Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office Col. John Fortunato retired Tuesday from his longtime position as the agency's chief spokesman, saying he intends to jump into the race to become the parish's next sheriff. 

Interim Sheriff Joseph Lopinto announced early Tuesday that Fortunato had resigned. Fortunato later said he actually retired and will challenge Lopinto for the permanent post in a special election March 24. 

"It's something I've always wanted to do," Fortunato said about running for sheriff. "I've always wanted to follow my dream." 

Fortunato, 66, joined the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office in 1971, when he was 20 and Sheriff Alwynn "Al" Cronvich was in charge. Six years later, Fortunato was shot near his neck during a gun battle that erupted as he and other deputies approached an 18-year-old man living in a tent in a wooded area of Metairie.

Fortunato and another wounded deputy were treated at a hospital. The 18-year-old man died in the gunfire. 

A son, nephew and cousin of New Orleans Police Department officers, Fortunato became a recognizable face in the community roughly 30 years ago when Cronvich's successor, Harry Lee, appointed him as spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. He continued in that role under Lee's successor, Newell Normand, who retired as sheriff last month to become a talk-show host on WWL Radio. 

Describing Lee as "one of the most influential men" in his life, Fortunato said retiring was bittersweet. 

Normand chose Lopinto, who formerly worked in the Sheriff's Office in various capacities and later served in the state House of Representatives, to replace him on an interim basis. Lopinto also is Normand's preferred pick for the permanent post.  

But a handful of familiar names also have said they are considering entering the race. They include former Parish President and prosecutor John Young; Keith Conley, the parish's chief administrative officer and a former deputy; and Craig Taffaro, a former chief deputy under Lee and Normand. 

Neither Conley nor Young has been as emphatic about their plans as Fortunato was Tuesday. Taffaro, meanwhile, faces federal tax evasion charges and has told friends he'll run only if he can get those charges resolved before the race gets under way.

The election's three-day qualifying period begins Jan. 3.  

Fortunato said he informed Lopinto of his plans on Monday. 

"Public information officer is a demanding job and important to the operations of the JPSO," Lopinto wrote in a statement addressing Fortunato's departure. "Johnny has served this department for many years and we’re grateful. We wish him well." 

In the same statement, Lopinto said the Sheriff's Office has launched a Twitter account for real-time crime and traffic updates. 

"Now is the time to move the Sheriff’s Office into the future," Lopinto's statement said. "The creation of a JPSO Twitter handle, @JeffParishSO, ... will allow widespread instantaneous communication with the public." 

Fortunato is married to Kriss Fairbairn Fortunato, deputy chief administrative officer for Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn. Their son, Nicholas Fortunato, is a Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office deputy with the 3rd Patrol District, which covers much of the West Bank. 

WWL-TV reporter Paul Murphy contributed to this report. 

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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