Metal to bone: This time, a gun is held to an officer's head — by a teen — but doesn't go off

• "Metal to bone," a three-part special series, was first published by the Times on May 2-4, 1993.

 

 

It was just the two of them, father and son, living in a tiny apartment where the only luster was a gold picture frame that held the boy's school photo.

Their neighborhood stole the young. The father clutched his son fiercely.

"I don't want you making the same mistakes I did," he said, the voice of a thousand fathers.

On July 4, 1992, at exactly six minutes before midnight, the son stepped from his father's shadow. "I just wanted to be known," he would later say.

For his coldblooded debut, he picked a police officer whose back was turned.

The sound she heard from the gun would reverberate for months.

Click.

It was the same sound the key in the lock makes as the father comes home now to the empty apartment, greeted by the boy in the golden frame.

A file at the Hillsborough County Courthouse Annex contains all the information pertinent to the case, but no hint of all the things that were lost on Independence Day.

 

Officer Lisa Bishop's secret to guarding a sleeping city was pretzels. The crunching kept her awake. She'd pull into a convenience store on Nebraska, say hey to the prostitutes near the pay phone and buy herself a large bag of Rold Gold for the long night ahead. Her shift was from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Four nights a week, Lisa clocked in for duty at the Tampa police station on the frayed outskirts of downtown. In uniform she was petite and muscular, like a beautiful action-figure doll, with piercing green eyes and size 4 steel-toe boots. She kept her hair back in a French braid. Even under a streetlight, her skin seemed carved in pearl.

Her beauty was a curse when she joined the force. She knew what the other officers were thinking: paper doll with a 9mm. Don't break a nail, honey.

After three years of working midnights, her walk got a little tougher and her language a little saltier. Schooled by one too many mean nights, Lisa developed a habit for watching hands. She lost count of all the traffic stops where the driver had a sawed-off shotgun on the floorboard and an outstanding arrest warrant in the computer.

"Take your hands out of your pockets," she'd shout. "Don't get squirrelly on me, and we'll both go home tonight."

Lisa, 30, wasn't unshakable by any stretch. Her biggest fear was rounding a darkened corner. Well, Bishop, she'd tell herself, somebody's gotta check behind that building. The hair still rose on the back of her neck.

Funny that she worked nights. As a child, the dark frightened her. Her mother would send her to the corner store at dusk, and she'd run all the way home to beat the falling light. As a cop, she grew to like the night. She drove along the deserted back roads of the Port of Tampa, where the warehouses and giant ships dwarfed her police car. To keep her company, the FM radio was usually turned down low to a country station, her ears perked for a Dwight Yoakam song.

Lisa did not come from a family of cops, never dreamed of being a police officer. She was a varsity cheerleader and star gymnast in high school before entering the University of South Florida. College lasted only a year.

"In my haste, I withdrew to go out and tackle the world," Lisa said. "I ended up working the mall."

She became pregnant when she was 21 and single. Her daughter, Morgan, was born with her mother's same startling green eyes. For years, Lisa bounced from job to job, "bored to tears with my life." She was 27 and struggling to pay the bills when a firefighter friend suggested she put her athletic skills and sense of adventure to use. Apply to the Tampa Police Academy, he said. Lisa had never handled a weapon before.

She was among 28 cadets who were sworn in with the Tampa Police Department on Oct. 1, 1989. She was issued a badge, a gun and a midnight shift.

Lisa got married the same year she became a cop. Her new career did not always complement her new marriage. "I found something in my life I enjoy," Lisa told Mike, her husband, over his objections. She learned to do what a lot of cops did: She stopped talking about work. All the images of her 10-hour shift — the way a wife's broken jaw hung down, the nightgown worn by a molested child, the beer bottle imbedded in a dashboard of a crumpled car — were filed away in some remote place in Lisa's mind and summed up in one word when her husband asked how the night went:

"Fine."

Her worry revealed itself in other ways. The first thing she did when she arrived home at dawn was strip off her bulletproof vest so she could hold her two young children.

Morgan was 7, and Cody, her new son, was 18 months old.

 

The Fourth of July was a 93-degree scorcher, with strips of clouds rolled out against blue sky. By early evening, as Lisa buttoned her police uniform, she thought how nice it would be to have a beer and watch the fireworks with the kids. Maybe next year.

As Lisa kissed everyone goodbye, she barely heard her brother-in-law call out to her. The minute he said it, he wished he could take it back.

"Don't get shot."

And she was gone.

Three times a day, a different shift of police officers gathered for roll call in the windowless squad room of District 2. For 20 minutes, a sergeant reviewed the recent tragedies and outstanding warrants before releasing the class of fidgety officers to the streets. On the Fourth of July, the officers were warned to keep their riot helmets ready and be on the alert for flying missiles and gunshots.

Lisa left the station by 9:30 p.m. and drove the short distance into Oscar 8, the zone she patrolled just northeast of I-4 and Ybor City. She and her partner drove in separate cars but answered calls together. One always followed the other for backup. At 10:49, while finishing a domestic dispute complaint, Lisa's radio squawked: Signal 41 — shots fired — at 2003 Cano Court in Ponce de Leon public housing project.

Lisa, who was writing on her clipboard as she stood outside, looked over to Teresa Greiner, her partner. "Wanna go ahead and take it? We're right here," she said, reaching for the radio holstered in her belt to let dispatch know they would respond.

Ponce is usually patrolled by a special squad of Tampa police officers known as the X-ray squad. But if X-ray is busy or off-duty, uniform officers — such as Lisa — frequently respond to calls there.

Ponce has the highest crime rate of all public housing projects in Tampa. An 8-foot steel fence wraps around the 700 apartments, laid out in flat rows like grimy military barracks. Poverty, drugs and violence have made the neighborhood feel like a bombed-out combat zone. Cigarettes go for a quarter apiece at the corner convenience store, where everything is sold in small quantities that hint of a day-to-day survival.

Some cops in the department avoided taking calls in Ponce. The neighborhood frightened them. Or worse, it didn't seem worth saving. But not Lisa. She jumped at the chance. She always remembered the advice of one of her early mentors: You gotta chill, and the people will respect you. Don't come on all macho or defensive.

As Lisa drove through the streets, the sound of firecrackers and gunshots ricocheted around the treeless, hollow courtyards. Glass flakes glimmered on the sidewalk from a streetlight that had been used for target practice. So many people out tonight, Lisa thought, I bet one of every three is armed.

By 11 p.m., the police had responded to 24 calls to the Ponce area. Among the complaints were car thefts, several domestic disputes, two aggravated assaults and possession of drugs. Lisa's call was nearly the last of the day.

"What's goin' on?" she asked, walking up to the resident who had called the police. The woman told Lisa that a young man threw ignited bottle rockets underneath her boyfriend's parked car, then pumped it full of bullets, just for kicks. He ran when the police were called, but not before threatening some of the neighbors with the gun.

As Lisa listened and took notes on her clipboard, someone shouted, "There he goes."

Lisa looked up and glimpsed a figure cutting through a row of buildings. She bolted. Sprinting through the darkness, dodging the wire clotheslines that hung in back of most apartments, she reached for her radio and gave out an alert.

Other officers captured the suspect a block away. Lisa and her partner walked back to finish the investigation.

As they rounded a corner, they used their flashlights to illuminate the sidewalk. Passing a group of teenagers, one of the officers shone the powerful beam in a young man's face. Police flashlights are a familiar form of intimidation to many residents here, especially young men, who often find themselves in a spotlight for no apparent reason.

"I'll kick your ass," the young man yelled. Someone else in the group called one of the officers a whore and a b----.

This is bulls---, Lisa thought. She spun around to face the group.

"Look," she said, walking toward the teenagers, "you can say all you want, but I'll have more units down here than you can shake a stick at. Don't bother with it. Just go on about your business."

Back at Cano Court, Lisa needed to interview a few of the residents who witnessed the suspect shoot at the parked car. Her partner returned to the sector office to finish the report on the captured suspect.

That left Lisa alone on Cano Court.

 

She could have radioed for backup. Most officers considered it too risky to be alone in Ponce, particularly on a night as unpredictable as the Fourth of July. Lisa didn't.

Though it was nearly midnight, many residents were still on their porches or hanging out on cars, escaping the stultifying heat of the poorly ventilated apartments. Clouds of sulfur from firecrackers drifted through the humid air. Lisa began interviewing William Merrell, one of the people who had had a gun pointed at him. He was still jittery.

Lisa scribbled Merrell's statement, using the hood of her police car to steady her notepad. Merrell stood next to her.

Maybe it was the way Lisa was leaning over. Maybe it was her skin color. Perhaps it was because she was alone, without another officer to cover her. Maybe she had angered a group of boys by shining her flashlight in their eyes earlier in the night.

But there was no way Lisa could have seen it coming.

In an instant, someone forced her down over the hood of the car. A hard object was pressed to the back of her skull, just below her right ear, next to her hair ribbon. Metal to bone: She knew it was a gun. She froze.

"Don't move," the voice behind her ordered.

Maybe it was some other sort of weapon at her head, a lead pipe or something. But a voice in the distance confirmed what she feared.

"He's got a gun."

The car hood underneath her hand was warm and chalky. It was the only sensation she felt. The rest of the world shut down. Lisa held very still.

If I move he's gonna kill me, Lisa thought.

And then she heard the metallic sound.

Click.

 

Suddenly, a struggle erupted behind her. The pressure at her skull was gone. She could move. Lift yourself up, she ordered herself. Lift up.

In one sweeping glance, like a movie camera panning a scene, Lisa saw Merrell standing next to her with a terrified look on his face. Just beyond him, someone in a brightly colored outfit was running through a tunnel of screaming neighbors on the sidewalk.

She felt a flash of recognition. She had seen the outfit earlier in the night.

Lisa ran to the back of her car and crouched low for cover. She kept one hand on her holstered weapon and used the other to raise her corporal on the radio. She couldn't see the gunman. Most of the neighbors had fled into their apartments. She was out there alone.

Feeling exposed, she made the 15-yard dash into Merrell's apartment. Inside the small, neat apartment, Lisa was shaking. Merrell was just as panicked. He wondered why Lisa had come into his home. He feared she would draw the gunman inside. Watching her tremble, Merrell could not ask her to leave.

Lisa's corporal screeched up 30 seconds later. Lisa flew out the screen door to meet him.

"Somebody just put a gun to my head," she told him.

"Okay, just hang on," he said, and hurried out to the sidewalk.

Merrell followed Lisa outside. "Did you see a gun?" she asked him.

"Hell, yeah," he said. "I slapped it out of his hand."

