBelle for sports, his grandmother and mother said. They supported him. He moved in with an aunt.

Around that time, in eighth grade, Chris Wills met Julian. He called him Man.

“Soon as you met Man, it was like, instant. You didn’t just like him, you loved him. And if you did just like him, you made sure you loved him by the time you got done just liking him.”

Friends and former teammates of Julian Keen hug around Patrick O'Bannon, center, at a candlelight vigil for Keen in LaBelle on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Keen, a popular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer was found shot to death while off duty while attempting to stop a hit and run driver in LaBelle. Eliceo Hernandez, 20, faces a charge of negligent homicide. Keen was taken in by several families as he was growing up including O'Bannon's.

They grew close on the LaBelle Longhorns, a Pop Warner football team. The coach was Chris’ dad. Later, Chris and Julian became Cowboys on the LaBelle High School football team.

By sophomore year, Julian was on the varsity team and spending most weekends with the Wills family. He asked his parents if Julian could move in.

“It was kind of like The Blind Side story but without money,” said Tina Wills, who was a middle school teacher at the time. Her husband worked in county maintenance. “Whatever we had at Christmas got split. Everything that Chris had, Man had.”

Yet, “he helped us as much as we helped him, just showing us love.”

Even strangers took to him quickly. Once, she recalled, they took him to Universal Studios youth church trip. As they were leaving, she heard people call out, “Bye, Julian!” He had met them at the park. 

More:LaBelle man charged in connection with death of wildlife officer Sunday in Hendry County

More people came to know him as a high school football star, a relentless defensive end. “Football in LaBelle is king,” said Chris Siner, LaBelle High School athletic director. “Friday nights, that’s the place to be.”

A sports writer called Julian a “defensive whiz” in the same 2007 article that described him being crowned homecoming king before a crowd. Julian was so well-liked he was also prom king, Chris Wills said.

Friends, family members and former teammates of Julian Keen attend a candlelight vigil for Keen in LaBelle on Wednesday June 17, 2020. The photo on the screen shows Keen as homecoming king.

Delores Keen was in prison when Julian was in high school. After her release, Tina Wills recalled Julian showing Delores pictures of moments she had missed.

Even back then, he had ambitions of working for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. He was an outdoorsman, drawn to woods, the river and big tires that could handle in mud.

“Everybody wants to be a game warden in high school,” Lt. Pam Steelman said she told him when he approached her. “Go to college and then come to see me.”

After graduating from high school, Keen moved in with Mona and Patrick O’Bannon, one of his football coaches. The number of people who considered Keen their son grew.

“Whenever you saw Coach O’Bannon, you saw Julian with him,” Siner said.

The O’Bannons' friends welcomed Keen too.

“He became one of us pretty quickly. That’s the good thing about this town,” said PJ Crews, 40. Keen called him “Unc” for uncle. He joined fishing and hunting trips.

“He’s with a bunch of redneck white guys and he’s got long dreads on. We’d get funny looks and stuff, but it didn’t bother us.”

Keen returned to LaBelle after playing football at Webber International University in Babson Park, a small central Florida town. 

Lt. Pam Steelman with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission speaks at Julian Keen's candlight vigil in LaBelle on Wednesday.

He found a job at Billie Swamp Safari, an attraction park, where he became one of their best and hardest-working alligator wrestlers. But that’s not what he wanted forever.  

“When he came back from college, he didn’t have them dreads and he told me he was game-warden ready and we did everything we could to get him there and we got him there and he was truly living his dream,” said Steelman, who became his boss.

He joined FWC in 2016.

Outside of work, he helped kids. He hosted workouts to bolster their athleticism. He encouraged boys to be gentlemen. He volunteered as an assistant football coach. 

One year, Siner, head football coach at the time, shifted practices to 5:30 a.m. so both Keen and O’Bannon could help coach since both worked during the day.  

“They’re so valuable to the program, so valuable to our kids in LaBelle,” Siner said. “Julian got that work ethic from Coach O’Bannon.”

