Retired state trooper Joe Gazzo earned a name for himself working crashes, making arrests and serving as an official source of information in South Mississippi. He died Tuesday night.
Gazzo, 69, died surrounded by his family after a battle with cancer and other illnesses, said Jason Gazzo, one of five children.
“He was in pain the last couple of years, but he was a strong man,” Jason Gazzo said. “If anybody was going through what he went through, they’d be bedridden.”
“He was a great dad, grandpa, friend and lawman. This world is a better place because of him.”
Gazzo retired eight years ago as a Mississippi Highway Patrol staff sergeant who had patrolled state and federal highways in South Mississippi for 28 years. He also was the public information officer for MHP’s Biloxi-based Troop K, which patrols Harrison, Hancock, Jackson, George, Stone and Pearl River counties.
Joe Gazzo was not only important to all of us in federal law enforcement, he was monumental in bridging agency gaps all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and beyond. The Gulfport DEA family feels honored to hold the hand of his son, Jason, while we stand in his father’s shadow. We will miss him terribly.
Terry Davis, agent in charge of DEA operations based in Gulfport
Visitation will be Friday at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. Visitation starts at 10. A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated at noon.
A ‘true blue’ state trooper
Gazzo was part of a state trooper family in his personal life as well.
His son, Jason, followed in his footsteps. Jason Gazzo became a state trooper and served in the same Highway Patrol public affairs job as his father before he was assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration Task Force based in Gulfport.
Gazzo’s brother, Vernon, also retired as a state trooper.
Joe Gazzo balanced patrol work with giving the media details of crashes and public-safety warnings. During his tenure, he faxed state troopers’ “field cards” to the media to provide details of crashes for news reports.
Most people who worked in law enforcement anywhere in South Mississippi before he retired knew him or knew of him. And so did many who read news reports that identified him as the source of information or heard him speak on traffic safety. Like other state troopers, he would head to a crash scene close to his patrol area to help, even if the crash occurred in a different police jurisdiction. Many times, he was the first on scene.
Admired by those he mentored
Gazzo finished patrol school in 1980 and retired in 2008 as a staff sergeant, said Capt. Johnny Poulos, the current director of the MHP's public affairs division.
Poulos was named public affairs officer after Gazzo retired, and was later named to a statewide MHP position.
“He was definitely one of my mentors and actually opened the door for me to get into public affairs,” Poulos said.
“He was a character, one of a kind, and he was a true blue Mississippi Highway Patrol officer.”
Gazzo put his family and friends first above himself, Poulos said.
“One thing I will remember about Joe is how he responded when his health started to decline,” he said. “No matter how bad he felt, when you went to see him, he always greeted you with a smile. You'd never know he had health issues. He wanted to know about you, how you're doing and how your family is doing.
“He always brought me back to the real world about what was important and about being loyal.”
Homeland Security Investigations Agent Ben Taylor, assigned to the DEA Task Force, said he watched and learned from Gazzo. Taylor had been a spokesman for the Gulfport Police Department before he became a federal agent. He now works with Gazzo’s son.
“Mr. Joe was one of the first full-time PIOs on the Coast,” Taylor said. “As new PIO, I relied on his expertise in interacting with the media. He was a true professional.”
‘Bridged agency gaps’
Terry Davis, resident agent in charge of the DEA’s Gulfport office, said he and his staff mourn Gazzo’s loss.
“While I didn’t have the professional pleasure of working with Joe Gazzo personally, I feel extremely fortunate to work alongside his image reincarnated in the form of his son, Jason,” Davis said.
“Joe Gazzo was not only important to all of us in federal law enforcement, he was monumental in bridging agency gaps all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and beyond. The Gulfport DEA family feels honored to hold the hand of his son, Jason, while we stand in his father’s shadow. We will miss him terribly.”
Family man, friend
Co-workers and friends have described Gazzo as having a salt-of-the-earth personality and a devoted family man and friend.
Biloxi City Councilman Kenny Glavin said Gazzo was a close family friend. Three of Gazzo's four sons had worked in a trawl shop owned by Glavin's father. Gazzo lived around the corner from the trawl shop and was close friends with Glavin’s father.
Gazzo had a small shrimp boat that brought him much enjoyment, Glavin said.
“I thought the world of Joe, and his brother Vernon, also a state trooper. Wonderful men. A wonderful family,” he said.
“Joe was just down-to-earth and was Biloxi through and through. When you speak of Gazzo, you speak of special people. Joe was special to many.”