Lisa suddenly realized what happened. This stranger had reached out and grabbed the gunman's hand, risking his own life.

"Thank you," she said, stunned. "You saved my life." She hugged him tightly. He could feel her shaking.

Lisa walked over to her corporal. He was bent over a gun on the sidewalk in front of 2005 Cano Court. The gunman must have dropped it as he ran away. Lisa stared at the pistol. Then she looked up at her corporal.

"Oh, my God, Jay, my kids, my kids," she said, beginning to unravel. "What the f--- am I doing out here? My kids."

Her corporal, a burly man with a silver crew cut, put his arm around her tightly and guided her back toward his police car. There was little time for comforting.

"It's okay. It's okay," he said, easing her into the front seat of his car. "Is he still around? Is anybody still around? Tell me what happened, quickly."

Lisa could not give a description of the gunman, only that he wore brightly colored clothes with a bold pattern.

The corporal hurried to the sidewalk to keep an eye on the gun. Police units were everywhere, sirens wailing, lights flashing. The neighbors stood on the sidewalks and their porches. Some disappeared inside their apartments, not wanting to be interviewed as witnesses.

An officer looked at the gun. It was a scrappy, black Colt .25-caliber semiautomatic. He slid the magazine out of the gun. It was empty. Next, he checked the chamber, the small compartment where the bullet rests when ready to fire.

He pulled the slide of the gun back, so he could see inside the slender chamber.

There was a bullet.

 

Lisa was driven downtown. She could give little detail of the assault. It had all happened behind her. One thing she was positive of was the click she heard from the gun at her head. It had sounded to her like a dry fire, as if the trigger was pulled but the gun did not discharge.

Near dawn, Lisa left the police station and drove home. It was Sunday, and the roads were so deserted they reminded her of the ending of a Clint Eastwood movie, when he walks out of town alone. The adrenaline of the night had worn off. She felt empty and alone, wanting only to be held.

At home, she looked in on her kids and walked numbly into her bedroom. Michael was in bed, sleeping. He rarely woke up when she came home.

Lisa stood by the dresser and stripped off her gear. Moving in slow motion, she took her radio from her belt and set it in the charger. She unholstered her gun. Michael stirred at the noise and sat up in bed. Something wasn't right. He saw his wife standing at the dresser, gazing blankly at him.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"Someone tried to kill me tonight," Lisa answered.

Finally, she felt safe enough to cry.

 

Officer Gilberto Mercado heard the details at roll call the next afternoon: Someone had crept up behind a police officer last night and placed a loaded gun to her head, execution-style. According to the report, the gunman pulled the trigger but the gun misfired.

Happy Fourth of July.

Gil drove his marked cruiser by the faded pastel buildings of Ponce de Leon. The sun drummed down on the broken sidewalks. Gil wiped sweat from his brow. Bulletproof vests weren't made for Florida summers.

He thought about last night. No mystery how the suspect got a gun. Guns were everywhere. Hell, he'd arrested a 12-year-old with a semiautomatic tucked in the waistband of his Ninja Turtle underwear.

But putting a loaded weapon to a police officer's head? Maybe the walls really were crumbling.

If the suspect was hiding here, Gil and the X-ray squad had the best chance of finding him.

The X-ray squad patrols two neighboring public housing projects — Ponce de Leon and College Hill Homes. The Tampa Police Department created the special unit in 1986 as a last-ditch effort to save the neighborhood from street-level drug dealers and "shootings that were as common as passing transit buses," according to one captain. Residents complained that police officers were rude — at times even physically brutal — and rarely came into the neighborhood unless there was trouble.

The TPD decided to give the two housing projects their own small police force — a handpicked and racially mixed group of 16 officers, called the X squad.

Over the years, the name grew into X-ray. It was a good name. X-ray hinted of a mysterious, special way of seeing things.

To outsiders, even to other police officers in the city, Ponce and College Hill must all look the same: 1,410 residential units stacked side by side like concrete boxes. Best seen through the rolled-up windows of a passing car.

But to Officer Gil Mercado, each apartment has a story, a life behind the screen door that hangs by a loose hinge.

At 31, Gil is a stocky man with thick forearms and the shoulders of a linebacker. He's been on X-ray almost two years. His skin is the color of light coffee, his eyes a shimmering green. Rods of silver streak through his close-cropped hair. He is constantly at war with a 5-pound spread around his middle. Too many plates of palomilla and black beans.

Gil kept a picture of his son on his key ring. "That's my heart, right there," Gil liked to say, tapping the small photo. Before his wife left for work each morning, she would take the baby from the crib and lay him next to her husband, so the two Gils could wake up together.

Gil could be brooding or sunny, depending on his mood, but never volatile. Fair. Patient. Not the type to go ballistic with a nightstick. He had earned the respect of many residents in College Hill and Ponce. A hard thing to do if you are a cop.

Gil knew what it was like to live in poverty. He grew up in a New Jersey housing project. He was a 16-year-old street fighter when a high school teacher saw promise and intelligence behind the bloody nose and helped him get a football scholarship. It was his ticket out.

All it takes is one helping hand, is Gil's theory. He stretched his hand out to many residents in College Hill and Ponce.

"You can't be a good officer just taking people to jail and putting them down," Gil said. He was a good listener, but he chastised himself for preaching too much.

One day, walking the beat in Ponce, he saw a teen mother he knew, pregnant with her third child. "You need to close those legs and go back to school," he scolded.

"Tell her, Gil," said the girl's friend, in playful agreement.

He later brought the woman a sack of diapers.

Gil never fooled himself into thinking he was a hero here. Old memories run deep. Too many residents remember Melvin Hair, a mentally retarded man who died in 1987 in a police choke hold outside his home in College Hill.

Some residents feared the police more than crime itself. A man was pulled over on a minor traffic violation one night, and as the X-ray officer approached the car window, the driver raised his trembling hands in the air and begged, "Don't shoot, don't shoot."

"Man," the officer said, later walking back to his police car, "someone must have f----- with him."

There was no denying the everyday tensions here. Everyone — cops and residents — was on guard.

When riots broke out in Los Angeles in 1992 after the Rodney King verdict, College Hill had its own disturbance. X-ray officers in riot gear were on a sidewalk when bullets whizzed by their heads and into a bus stop sign. For months afterward, the officers stopped to touch the jagged holes left by the slugs.

But no bullets came as close as the one intended for Lisa Bishop on the Fourth of July.

Gil wanted to find who did it. He and Lisa graduated from the police academy together.

 

On the day after the Fourth of July, the temperature creeped up into the mid 90s, soaking Gil's dark blue polo shirt. The words X-RAY and POLICE were stenciled on the back. A wall of cool air hit him as he walked into the Sector E office, a police substation squarely on the dividing line of Ponce de Leon and College Hill. This is home base for X-ray, complete with lockers, bad coffee, a typewriter, file cabinets and a holding cell.

Inside the sector office, Gil's corporal, Chuck Blount, was flipping through a giant spiral notebook of information on people in the neighborhood who have been arrested or are suspected of criminal activity. A yearbook for offenders. "Courts female rockheads" are the words listed under one man's mug shot, describing his penchant for romancing crack addicts.

The most solid lead Gil and Chuck had to go on was a description read at roll call. Police had canvassed the neighborhood until dawn, interviewing witnesses. This was the composite they came up with:

Suspect is a B/M, 16-17 years old, 5'9", 145 lbs., med bld, dark complexion, nickname of "Eugene" who lives with his father in College Hill. He is driving a full-size Bronco, drk blue w/white panels.

Gil and Chuck tossed names out. Who was bad enough to put a gun to a cop's head? Who had a street name of Eugene? In this neighborhood, lots of young people had nicknames. The two officers came up with a list of possibilities, most of them long shots. They walked outside into the heat and began the hunt.

Riding together, they cruised down each block of Ponce and College Hill. It's a small area, less than a square mile total, but dense with people.

A sleeping bag was rolled out on a second-story roof where someone slept at night to stay cool. Children played makeshift tetherball by stringing a bag of garbage to the top of a pole. Teenage boys with gold teeth and Malcolm X hats pedaled small bikes to nowhere. Because of the holiday weekend, several block parties were humming, with music and cold drinks flowing. When the breeze blew right, like today, it was easy to get a whiff from Caldonia Red Bar-B-Q, a tiny, pink, hot shack where Mr. Caldonia worked his cleaver over a small rack in two seconds flat, good to go.

Gil had the windows in the police car rolled down. He always patrolled that way, to hear things and talk to residents. He drove by 2003 Cano Court, where Lisa Bishop was attacked. He could still see chalk on the sidewalk where the crime scene had been paced off. Everything else looked normal. Almost peaceful, in soft sunlight.

Gil and Chuck passed Cano Court and continued their search. While it was still daylight, they would ride the streets in search of Broncos. After dark, they'd start knocking on doors, making a few surprise visits.

 

By Sunday afternoon, William Merrell was tired and agitated. He hadn't slept all night. He didn't even undress for bed. In the morning, a detective had been by to interview him. One neighbor teased him sourly about being a hero. Merrell knew what the neighbor really meant — he had helped the enemy.

Another neighbor commended his bravery. "You saved that police lady's life," the man said.

Merrell didn't feel courageous. He felt low. And he was afraid. Merrell wanted out of this dangerous place. The event last night only crystallized how life here had disintegrated.

The apartment Merrell and his girlfriend shared was an oasis. Silk flowers were arranged in a vase on a coffee table. Framed paintings of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X hung over the color TV set. A mesh basket of fresh fruit was in the center of the kitchen table.

But no matter how nice they made the place, Merrell could not escape the gunshots at night or the violence outside his front door. He had to move away from here.

A wiry man with light skin and a close beard, Merrell had lived 24 of his 30 years in Ponce de Leon. He moved here with his mother when he was 3. The trim landscape and quiet nights of his childhood vanished long ago.

Under the Housing Act of 1937, Congress directed all states to create low-income housing for urban residents. Ponce de Leon, one of the first properties the Tampa Housing Authority built, opened in 1941. It was occupied by white and Hispanic residents. College Hill was completed in 1945 and occupied by black residents.

Both were beacons of hope. Many older residents remember air that was fragrant with mango and lemon. "We used to suck the nectar out of the hibiscus," said one woman, 42, who spent her childhood in College Hill. "It was like heaven to us."

Public housing originally was conceived as temporary low-income shelter. But over the years, it evolved into a permanent community for the poor. The annual family income of Tampa's public housing residents is less than $5,000 a year. Less than 14 percent of the residents are employed. Nearly 80 percent are black.