On the job, Keen was quick to help the sheriff’s office or assist in an arrest.

“He loved doing this job in his hometown,” Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden said. “He loved to help people."

Friends don’t know exactly when “Man” became “Batman,” but he liked the superhero and it seemed to fit his job and personality.

“He was our Batman,” said Rey Hernandez, 30, a football buddy who remained close friends. “Julian was always trying to do the right thing.”

Rey Hernandez, a close friend and former teammate of Julian Keen displays a tattoo that he had made. Julian Keen, a popular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer, was found shot to death while off duty when he attempted to stop a hit-and run suspect in LaBelle.

Being Batman

Investigators believe Keen may have died trying to do the right thing.

In the early Sunday morning hours, while hanging out with friends, he spotted a reckless driver.  

Whidden said they believe Keen was trying to stop the driver or get a tag number. “While on the scene something happened, and the guy pulled out a gun and shot him,” he said. 

Keen was pronounced dead on the scene, at 2:59 a.m. 

Friends and family members of Julian Keen attend a candlelight vigil for Keen in LaBelle on Wednesday June 17, 2020.

Early Sunday morning, Chris Wills got a call from Patrick O’Bannon. He was crying. He had never known the coach to cry.

Wills rushed to where Keen was killed near a residential street corner steps from trailer homes and a convenience store. Already at least two dozen people were there. A tarp covered the body.

“We were standing there holding each other, grown men sobbing like teenage girls,” Wills said.

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Behind the police tape, a crowd grew with family, friends and former teammates.

They stood for hours in the June sun, sweating, and with their eyes trained on the spot where Keen lay. “I know my best friend, he wouldn't have let me lay in that street until he knew I was in good hands,” Wills said. He did the same. 

They didn’t leave until his body was taken away.  

A roadside memorial was set up for Julian Keen in LaBelle. Keen, a popular Florida Fish and Wildlife officer, was found shot to death while off duty during a confrontation in LaBelle. Eliceo Hernandez, 20, faces a charge of negligent homicide.

The town ached, especially those closest to him.

Mona O'Bannon wrote on Facebook: 

I want to tell the world that you don't have to give birth to someone to love them with all your heart, but they already know my love for you. ... Our whole community is hurting. Young and old, white, black, brown, and every color in between! I hope out of all of your sacrifices that our community can bond and work together for you and show the world that it is wrong. That everyone is not racist, that not all cops are bad. The division has to stop and I hope and pray it ends with you!

On Monday, 20-year-old Eliceo Hernandez, of LaBelle, was arrested on a charge of homicide, negligent manslaughter. 

After the arrest, one of Keen’s sisters posted a photo of golden handcuffs on Facebook, “They Arrested His Killer With His Cuffs."

Whidden heard that too. From a law enforcement perspective, “that’s just a subconscious way of saying, ‘Hey, you didn’t get me. I got you in the end.’”

Family members of Julian Keen attend a candlelight vigil on Wednesday, June 17, 2020. Keen, a popular Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer, was found shot to death while off duty while attempting to stop a hit-and-run driver in LaBelle.

Two funerals have been announced, the Monday one in LaBelle and another Saturday in Immokalee, where his grandmother would like him to buried.

“They’re going to put him as close as they can beside my mother and my brother, somewhere in the vicinity so I can do what I need to do for him,” Cohens said.

Each month, she plans to bring silk flowers from the dollar store for his grave as she does for her mother and brother. 

“I don’t ask the Lord why, that’s his job,” Cohens said. “I just try to stay focused on just remembering how good of a child he was. Everybody loved him."  

Julian Keen Memorial Scholarship

A scholarship fund for Hendry County youth pursuing a criminal justice degree or a law enforcement career has been set up in Keen's honor. For information, visit swflheroes.org. 

Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise writer in Southwest Florida. Reach her at jzeitlin@gannett.com and on Twitter @JanineZeitlin.