BILOXI --Howard Leroy Hobbs Sr., a former Harrison County sheriff who ran for re-election in November, died Monday. He was 73.
Coroner Gary Hargrove said he died of natural causes at his home in Biloxi.
The down-home politician was known, in part, for his charismatic personality. He was Gulfport police chief from 1962 to 1971 and a three-term sheriff from 1972 through 1983. He then served nearly 12 years in federal prison on guilty pleas in a public corruption case.
His conviction in 1984 ended an era when some Coast politicians tolerated illegal gambling, prostitution and bootlegging and shared friendships with career criminals known to law enforcement as the Dixie Mafia.
Hobbs was charged in a 28-count indictment. He pleaded guilty on two counts: racketeering and arranging two county prisoners' release for $29,500. Hobbs maintained he was set up by supporters of a political opponent and said he accepted a plea bargain because he couldn't afford a legal defense.
Hobbs was a popular law enforcement official throughout his career.
"He ran as an independent and it was uncommon at the time for successful campaigns, but he earned a heavy win at his first election," said Circuit Clerk Gayle Parker.
Former FBI agent Royce Hignight, who led a five-year investigation against Hobbs, said Hobbs "exuded class, even during and after the investigation. He was always a gentleman. Leroy was one of the most personable and charismatic people you would ever hope to meet, but he got mixed up with the wrong people."
Hignight is the agent who handcuffed Hobbs in an undercover narcotics sting on a farm where supposed Colombian drug lords were due to fly in a shipment of cocaine.
"There was never a cross word from him, no animosity," Hignight said.
The bogus airdrop was on a farm owned by Hobbs' friend, D.J. Venus, an alleged member of the Dixie Mafia. According to testimony, Venus handled Hobbs' payment to release two prisoners in a related charge.
Hobbs was accused of offering protection in the contract killing of Dewey D'Angelo, a strip-club owner and alleged Dixie Mafia member. The hitman convicted of D'Angelo's slaying testified he was told to leave the body in Harrison County so Hobbs could control the investigation.
Hobbs also was accused of plotting to assassinate then-Gulfport Police Chief Larkin Smith to keep Smith from running for sheriff. Smith won the next election.
Hobbs worked in real estate after leaving prison.
While campaigning for sheriff last fall, Hobbs said, "It's all in the past. If I owed any dues, they're paid and I have my diploma."