Some residents, particularly older ones, will never leave public housing. Despite the crime and physical decay of their neighborhood, it is home.

But others, like William Merrell, are trying to get out.

Each morning, Merrell waited by the phone to hear if he was needed at work that day. He had a part-time job as a truck driver and was hoping to get on full time. His girlfriend took care of their three small children. They paid $105 a month for their three-bedroom apartment in Ponce. Merrell felt caught in a trap. He could never quite save enough for his family to leave.

Merrell thought about it. People were saying he had saved the life of a police officer. He acted instinctively when he reached out and slapped the gun away. He risked his life for a stranger. But maybe he could turn his act of valor into a new start for his family.

Maybe the police would give him some sort of reward. He would ask.

 

Lisa Bishop's phone was ringing by late afternoon, mostly cops who heard through the grapevine what happened. One of the callers was an officer who used to be on her squad. She considered him a mentor, a "policeman's policeman." He listened as Lisa recounted the sequence of events, the way she held still when the gun was pressed to her head.

"I thought if I moved he would have killed me," she told him.

The officer was supportive, until the end of the conversation. "Lisa," he said, "the next time, think, 'If you don't move, he's gonna kill you.' "

Another officer told Lisa the same.

"Kick, elbow, do something," the officer said.

Others called, offering their support and outrage. "You should have pumped his ass full of lead," a fellow officer told her.

Lisa couldn't shake those words. They ate at her. She sensed the criticism. There was nothing at the academy that had prepared her for that moment in Ponce. What happened last night was all about guts.

She didn't feel guilty for not taking a shot att at the suspect. She could have accidentally hit a bystander. For all she knew, the weapon against her head could have been a toy gun. And she wasn't 100 percent sure the man running away from her was the gunman. It had all happened behind her back.

On the hood of that car, she thought, it was just me and him. That was my chance.

She wondered whether the gunman specifically targeted her. Had she angered anyone lately? Were there any outstanding vendettas against her? Hundreds. No one liked getting arrested. She arrested a 12-year-old who shot a man over a $10 rock of cocaine, and the boy was furious at Lisa for interfering with his business deals.

Maybe the gunman didn't care which cop he took down, and Lisa was just the unlucky one.

She didn't tell her kids what happened. What would she say to Morgan? Someone tried to kill Mommy last night? Morgan thought Mommy gave people speeding tickets. Lisa wasn't about to tell her differently. "I'm her Rock of Gibraltar," Lisa said. All those years as a single parent, it was just the two of them.

Lisa's sergeant called to tell her to take the night off, but she needed to work.

In a few hours, she would be back on the street. Where would the gunman be?

 

Around 7:30 p.m., Gil and Chuck were cruising through College Hill when they noticed a faded black Bronco with white panels parked on the side of the street. The two officers had pulled over Broncos and Blazers all afternoon, but after running the tags and and checking the driver's identification, they kept coming up empty.

They could see a young man sitting on the passenger side. The windows were rolled down. Chuck parked the police cruiser behind the Bronco so that it could not escape. Coolly the officers walked up to the car. The Bronco had a temporary tag, which made it impossible to check against the computer. Many cars in the projects had paper tags or no tags. License plates and adhesive expiration stickers were always being ripped off from cars and used on uninspected or stolen vehicles.

"This your car?" Chuck asked the passenger.

"No," said the young man, who was about 16 and had his hair styled in a fade.

Gil hoisted himself up on the hood of the car so he could read the vehicle identification number stamped near the dashboard.

"Who's it belong to?" Chuck asked, watching the kid's hands.

"Eugene," he said, unfazed.

Chuck, wearing dark Ray-Bans, flashed his eyes at Gil when he heard the name Eugene. Feeling the rush of a catch, they knew the gunman had to be close by.

Just then, a strapping man in his early 30s walked toward the truck. He had been playing dominoes on a card table with some other men when he saw the officers around the Bronco.

"What's the problem with the truck?" the man asked.

"Is it yours?" Chuck asked.

"It is, but my son is driving it," the man said. "Why?"

"Do you have a son named Eugene?" Gil asked.

"Yeah," he answered. "Why?"

Gil knew this man. He was well known in the neighborhood. His name was Carl Williams.

 

Years ago, Carl served time in prison. When he got out, he scrubbed floors and earned his money the hard way. Now he was raising a teenage son by himself. He was best known for coaching Little League baseball teams. He coached Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield when they were after-school phenoms. All the young athletes in the projects knew Carl Williams. The X-ray squad even played softball against his teams.

"We need to get to Eugene as soon as possible," Gil told him.

Carl, 33, was courteous but asked why they wanted his son.

"I can't explain right now," Gil said. "It's about an incident that occurred last night. We just want to talk to him about it."

Carl sensed the finality in Gil's tone. He said he would find his son.

Carl thought Eugene was at his grandmother's apartment, a short distance from the truck. With the officers following, Carl walked to the apartment and checked inside. No sign of Eugene.

By foot, he led the officers to his own apartment, in another part of College Hill. Eugene was not there, either. Carl and the officers returned to theBronco. Several other police units had arrived. Some officers were going through the truck. A crowd had gathered on the sidewalks and under the mossy oak trees.

Gil could see the worry on Carl's face. Raising a child in this neighborhood was not easy. Gil couldn't remember the last time he dealt with a father. This was the land of mothers, grandmothers and aunts. It was the land of tired women.

Again, Carl asked, what did Eugene do?

A sergeant pulled him aside. He told Carl that someone tried to shoot a police officer and his son matched a description of the suspect.

Carl couldn't believe it. He was sure the police had Eugene mixed up with someone else. Trying to shoot a police officer? That wasn't Gene.

"If you want your son alive," Gil told Carl, "you bring me your son. We need to take him in."

Carl didn't take Gil's warning as a threat; he took it as good advice. All he could think about was the police drawing their guns on Eugene in a case of mistaken identity. Carl had to hurry.

"I'll bring him to you," Carl said. "Give me 10 minutes."

 

PART II: Mean Streets

The day after Officer Lisa Bishop was attacked and held at gunpoint in Ponce de Leon public housing project, the X-ray squad searched the streets for the suspect. The man who would help the police find the gunman was a well-liked and respected figure in the neighborhood. But it was his son the police were looking for. Carl Williams knew how important it was to find his son before the police did.

Apartment 27 smelled like years of sweat and Lemon Pledge and perfect bacon. The curtains were drawn to keep out the sun. Sports trophies were lined in proud formation on top of the TV. It had looked this way — everything in place, neat and clean — for nearly four decades, though the world outside had completely changed.

Carl Williams first stepped inside this apartment when he was 8. Years later, when his son was born, he would bring a toy or an old baseball for the owl-eyed baby named Eugene.

He had walked across this well-worn carpet so many times.

But no trip had been as painful this one. As the police waited outside, Carl crossed through Mary Robinson's small living room.

His eyes fell on the lanky 16-year-old in swimming trunks with the Red Cross badge sewn on, sitting at his grandmother's kitchen table. Eugene knew the police were looking for him. He had seen the fleet of police cars swarm the Bronco he had been driving. He had watched it all from the screen door of his grandmother's apartment.

"Man, you done messed up," Carl said, moving toward his son.

Eugene panicked. "I didn't do nothin'," he lashed back too quickly.

Carl leveled his cold stare. He knew a lie. "Gene, you didn't do it, did you?"

Eugene just kept shaking his head, his eyes fluttering nervously.

"Man, you know they want you for first-degree attempted murder on a police officer?" Carl asked pleadingly, as if trying to shake his son awake.

"First-degree attempted murder?" Eugene said, cocking his head in surprise. "That's not right."

At any minute, Carl feared the police would kick down the door. His neighbors would watch his son being dragged into the back of a police car. He thought he had given everything to this boy.

"You can either go out there now or go out there later," Carl reasoned, " 'cause you're eventually gonna have to go. 'Cause if you keep trying to run from the police, these people are gonna try and hurt you."

Eugene kept denying he had done anything wrong.

"You got to go out there," Carl ordered.

Eugene shrugged nervously. "I'll go and talk to 'em, but I didn't do nothin'," he said.

They walked out together. Officers Gil Mercado and Chuck Blount of the X-ray squad looked up.

"Here he is," Carl announced softly. Eugene stood by his side.

 

Carl was afraid the officers would rush his son and tackle him to the ground. Or worse.

But Gil didn't even handcuff Eugene. They guided him toward a police car and asked him to sit in the back seat.

Out of nowhere, Eugene's mother seemed to appear. Linda Evans had been at a block party nearby when she learned the police were taking her son. It was the day after the Fourth of July, and several block parties were going on throughout the projects. Eugene's mother was quiet and withdrawn, almost nervous. Carl spoke with her quietly and told her to ride with Eugene. She slid in next to her son. Carl followed them in the Bronco.

They drove three blocks to the sector office, a mini-police station that serves the College Hill and Ponce de Leon public housing projects. The officers made small talk with Carl about a recent softball game between the X-ray squad and a team Carl coached.

Carl's skin was black-gold and his eyelashes curled over his eyes, just like Eugene's. His beard needed trimming, and the T-shirt he wore was faded and too small, but there was something proud and impenetrable about him.

Gil liked Carl. It wasn't often he dealt with fathers. They seemed on the verge of extinction in this neighborhood. Of the nearly 1,400 names on the tenant rolls for Ponce and College Hill, only 41 belonged to men.

Eugene was soft-spoken and finished his sentences with "Yes, sir." He had a naive, fumbling quality. He was frightened, not defiant. Something didn't fit, the officers thought. Stealing a bag of chips, maybe. But trying to execute a police officer?

And yet he matched the description given to police.

The phone rang in the sector office. It was a detective from downtown. "Bring him in," he said. Eugene waited in a vacant sergeant's office while someone brought him a soda and a honey bun from a vending machine down the hall. Carl sat on a sofa in the office. Because Eugene was a juvenile, Carl was permitted to be present during the interview. Eugene's mother waited outside the room.

 

The detective started with the basics.

Eugene was nervous. He glanced at his father before answering each question. He'd say a few words and look over at Carl "like he didn't want to break his dad's heart," the detective would say later.

Eugene denied any knowledge of a police officer being attacked in Ponce.

The detective asked Carl to step outside. Then he turned to Eugene.

"I think you're lying," he said evenly. "Are you embarrassed to tell the truth in front of your father?"

Finally, with Carl out of the room, Eugene began his story.

The Fourth of July had been one of those rare days when he ventured beyond the squalid boundaries of the projects. Eugene, Carl and some other families had driven to Picnic Island, a public park just south of the Gandy Bridge on Tampa Bay. Under one of the shelters that line the small shoreline, barbecue food was spread on the table, and a fresh deck of cards was brought out for later. Eugene saw his first dolphin that day.

By late afternoon, after promising his friends he'd meet up with them later, he rode back to the projects with Carl.

Around 7 p.m., after showering and changing into a new shorts set, Eugene walked the five blocks from his apartment in College Hill over to Ponce. The streets had a Saturday night bustle. People were lined up for blue crab and catfish at the carry-out seafood window on 22nd Street. Rap music thumped through the neighborhood.

Eugene caught up with his friends around Cano Court. They were hanging outside, sitting on the hood of a car with the stereo cranked. They mixed Tanqueray gin with Jack Daniel's wine coolers and drank from paper cups. He couldn't remember exactly how many drinks he had.

"It made my body numb out," Eugene told the detective.

He stayed with the group for a few hours, then left to walk around the projects. The smell of spent fireworks drifted in the air. On his journey around the neighborhood, Eugene stopped to talk with a couple of police officers he knew at the sector office. Some time after 11 p.m., he walked back to Cano Court and hooked up with his buddies.

He learned that one of his friends had shot at a parked car and threatened some neighbors with a gun. The police officer who helped capture the friend was right over there, talking with someone and taking notes near her police car. She was the same officer who shone a flashlight at the group earlier in the night and argued with one of the young men after he called her "bitch."

Eugene's 14-year-old cousin took a gun out of the waistband of his shorts. It was a crummy street pistol, a black Colt .25-caliber not worth more than $30 from a pawnshop. The boy handed it to Eugene in two pieces — the gun and a magazine.

"Stick this gun to the police lady's head," one of his friends dared.

"It was like, ah, all of 'em in that little crowd, just kept yelling at me, 'Go do it' or 'Go ahead,' " Eugene said.

He could see the magazine was empty. But he didn't check the chamber to see whether it contained a bullet.

"I was sat on the car, and when they started telling me, 'Do it,' I went up there and came up from behind. And . . . stuck it to her head," Eugene told the detective.

"Was your finger on the trigger?" the detective asked.

"Yeah," Eugene said.

"Did you pull the trigger?"

"Unh-uh," Eugene said, shaking his head no.

"When they hit my hand, I was like putting the gun, was like, lowering the gun, and they had hit . . . hit my hand . . . and I . . . I ran. And I threw it some . . . somewhere between her . . . her squad car and that first fence."

Eugene kept running. He circled around Ponce, not knowing where to go. For some reason, he came back. Hiding behind the corner of a building, he watched the chaos. Police cars screeched up, their blue and red lights making a pattern on the naked walls of the apartment buildings. He thought the whole police force was out there. He ran home.

The detective closed his notebook.

 

He stepped outside the office and told Carl of Eugene's confession. Carl walked down the hallway, in shock. His eyes filled with tears. The first person he saw was Gil Mercado, who was stepping off the elevator. They stood there, face to face, in the polished hallway outside the homicide division. Gil could see Carl had been crying.

"He did it," Carl said.

Hours later, Eugene was driven to the Hillsborough Regional Juvenile Detention Center near Tampa Stadium. It was nearly 4 a.m. He changed out of his street clothes into cotton scrubs. He spent the night in a cell by himself.

The next morning, two detectives arrived with an arrest warrant for Eugene. He was being charged as an adult — first-degree attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, punishable by life in prison. No bail was set.

Eugene was taken to the Hillsborough County Jail. He rode in the back seat, handcuffed. He wasn't sullen or profane or bored, like so many of the juveniles who'd grown used to seeing I-4 through the windows of a police cruiser. He was remorseful.

"I never meant to hurt that police lady," he said.

"It was a stupid thing to do," the detective said, turning his head toward Eugene. "Guns kill people."

The detective added something else. "She had a baby not too long ago."

Eugene was quiet for a moment.

"I never'd want that baby to grow up without a mama."

 

Two days after Eugene's arrest, a supporter of the African People's Socialist Party visited Carl's apartment in College Hill. The group, which believes there is an overzealous police presence in black neighborhoods, wanted to help Eugene. The man said Eugene was set up by the Tampa police. This was an example of the "cracker pigs framing up a brother," the man told Carl. His organization was willing to lend its support by publicly raising the issue of racism.

Carl sat in his hot apartment, thinking. Curtains on the front window blocked out the sun, but also any breeze that might find its way to College Hill in July. Two smudged couches jostled for space in the tiny living room. Outside, a sand pit of litter and the odd blade of grass.

Options and choices were luxuries that rarely came into Carl's life. And here was an offer that might help his son.

Carl refused.

"This isn't a black-and-white issue," he said.

But Carl had tossed and turned all night, trying to understand how Eugene could have done something so violent, so stupid and so ruinous to his future. Eugene didn't hate the police. He didn't hate white people. The irony was, Eugene had talked about being a police officer when he grew up.

Now he faced a life in prison.

Carl's stomach pitched when he thought about it.

"Prison," he told his son so many times, "ain't no place to be."

In 1983, Carl was arrested with an ounce of heroin and about half an ounce of cocaine. He spent six years in North Florida correctional institutions.

Later, after he was released, Carl didn't shield Eugene from the realities of prison life, about the migraines and loneliness and physical brutality. There wasn't a hint of bravado in his tone when he recounted to Eugene the time he had to throw another inmate through a plate glass window.

"I didn't want him making the same mistakes I made," Carl said.

And yet the cruel pattern was being repeated before his eyes.

After prison, Carl found work at the Christian Resource Center, a small ministry in East Tampa. He did janitorial jobs and coached the summer camp programs for kids. Though Carl was never the churchgoing type, he was grateful to the ministers for giving him a fresh start.

With Eugene in trouble, Carl turned to them again.

 

Two days after Eugene's arrest, sweat beaded across Carl's forehead as he hurried to the ministry and knocked on Pastor Herman Moten's door.

The pastor listened quietly as Carl explained the situation. He agreed with Carl's decision to turn down the African People's Socialist Party.

"We're sitting on a powder keg already," Moten said.

Carl didn't want the case getting lost in the shuffle of the heavy caseload of a public defender. He wasn't even sure Eugene was safe in jail. He envisioned Eugene dying a mysterious death in his cell.

The pastor picked up the phone and began calling around for the names of some good criminal lawyers in town.

The cheapest estimate they got from a lawyer was $17,000. One told them fees could go as high as $30,000. All of them wanted money up front.

Carl made less than $100 a week coaching summer camp and some extra on the side for cleaning carpets. Eugene earned more than his father as a lifeguard at a city pool. A fancy lawyer was out of the question.

Carl walked out of the pastor's office feeling desperate.

It was a feeling he thought he buried years ago.

Eugene was raised in the crowded comfort of his grandmother's apartment. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Mary Robinson. She moved into College Hill in 1952, not long after it was built. Miss Mary relied on the Scriptures and a green switch from a sapling to keep her eight children in line.

Her youngest daughter was Linda, a quiet child with light almond eyes. Linda got pregnant in the 10th grade by her steady boyfriend, a handsome baseball standout at Hillsborough High named Carl Williams.

Eugene was brought home from Tampa General in a plastic bassinet.

Carl and Linda never married, but Carl visited his son nearly every day, bringing little toys when he could.

After he graduated from high school, Carl worked as a security guard for Maas Brothers. Five years on the job passed and he began to see his future: an old man standing around a fancy department store watching other people buy things. Then, opportunity knocked.

"I saw an easy way to make money," he said.

Dealing drugs.

Carl didn't drink alcohol or use drugs. But the cash he could make in a day equaled a week's pay at Maas Brothers. He moved up fast, from street dealer to supplier. For once he was in a business where he could use his wits. The rewards rained down: TVs, VCRs, a motorcycle, two cars and a horse. He paid for a sister to go through accounting school.

In 1983, Carl was convicted on drug charges.

Carl would call home from prison and Eugene would hurry into the kitchen near the phone, trying to pick up bits of the conversation. Carl told stories of going to lockup because of fighting. "Don't tell Shorty," Carl would say, using the nickname he had for Eugene.

Eugene and his mother shared a tiny upstairs bedroom in Mary Robinson's apartment. Linda worked as a summer lifeguard at a city pool for several years, and she taught Eugene how to swim. But when Eugene was in the fifth grade, Linda began drifting away from the apartment for days at a time. Eugene's grandmother told him his mother was out of town on business.

It was a story Eugene would tell others long after he knew the truth.

At 60, a graying Mary Robinson found herself with a house full of kids. She was raising three other grandchildren besides Eugene. She made the boys iron their own clothes and rake the patch of dirt in front of the apartment. It was the only way she knew to encourage some order amid the growing chaos of the neighborhood. Gunshots were a part of the night's percussion. The police were always cutting through her yard with someone in handcuffs, their radios crackling under windows so often they become a part of dreams.

Carl was released from prison when Eugene was in the sixth grade. Not long after, Carl gained legal custody of Eugene.

Carl groped along, operating on instinct. "I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I didn't know how to cook. We ate up McDonald's."

Carl scrubbed floors and eventually was promoted to supervisor at a janitorial company. He wanted to start his own company and hoped to bring Eugene into the business when he was old enough. The company would be called C and E Janitorial. Though he lived in a squalid section of public housing, he used part of his paycheck to spoil Eugene at the Malibu racetrack on Friday nights, blowing $25 on video games.

"I wanted to be his father and his friend," Carl said.

Carl watched out for Eugene like a hawk. Eugene's friends — all of whom lived without fathers — called him a daddy's boy.

But Carl could not be at his son's side all the time.

 

One afternoon when Eugene was 13, he was walking through College Hill, wearing a new sweat suit and a pair of high-tops. Two older teenagers came up beside him. One stuck a gun to his head.

"Give it up," the gunman ordered.

Right there on the sidewalk, Eugene stripped out of his sweats and sneakers. Terrified and humiliated, he walked home in his T-shirt and socks. He cried when he saw Carl.

At that moment, Eugene learned what a gun could do. It gave power to the powerless.

"People think just because they got a gun they bad," he would later remark. "I guess so, 'cause you can't do nothin' to nobody who got a gun."

The next summer, while working as a summer custodian on a school campus, Eugene was caught showing a gun to some students. He told the campus police officer he had found it behind the portable classrooms. He was charged with carrying a concealed weapon. A juvenile court judge sentenced him to 30 hours of community service.

Carl brushed off the incident.

"You can get a gun out here like soda water," he said.

Eugene's years at Middleton Junior High were sprinkled with disappointments and signs of trouble. At times he seemed on the verge of detonating. But then he would mystify everyone with an almost childlike act of kindness. He brought his favorite janitor — an older woman who had been at Middleton for years — a giant bunch of balloons on the last day of school.

For the longest time he was a poor student who kept his head down in class, rarely removing his books from his black gym bag. He was suspended for being disruptive. School held nothing for him.

On the days he skipped, he would return to Middleton for his free lunch, and then leave again.

"Bump it," he'd say, "I'm gone."

He'd walk to a girlfriend's house — Eugene began having sex when he was 14, often ignoring Carl's advice to use condoms — or he'd hang out at a park with friends.

Carl was frequently at school in parent-teacher conferences. Because of poor grades and emotional immaturity, Eugene had to repeat eighth grade. He wasn't embarrassed about it. He knew kids who were 17 and still in junior high.

At Middleton, Eugene entered a special program for students with academic problems but who still showed promise. He was given the gift of Herman Broxton, a tall, gentle teacher everyone called "Coach" because he coached the Middleton track team.

Broxton helped Eugene set goals and urged him to think independently. He noticed a student who could still be saved. "There was a softness about him."

Right away, Broxton saw Eugene's magnetism for troublemakers. "He was torn between two sides," Broxton said, "to be with us or to be with them."

A month after entering Broxton's program, Eugene and a friend were caught trying to break into a Tampa pawnshop. The alarm sounded and they ran, but a K-9 unit helped capture both boys. Eugene gave the police a fake name.

He was charged with burglary, possession of burglary tools and opposing an officer without violence. Under juvenile guidelines, he was sentenced to community control, a form of probation. Carl grounded him for a month.

Just when Eugene's downward curve seemed unstoppable, he took control.

His attendance at school improved. He brought his Fs up to Cs. His eyes brightened. He talked of wanting to be a police officer. He won the Turn-Around Award for being the most improved student in Coach Broxton's class, and Carl was selected as the most involved parent.

Eugene and Broxton made a bet over who could outdress the other at the awards ceremony. They shook on it.

Broxton couldn't believe his eyes the next day when Eugene walked down the crowded corridors of Middleton in a white tuxedo with tails.

Carl had spent $64 on the tux rental, a big chunk out of his $119 paycheck that week from his janitorial work. But he had always told Eugene, "If you need anything, if you want anything, ask me, and we'll find a way."

Eugene rode with Coach Broxton to pick up the cake for the awards party. In the car, Eugene looked over at Broxton and said, "You know, Coach, this has been a pretty good year for me."

Broxton thought to himself: We got hold of him.

That summer, Broxton was watching the news when he heard about a 16-year-old from College Hill who was charged with trying to kill a police officer.

When he heard the name, he cried, "That's Eugene!"

 

Crickets and the sound of footsteps in the gravel hung in the August night. Lisa Bishop was walking around the back of an Ybor City warehouse, investigating a possible burglary.

Suddenly, the rat-a-tat of gunshots perforated the air. Lisa threw herself against the wall of the building.

She realized the gunshots were at least a block away.

Eugene had done this to her.

Technically, she was fine. A department psychologist had okayed her return to duty. As much as Lisa was trying to regain her confidence, she was shaken. She realized she had taken the increasing violence of her job for granted. Nobody messed with the blue shirt and shield, right?

Partially, she blamed herself. She heard through the grapevine that some officers criticized her for not reacting more quickly when she was pinned on the hood of the car. Others wondered how she could let her defenses down so far that someone could surprise her so easily. Besides, what was she doing alone in Ponce de Leon, which had the highest crime of any of Tampa's public housing projects?

Other officers wanted to know why she let Eugene run.

"Why didn't you just blow him away?" they asked.

Deep inside, she wondered if she had it in her to be a cop. She felt she had been tested and had failed.

To her disappointment, she was assigned a new zone to patrol, "to let things cool off," her sergeant told her. She missed the old neighborhoods, where people knew her. "Yo, Miss Bishop," they'd call out, waving.

She felt isolated and disconnected in her new zone, which was to the west of her old Oscar 8, and much quieter.

Five seconds had affected every part of Lisa's life — her job, her husband, her children, everything.

Morgan, her 7-year-old, came home distraught from summer camp one afternoon.

"Mommy," the little girl said, "somebody at camp told me somebody tried to kill you."

Lisa sat her daughter down. "You know Mommy's job," Lisa told her, trying to explain in simple terms what happened. She didn't mention the gun.

Even before the Eugene incident, Lisa and her husband rarely talked about her police work. In a way, she was relieved. It kept her home separate, almost sacred. It's not that Lisa was a Redbook wife who pulled baked hams from the oven; the closest she came to cooking was dialing Little Caesars.

Lisa met Mike when she was 27 and a single parent. A month after their wedding, Lisa was sworn in with the Tampa Police Department. "Instant family, instant cop," as Mike, an engineering technician with an environmental engineering firm, put it. He never liked her being a cop, but what was he going to do, make her choose?

As time passed, Mike noticed his wife toughening. He missed the old Lisa. She didn't need to lean on him as much as she used to. She seemed like a cop all the time. Once, when they both pulled their cars up to a gas station at night in a high-crime neighborhood, it was Lisa who automatically started scanning the parking lot and made sure her off-duty gun was within reach.

In Mike's eyes, Lisa was always working or tired or being paged by the department. Sometimes he wanted to hurl her beeper 10 miles. He resented her job — its pull on her, its danger. Everything. So they stopped talking about it.

But the Fourth of July forced Mike to confront all the reasons he disliked her job, after three years of trying to ignore them.

"I had been sweeping under the rug . . . the possibility of her going out and not coming home," he said.

Lisa and Mike tightened their grip on their daily chores, nearly tripping over the silence.

 

A vacant apartment on a U-shaped street in Ponce called the Horseshoe was used as a 24-hour crack house and shooting gallery. The Horseshoe was known as an easy place to score drugs, especially heroin. People would make their buys and then disappear inside Apartment 1712.

The floor was littered with syringes and homemade devices for smoking crack. Urine and feces were dried on the floor. In the upstairs bedroom, a sad halo of condoms and butane lighters surrounded a children's Masters of the Universe mattress. In a gesture of vanity, someone had propped a mirror at the foot of the soiled bed.

Even a little girl who chased her cat into the apartment knew enough not to touch the dirty needles.

"People get too old too quick out here," Officer Gil Mercado said.

Every time the X-ray squad tried closing a crack house, a new one emerged. Most of the officers knew the war on drugs was little more than a political tag line. But they did what they were paid to do.

A month after Eugene's arrest, on a sweltering night in August, Gil and another X-ray officer were staked out behind a building in College Hill, watching a knot of dealers hawk their small plastic bags of crack and grass.

Sometimes a chase broke out, and X-ray got lucky. The officers mostly caught buyers — skeletons who were too weak to run, outsiders who didn't know the lay of the land or white suburbanites who drove around the projects with ground-down teeth and saucer eyes.

A ring of sweat soaked through Gil's navy shirt, making an outline of his bulletproof vest. In their dark shirts, Gil and his partner were hard to spot. But somehow a petite woman with short braids saw them. Eyes locked, and she abruptly turned in the opposite direction. Gil's partner recognized her. He had once issued her a trespass warning, a tactic used by the police to keep people from coming into public housing to buy drugs.

"Ma'am, we need to speak with you," Gil called out.

The woman broke into a run, but Gil easily caught up with her. She was tomboyish, with short hair and a men's warmup jacket zipped over her frail body. Her eyes were tired. She held a rolled-up towel in one hand.

Inside, Gil found a homemade pipe with fresh cocaine residue. Most of the rockheads snapped off part of a car antenna and shoved a little steel wool inside for a filter.

Gil searched the woman and discovered a small plastic bag in her front pocket, containing one piece of rock cocaine. She was handcuffed, taken to the sector office and later driven to central booking.

Gil didn't recognize her. If he had, he would have remembered her as the quiet woman who sat next to her son at a table in the sector office the day after the Fourth of July.

Gil had just arrested Eugene's mother.

Although Eugene told everyone his mother had a job that took her out of town, the reality was that Linda Evans was a phantom in her son's life because of crack. She was arrested for the first time when Eugene was in fifth grade. Over the years, Linda racked up four more drug-related convictions. Always buying, never selling. Just enough to get high.

Criminal records list her alias as "Shorty," as if it were an elaborately plotted code name. Actually, Shorty was just the affectionate nickname Carl gave her in high school, the same name he later used for Eugene.

Barely 5 feet tall, Linda wasn't one for stylish clothes or keeping her hair in fashion, especially as she got older. She still had a taut, compact body from working all those summers as a lifeguard at the city pool. Her job applications revealed the same neat script as Eugene's.

Linda moved around. She sometimes stayed at Carl's apartment. Eugene once told Carl: "If you want to give me a present, you and Mama stay together."

But Carl could not explain that he had stopped loving Linda a long time ago. He just wanted to help her.

After she was arrested in August by the X-ray squad, Eugene was in one Hillsborough County jail, and his mother was in another.

 

A letter was waiting for Lisa in her box at the police station.

Dear Mrs. Bishop:

Mrs. Bishop you got to believe I never had thought of hurting you. I'm not that kind of person as much as to take someone's life. I would rather take my own life before I will take or try to take anyone else life.

Mrs. Bishop there is a guard down here each time I look at her she reminds me so much of you and it just brings tears to my eyes to know that I almost took your life even though I wasn't intent to hurt you.

Eugene's letter revealed a childish side of Eugene, one Lisa was surprised existed beneath such a cold act of calculated violence. But she would not show him any lenience.

"He's got to pay the piper," she said.

Shirley Williams, the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case, warned Lisa that going to trial was risky. Eugene had been indicted by a grand jury of first-degree attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. If they went to trial and a jury found him guilty of that charge, by law the judge would have to sentence him to a minimum of 25 years to life.

But if a jury returned a conviction on a lesser charge, a judge could sentence Eugene as a juvenile, to as little as probation.

The trial was a gamble. A plea bargain would at least assure Eugene of doing some jail time.

Lisa decided she would take her chances in court.

The prosecutor was pleased. She had a personal stake in this case.

Before going to law school, Williams was an agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. And she was engaged to marry a Tampa cop. As far as she was concerned, when Eugene held the gun to Lisa's head, he held it to the head of all police officers.

She wanted to see Eugene get the maximum time in prison. Twenty-five years to life.

They were going to trial.

 

Carl told Eugene he should write the judge just before he was sentenced, after his trial was over. But Eugene misunderstood and wrote the letter right away.

On the outside of the envelope addressed to Judge Diana Allen at the Hillsborough County Courthouse, Eugene drew a cuddly cat holding a sign that read, "Please Mrs. Allen. I begg of your forgiveness please."

Inside, the letter began:

How are you fine I hope, me not too good cause I really miss my people at home.

Deep inside my heart is hurting. Being a police officer was my dream and now look what I'm into. I didn't pull the trigger or try to kill someone that's not my way. I would never do something like that it was I had a bunch of low life peoples who wanted to pull me down to there level 'cause they saw I was doing better then they.

A few days later, Judge Allen received another letter.

Yes, it's me again. How are you fine I hope. Me I'm trying to be strong for my loveing people.

I will get on my knees and begg and plea for your forgiveness and Miss Bishop forgiveness and after this is over I'm going to take her out for dinner and Miss Allen if you give a chance I can get so close to Miss Bishop's heart until it will just be unbelievable.

Trouble is so easy to get in but so hard to get out of.

Eugene imagined a lady judge wearing black robes, a gavel nearby as she read his letters. He would not learn until later that Judge Allen did not always read mail from defendants awaiting trial. She read some of his letters, and forwarded the others to the court file, unopened.

In jail, Eugene suffered from headaches and sleeplessness. A county psychiatrist prescribed an antidepressant for him. Between the drugs and the junk food he bought from the jail canteen, his face took on a moonlike puffiness.

Each Friday, a movie was shown on a TV at the end of a hallway. The inmates viewed the screen by lifting up the food slot in their cell door and peering down the corridor. One of the movies Eugene watched was Coming to America, about a pampered African prince (Eddie Murphy) who ignores his father's wishes and journeys to New York City.

Because of good behavior, Eugene was moved to the juvenile pod at the Hillsborough County Jail, an octagonal-shaped, brightly colored space without bars. As opposed to the traditional linear jail, a pod helped cut down on fights, extortion and rape. Eugene was allowed the freedom to socialize with other inmates, all of them under 18.

"They sit around here talkin', "When I get out of here, I'm gonna steal me another car,' " Eugene said. "I'm like, "What's wrong with y'all, man, this ain't enough?' I guess they just want to be known."

Even though a public defender had been appointed for Eugene, Carl still was scrambling for ways to raise money for a private attorney. Fancy attorneys, Carl observed, always seemed to shave years off the sentences of white criminals who could afford the steep legal fees.

Back in the neighborhood, he put the word out. He needed money.

Some drug dealers from Carl's past started visiting him. They offered him a chance to get back in the business. They knew he was vulnerable. They heard he was considering doing some deals — short-term, large quantities — to raise money for his son's legal fees.

A sergeant with the Tampa Police Department who had known Carl for 15 years heard through the grapevine what Carl was considering. Jobless men with expensive cars were seen hanging around Carl's apartment.

The sergeant drove to College Hill to find Carl. He had a piece of advice for his old friend:

"Don't go back."

 

For one rare night in late October, police work was put aside. It was Halloween in Ponce.

The X-ray squad had transformed a boarded-up apartment building into a giant haunted house. Hand-carved jack-o'-lanterns were perched on the moss-covered roof. The officers arrived at dawn to shoo out the bums and sweep away the drug paraphernalia. Using plywood and 2-by-4s donated from the housing authority, the cops built coffins and elaborate graveyard scenes. For weeks, they planned their costumes, which they bought with their own money. Boogaloo, a small-time drug dealer and graffiti artist in the neighborhood, helped with sign-making.

In 1987, a few of the X-ray officers decided to hand out candy to kids one Halloween at the Ponce resident office. A planning committee of police and residents later formed, and the haunted house grew into an annual tradition.

For one night of the year, blue police uniforms were traded for a Freddy Krueger mask or an Elvira wig.

Officer Gil Mercado stood at the entrance of the haunted house, acting as doorman and daddy as nearly a thousand kids lined up, waiting their turn to enter the dark, humid corridors, where chain saws buzzed and cobwebs hung.

Gil's partner had her 9mm Glock slipped down into the waistband of her Levis as a 3-year-old boy named Pooh clung to her neck. Pooh's older sister and a friend screamed with delight as they stepped inside the faded green haunted house.

"Feel my heart," the little girl said, placing her friend's small hand over her chest.

From the doorway of the haunted house, Gil looked out across Rivera Court at the sea of children. Cockroaches crawled on them as they slept at night. The free lunch they ate at school was their only hot meal of the day.

But on Halloween, with their faces painted like witches and tigers, the burdens of their childhood were invisible.

Suddenly, pop-pop-pop.

The sound of gunshots rang out in a distant corner of Ponce. The officers outside the haunted house tensed and held perfectly still. The children, though, were oblivious to the familiar sounds of guns. What made them shriek were the cardboard bats that flew in the trees and the plastic fangs worn by middle-aged cops.

A boy ran up to Gil, scared by a goblin in the haunted house.

Gil lifted the child up in his arms. "You all right, my man?"

For hours, Gil chaperoned groups of children inside the haunted house. They clung to his legs and pulled at his shirt. They would not let go.

"Hold on to each other," he shouted, and together, they plunged into the darkness.

 

As Eugene's trial drew near, he wrote a letter to his attorney. It was written on yellow legal paper in his childish print:

People look at me and tell me you might as well give up 'cause I'm going to prison they tell me. I would rather not get on the stand but if I have to I'm prepared to do so. I'll be real shy and nervous but I'll do it.

Right now, you have my life in your hands and I'm depending on you.

Charles Scruggs, a quiet man who listened to classical music in his law office, was Eugene's court-appointed attorney. Eugene originally was assigned a public defender, but a conflict of interest arose (the public defender knew some of the witnesses involved in the case), and Scruggs was appointed by Hillsborough County.

There was something about the mild-mannered attorney that made Carl hopeful. Scruggs treated Carl with respect. He never drove to the projects — he considered the neighborhood dangerous — so Carl visited Scruggs' Hyde Park law office on several occasions, discussing his son's case among the antiques and Oriental rugs.

The attorney was realistic about Eugene's case. Police officers, he said, "were that thin line between us and anarchy," and Eugene had stuck a gun to one of their heads.

Scruggs was eager to negotiate a plea for Eugene, but Shirley Williams, the prosecutor, wouldn't consider it. They were going to trial. Scruggs' only hope was to convince a jury that an eighth-grader had done a horribly stupid act while intoxicated, but attempted murder it was not.

He wrote a reply to Eugene's letter.

Your letters keep saying things like "My life is in your hands." Be assured that I'll do my best, but remember, I'm not a magician.

 

The day before the trial, Mary Robinson sat in the sixth row of her beloved St. John Progressive M.B. Church. She was a plain figure in a flock of fancy hats. Years ago, when she worked the all-night weekend shift as a nurse's aide at Tampa General Hospital, she'd come home at dawn and get her children dressed for Sunday school. Church always revived her.

"Sometimes when you go to church, you just want to go right back," she said.

When Eugene was a boy, Mary would iron her grandson's Sunday clothes and take him to St. John's. She'd take his hand and lead him into her favorite pew, settling on the velvet cushions in the cool lilac air. When the collection plate came by, she'd dig into her purse and give Eugene some coins to drop in. That boy had a smile.

As he got older, Eugene stopped going to church, but Mary never missed a Sunday.

Today, she needed something extra. She prayed hard. She gently rocked her body along with the mighty gospel choir dressed in their brilliant red robes. It was one of her favorite hymns.

Come where the drops of mercy are bright

Shine all around us, by day and by night.

Eugene swore — to detectives, his lawyer, his family, to Lisa Bishop — that he was not the sort of person who would ever intentionally harm someone.

But Shirley Williams knew another Eugene.

She worked at home over the weekend, preparing for the trial. Inside one of the many file folders spread out on the kitchen table was her trump card.

A Tampa police officer had given Williams a crumpled note. It was written weeks before the Lisa Bishop incident and left on the windshield of a car owned by a woman in College Hill. The woman and Eugene often argued.

Don't think I have forgotten about you punk no bitch! I am going to put that .45 pistol on your ass. I'll come to your houes.

The note was signed with the name Eugene.

Williams had sent the note to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab for handwriting analysis.

Bingo. It was a match.

 

PART III: Betrayals

 

Technically, it was a crime without injury. Not even a scratch.

But on the first day of trial, on a crisp morning in December, Judge Diana Allen looked out at a crowded courtroom lined with news cameras. This case had become a flash point for public outrage, symbolizing the absolute derailment of law and order.

Eugene Williams sat at the defendant's table, oblivious to outrage and symbolism. New loafers from Payless pinched his feet. The dark turtleneck he wore was creased from being folded in a store package. His seventh-grade cousin had taken a bus to the mall and picked out the new clothes. Eugene's attorney, Charles Scruggs, was relieved when he saw the outfit; a suit wouldn't have seemed right on a 16-year-old accused of first-degree attempted murder of a law enforcement officer.

On the eve of the trial, Scruggs visited Eugene in jail. Eugene was relaxed and grinning. Scruggs reminded him he faced a possible 25 years in prison, "day-for-day, minimum mandatory." He told Eugene the jury would convict him if he appeared lighthearted. Scruggs left the jail puzzled. Here was a kid who wrote childish letters with animals drawn on the envelopes, but had the ability to hold a gun to a police officer's head. Eugene seemed completely disconnected from his act of violence. He thought if he wrote Lisa Bishop a letter of apology, everything would be fine. Eugene might be 16 years old, Scruggs thought, but emotionally, he was a child.

On the first day of his trial, Eugene wore a mask of somber concern.

"Is the state ready?" the judge asked, looking ashen and stern behind her oak bench.

"Yes, your honor."

"Is the defense ready?"

"Yes, judge."

 

On the Fourth of July 1992, Officer Lisa Bishop was answering a call in the Ponce de Leon housing project when Eugene surprised her from behind and put a gun to her head. A bystander, William Merrell, lunged for the gun, and Eugene fled. A day later, he confessed. Those facts were undisputed.

But the state charged Eugene with attempted murder, so it would have to prove he intended to kill Lisa.

Eugene said he never meant to harm her.

The main piece of state evidence was a scrappy Colt .25 semiautomatic pistol. The other crucial piece of evidence was intangible. It was the sound of a click. Lisa heard a click as the gun was held to her head.

Shirley Williams, the prosecutor, walked to the clerk's desk and picked up a small clear bag. She held it by the corner so the jury could see.

"A lot of your testimony is going to depend on this little gun," Williams said, passing it before the jury. "Every possible source of the click noise was in preparation for firing this gun."

Eugene didn't aim the gun to Lisa's arm, Williams said. He held it to her head, the most vulnerable part of the body. He took an executioner's stance. His purpose was murder.

"What would have happened if Mr. Merrell had not grabbed the gun from the defendant's hand?" the prosecutor asked.

She looked at each of the jurors — four white women, one white man and one black man. Williams made sure she had their attention, drawing them in with her pause.

"Maybe it's sad that a 16-year-old did something like this. But it's even sadder that Lisa Bishop could have died out there."

Eugene's attorney removed his tortoise-shell reading glasses and walked over to the podium in front of the jury. Scruggs wasn't one for theatrics. He was a country gentleman who listened to Mozart and liked to hunt quail. His opening argument was straightforward. He praised Lisa for her cool reaction. He wasn't about to lessen the heinousness of what Eugene did.

"It was a stupid and dangerous thing to do," Scruggs said, as he faced the jurors. "But it was not attempted murder. They have charged him with pulling the trigger of the gun. You will find no proof."

 

Eugene's father, Carl, sat just behind his son and laid a hand on his shoulder during a break. "This is the hard part now," Carl said, forcing a smile.

Months of exhaustion hung on Carl. His beard was ragged. His sweatshirt was wrinkled. There was no way he could have known that the trial was not the hard part.

In the end, the trial would revive his faith in courtrooms and judges. It was his son who would let him down.

Carl knew none of these things as Judge Allen called for the first witness. He leaned back in the hard wooden bench in courtroom 11 as the prosecutor rose from her chair.

"The state calls Officer Lisa Bishop."

The door in the back of the courtroom swung open and a small figure in a blue police uniform passed through. Her French braid was threaded with a red ribbon. She had a gutsy walk as made her way to the witness stand. Sliding into the chair seat next to the judge, Lisa shivered slightly. She was nervous and cold. She looked over to Eugene.

It was the first time she had ever seen his face.

He didn't frighten her. She turned away and tried to focus on the prosecutor's questions, giving a measured recital of her night in Ponce.

Lisa pointed to a diagram on a portable blackboard and explained precisely where the attack had occurred. There was Ponce, shrunken and neatly sketched in chalk, revealing none of its bleakness for the jurors who looked on sleepily.

Lisa sounded official when she spoke, (she said "23-hundred hours" instead of 11 p.m), but her steely demeanor cracked when the prosecutor asked her to recount what happened.

"I remember hearing feet," Lisa said, haltingly. "Someone had bent me over. I remember feeling a body against me. A hard object was pressed to the back of my head near my ear. I felt that if I moved the gun would go off.

"What happened next?"

"I heard a click."

Her body shivered, as if an electrical current had been sent up her spine. Lisa rubbed her bare arms.

"What did you think the click was from?" the prosecutor asked.

"The sound of a trigger pull."

No further questions.

 

Eugene's attorney stood up from his table. From her rigid perch in the witness box, Lisa watched him with suspicion as he approached. She had never testified at a trial before, but she knew this was the part when the defense attorney would pick over her testimony as if it were a carcass, as if it were her fault someone put a gun to her head. Her green eyes lost all their softness as he stood in front of her. She reared her chin back slightly, in defiant preparation.

But Scruggs surprised her.

He didn't waste time casting shadows on her testimony of the attack. He was interested in the noise that night in Ponce, when the air was filled with gunshots and fireworks, and the tiny silver sound of a click could be easily imagined.

The click that could put Eugene away for 25 years.

"The sound was right there next to your ear?" Scruggs asked.

"Yes, sir," Lisa answered, with a clipped certainty.

"How would you characterize the click?"

"I can hear it now," she said. "It echoes."

Careful not to badger, Scruggs pressed further, asking Lisa to explain the sound. Did it sound like the single action of a trigger pull, or like a slide being pulled back and a round being racked into the chamber?

Lisa didn't hesitate. She made certain she was being understood.

"It sounded like the single action of a trigger pull."

As Lisa left the stand, she walked down the carpeted aisle, passing her lieutenant, her stepmother and her partner. She scanned the crowd for Michael, her husband. Lately, the tension between them had grown, much of it because of her job. The Eugene incident had just made matters worse between them. As she and Mike were scrambling to get the kids ready the morning of the trial, Lisa asked him whether he planned on watching her testify.

"I'll try," he told her.

As she walked through the courtroom, she didn't see him.

 

Lisa heard a click. Where did it come from?

Two weapons experts testified that the click could have been caused a variety of ways:

A safety mechanism can click as it is being switched on or off. (The gun Eugene used had two safeties.)

A louder slapping can be heard as the slide is pulled back and a bullet is being loaded into the chamber.

No expert witness could say for sure where the click came from.

There also was the question of how the bullet got into the chamber of the gun.

Eugene told detectives he thought the gun was unloaded. When his friend handed him the gun, it was in two pieces, the magazine and the gun. The magazine was empty, Eugene said, but he didn't check the chamber.

The first person to touch the gun after it was dropped on the sidewalk was a Tampa police sergeant. Although crime analysts prefer evidence to be left undisturbed, the sergeant thought the gun was unsafe on a public sidewalk. He picked it up, and upon discovering a bullet in the chamber, ejected the bullet from the gun.

So the main piece of evidence had been disturbed at the crime scene.

Williams, the prosecutor, believed the testimony from the firearms experts proved Eugene had prepared the gun for firing. When the gun was found on the sidewalk, both safeties were off, and a bullet was in the chamber.

But Scruggs suggested that the bullet could have been loaded into the chamber before Eugene received the gun. And the clicking noise Lisa heard could have been confused with the Fourth of July fireworks.

There were so many variables. The dry testimony led one juror to doze.

 

Aside from all the mechanical possibilities of the gun, there also was the human element added to the mystery. At what point did William Merrell interrupt Eugene's mission?

Merrell testified he heard a click just before Eugene put the gun to Lisa's head. Scruggs was polite with Merrell, but he was persistent with his questions about sound.

"Was there a lot of noise that night?" Scruggs asked Merrell.

"Yeah."

"Would you describe that night in the projects as loud, confusing?"

Merrell shrugged and said he guessed so.

Merrell looked uncomfortable sitting in the witness stand. For months, he had tried to put the Fourth of July behind him. Merrell never did ask the police about reward money for saving Lisa's life. As much as he needed money to move his family out of Ponce, he wasn't the type to ask for help.

He had seen Lisa a few times since the incident. She considered him her guardian angel. Once, she showed up at his apartment with two other police units. She extended her hand, and then withdrew it, breaking into a smile. "Hell, gimme a hug," she said, embracing him.

The whole thing made Merrell feel queasy. Some of the young agitators who hung out near his corner eyed him with suspicion for helping the police. And now he was testifying for the state. To make matters worse, Merrell lived next door to one of Eugene's friends, a 22-year-old with an arrest record that included strong-arm robbery.

When Merrell finished his testimony, he quietly stepped down from the witness stand and caught a city bus back to his job.

 

During the noon recess, Eugene's family sat on the stone benches just outside the courtroom. Mary Robinson, Eugene's grandmother, took a Goody's powder for her headache. Even with her hearing aid turned up, most of the testimony came across as a dull roar.

One of Eugene's aunts was walking down the terrazzo hallway of the courthouse when she noticed Officer Bishop talking with one of the state's witnesses.

As the aunt got closer, she saw Lisa handing money to the witness.

She turned and hurried back to find Carl.

"Are you sure?" Carl asked, incredulous. "You sure it was Miss Bishop?"

Carl looked around for Scruggs.

Not only had Lisa handed money to a witness, but a sergeant who also was a witness in the trial gave money to William Merrell. In the middle of a crowded hallway of the courthouse, two police officers had given cash to two witnesses.

Judge Allen's tone was arctic as she ordered a bailiff to bring Lisa back to the courtroom. The jury was still out of the room.

"I'll remind you you're still under oath, Miss Bishop," the judge said, as Lisa stepped up to the witness stand.

She asked if Lisa gave cash to a witness during the lunch break.

"Yes, ma'am," Lisa said.

"What on earth were you doing?" the judge asked, irritated.

"I gave him $5 to take a bus or a cab home," Lisa said, looking shaken. "Nothing more, nothing less."

"The appearance of what you did is totally improper," Judge Allen scolded.

Then the judge glanced at the empty jury box and said, to no one in particular, "it just occurred to me someone from the jury might have seen the exchange."

Lisa told the judge that another witness, a sergeant with Tampa Police department, was the only person she thought observed the transaction.

He, too, gave money to a witness.

Judge Allen cocked her head in disbelief. She ordered the bailiff to bring the sergeant into the courtroom.

"I gave him bus fare to get back to work," he explained, apologetically.

"It's not your place to be paying state witnesses," the judge chided.

She ordered the jury back in. The two men and four women (all of them white but one) filed back into the jury box. Carl leaned forward. He knew a mistrial could be called. Scruggs and Eugene watched the jury take their seats. Scruggs whispered in Eugene's ear. Williams sat at the prosecutor's table, her face completely without expression.

"Did any of you notice anything concerning the witnesses during the lunch break?" Judge Allen asked the jury.

The jurors looked puzzled for an instant, and then each of them shook their head no.

"Are you satisfied, Mr. Scruggs?" the judge asked.

"Yes, your honor," he answered.

Outside the courtroom, Lisa was embarrassed and angry. I don't need to bribe a witness, she thought. Someone had held a gun to my head, remember?

Shirley Williams had her trump card. It was the threatening note Eugene left on someone's windshield a few weeks before his arrest in July. A state crime analyst confirmed it was written by Eugene. Since the note had no direct bearing on the Lisa Bishop case, Williams could introduce it into evidence only if Eugene took the stand and denied he would ever intentionally try to hurt another person.

The note, Williams believed, revealed an angry, violent young man.

She drew in a breath as the last witness of the trial was called by the defense.

 

The TV cameras in the back of the courtroom followed Eugene's short walk to the witness stand. Carl watched from the second row. The only sound was a bailiff clipping his nails. Eugene sat down, blinking nervously and struggling to stretch his top lip over his protruding teeth. A stylish side part had been razored in by the jail barber, as requested. He had gained nearly 25 pounds since his arrest, and the extra weight did not match his childish face.

Scruggs spoke to Eugene in a fatherly tone. "Now, speak to the jury, Eugene," he said.

Eugene gave a fitful explanation of what happened on the Fourth of July.

He testified he had seven or eight drinks throughout the night. He said he was high when one of his 14-year-old friends gave him a gun and motioned toward the police officer, daring him to put it to her head.

"I didn't say nothin' to her," Eugene said, his eyes focused on some imaginary spot on the back wall of the courtroom. "I stuck the gun to her head and she froze."

"Why did you do that?" Scruggs asked, sounding truly curious.

"I was just wantin' to feel a part of the little crew I was with," he said, shrugging and blinking, "trying to be seen, trying to be the big man."

"You never squeezed the trigger?"

"No."

"And you never engaged the slide back?"

"No, unh-uh."

"What did you hope to accomplish with doing that?"

Eugene paused, and shook his head hopelessly. "Nothin' really, just trying to be seen, be a big man."

Scruggs turned back toward the defense table. He hadn't even made it there when the prosecutor shot out of her seat to begin cross-examination. Shirley Williams was still on her way up when she asked her first question.

"How many people had a gun that night?" she asked, sharply.

Eugene named three names, none his.

"Everybody had a gun but you?" Williams asked, her tone disbelieving.

"That's right."

"Do you recall telling Detective McNamara you had three to four drinks that night?"

"No," he said, his eyebrows arched in surprise, "not really. No, ma'am."

"When you had the gun to the back of Lisa's head, where was your finger?" Williams asked.

"On the trigger."

"You never pulled the trigger?"

"No."

"What did you think was going to happen when Officer Bishop got up from the hood of the car?" Williams baited. "You didn't think she might empty 17 bullets into you? Did you ever think that one of you was going to get shot that night?"

"I really didn't think about it," Eugene answered, softly.

"I have no more questions," Williams snapped, after five minutes of cross-examination.

She returned to her table, tossing her pen down, looking both disgusted and resolute. She never got the chance to introduce Eugene's threatening note into evidence.

The jury would never know about it.

 

Lisa arrived at the courthouse early the next day. A corona of TV camera lights circled her. In uniform, she looked like a docudrama cop, with her perfect green eyes and shiny gun at her hip.

But the stress of the last several months had taken its toll. Dark crescents hung under her eyes. She seemed almost frail as she filed into the courtroom with her father on one side and her lieutenant on the other.

Eugene's family took their seats. Carl sat off by himself, his elbows propped on his knees. Fatigue had settled on him.

Closing arguments were brief.

It took the jury three hours to reach a verdict.

Eugene was led from a holding cell in the courthouse back into the courtroom. He sat next to Scruggs.

The side door of the courtroom opened and Judge Allen swept through. She smoothed out her black robe and took her seat behind the bench. The low chatter in the courtroom evaporated.

"You have a verdict?" the judge asked the jury foreman.

Lisa's father wrapped his arm around her shoulders.

In silence, the foreman handed a slip of paper to the clerk, who handed it up to the judge. Eugene and his attorney stood up. The judge looked at the thin strip of paper. Eugene watched her hand it back down to the clerk.

"The jury finds the defendant guilty of a lesser charge of aggravated battery of a law enforcement officer with a firearm."

Eugene, smiling a lopsided grin, turned to his father. Carl cast his arms around Eugene's shoulders before a bailiff led him away. He would be returned to jail until his sentencing, five weeks away.

Lisa swept up her purse and keys from the wooden bench where she was sitting and rushed from the courtroom.

 

On Dec. 23, five days after Eugene's trial ended, nearly every law enforcement officer in Tampa wanted to rip the black robe from the honorable Judge Diana Allen.

She released Eugene from jail.

The hearing that morning was brief. Scruggs asked the judge whether Eugene could await his sentencing at home instead of in jail. Carl stood next to Eugene, with one hand on his son's shoulder and the other holding a certificate he received for his volunteer coaching.

"I do have pretty good control over him," Carl said, looking up at Judge Allen, who nodded as she listened.

"Do you have anything to say?" she asked Eugene.

"If you give me a chance I will do better," he offered, softly.

For months, Judge Allen had watched Carl in her courtroom. He rarely missed a hearing. The judge believed that parental involvement was imperative to juvenile rehabilitation, and Carl's presence was a promising sign that Eugene could turn his life around.

And yet the judge knew she was taking a risk if she let Eugene out of jail. "We take risks everyday," she would later say.

Judge Allen looked at Eugene and Carl, and then began scrawling on a piece of paper. "I'll grant the motion," she said.

Carl slapped Eugene's back and smiled brilliantly. Judge Allen glanced up at Eugene.

"You can't leave the house unless you're with this man right here," she said, pointing to Carl, who was still grinning. "I'll also allow him to leave the house with his mother."

Judge Allen did not know Eugene's mother was in a North Florida prison on a drug conviction.

Shirley Williams was stunned at the judge's decision. The state had vigorously opposed Eugene's release. She picked up the phone. Someone had to tell Lisa.

"This is a slap in my face," Lisa told Williams.

Lisa felt sick. A 16-year-old put a gun to her head, and then he's allowed to go home for Christmas. What kind of message does this send? Is it open season on cops?

The evening news reports suggested a would-be cop killer was let out of jail for the holidays. "Eugene Williams trades his jail cell for the comforts of home," one reporter announced.

In her College Hill apartment, Mary Robinson hummed as she washed her greens and started her casseroles for Christmas.

"The boy's comin' home," she said, her voice dancing.

Eugene spent Christmas day in Mary's cramped apartment, visiting with relatives. There was a Christmas tree and plenty of good food. Carl bought Eugene new clothes and a Minnesota Vikings cap.

While in jail, Eugene had learned his girlfriend from Middleton Junior High was pregnant with his child. The girl had written him letters, and provided him with great comfort during the months he awaited his trial.

But when Eugene was released, he wanted to forget about the girl and the baby. "I don't need to be botherin' with that right now," he said, smiling in that sheepish way of his.

Carl later heard from the girl's mother that she had lost the baby. "Something about falling off a ladder," Carl said.

After months of working only sporadically, Carl was trying to get his janitorial service going. Keeping an eye on Eugene 24 hours a day as the judge ordered was difficult, unless he brought Eugene with him on jobs. So he had a talk with Eugene.

"I can't sit here and watch you all the time," Carl said. "You can go to the game room, you can go to your grandmama's. But I'm gonna feel bad, just like a fool, standing in front of the judge, if you mess up."

Carl gave Eugene his freedom.

 

As far as Officer Gil Mercado of the X-ray squad could tell, 1993 did not bring peace or good tidings or prosperity around the projects.

Lately, Gil was wondering how much longer he could take the job. The faces were beginning to look the same. He was tired of baby car thieves taunting him they'd be out of juvenile detention within 21 days and back on the street.

One 14-year-old who bailed out of a stolen Oldsmobile was cheered on like a gladiator as he ran through the streets of Ponce, with the entire X-ray squad on his heels. Gil finally tackled the kid, who had stolen enough cars to fill up a GM dealership. He didn't care that he was arrested; he was embarrassed he got caught in front of the crowd.

"You lucky I had a cramp," he told an officer.

He sat in the holding cell at the sector office, as Gil filled out the arrest report. "He's 14," Gil chided, not looking up. "Baby thinks he's a man."

"Man, I didn't hurt nobody," said the boy, who was the father of two children. "How long I gotta stay here? Man, I'm tellin' the judge. Y'all f---heads try to hammer me for grand theft auto. Go get someone for murder."

Gil had grown weary. That bone-deep weariness.

On the night of Jan. 11, with two hours left on its shift, the X-ray squad was doing surveillance on a house in Ponce when the sound of screeching tires jolted them from their stakeout positions.

Two officers on bicycles saw it first: two juveniles driving a shiny red Chrysler LeBaron convertible, fishtailing down a street. The car came to a stop at the edge of a vacant field. Just as the officers were within 50 yards of the convertible, it screeched out. A bystander had shouted "Nine," a warning that the police were near.

The officers followed the car for less than a block before it slowed and both occupants jumped out.

The car began rolling backward at the officers. The passenger got away, but the driver was not fast enough. He was caught and handcuffed.

Inside the convertible, the shell of the steering column was on the floor, cracked open when the car was stolen. The stereo was gone.

Gil arrived at the scene to take the suspect back to the sector office. Gil took out his notepad.

"What's your name," Gil asked, beginning a line of questioning he could recite in his sleep.

"You know me," the boy said. "I'm Eugene Williams."

Carl reached the sector office in four minutes. It was nearly 1 a.m. Cpl. Chuck Blount was waiting for him outside, smoking a cigarette under the giant oak tree. The sky was a dark bowl of stars. Chuck felt nothing but dread as Carl walked toward him.

Quietly, Chuck told Carl that Eugene had been caught driving a stolen car. There was an odd beat of silence, and then Carl's voice filled the night.

"Lord, have mercy," he cried, "I can't take this no more."

Chuck led him inside the sector office. Eugene was sitting in the holding cell, wearing handcuffs and the new Vikings cap Carl had bought him.

"Gene, you promised me," Carl screamed, his grief giving way to anger, "you promised me. You know you're going to prison?"

A string of excuses began to tumble from Eugene. They all began with "Daddy." But they could not penetrate Carl. He just stood there under the cold fluorescent lights and stared at his son.

When Eugene was led out of the sector office at nearly 3 a.m., a waiting TV camera filmed him walking toward a police car that would take him to jail.

"Eugene, can you tell us what happened?" the reporter asked, holding a microphone toward Eugene, who shielded himself with his ball cap. "I thought you were supposed to turn over a new leaf."

Carl was off to the side, watching. Suddenly, he spun around. He cut across the darkened playground behind the sector office. His strides grew longer and faster, taking him further away from Eugene. He unclipped his beeper from his pocket and smashed it to the ground, shattering pieces across the concrete basketball court.

By the time Eugene was in the back seat of the police car, Carl was a small figure at the opposite end of the dewy field.

He got in his car and drove. By the time he let off the gas, he was 80 miles down the interstate. The sign said Orlando.

In an interview with a detective after his arrest, Eugene claimed that on the night of Jan. 11, he walked from his apartment in College Hill to Ponce, and then to Robles Park Village, a public housing project about two miles away. He ran into his friend Ricky, who was driving the red convertible.

Eugene and Ricky always seemed to find trouble with magnetic ease. They were together when Eugene was arrested for trying to burglarize the pawnshop in eighth grade.

Carl knew Eugene was friends with Ricky, and he knew Ricky had been in jail for auto theft before. But Carl dismissed the crimes as if they were foolish capers. "He's not a bad kid, really," Carl said.

True enough, in high-crime neighborhoods such as Ponce and College Hill, stealing cars ranked rather low on the scale of illegal activity.

But Carl didn't know the extent of Ricky's criminal activity.

Ricky, by his own estimation, had been in nearly 40 stolen cars.

On Jan. 11, Eugene said he was walking along when he saw Ricky in Robles Park, driving the red convertible. Eugene climbed in and asked to drive. The boys were cruising through Ponce when the police saw them. Eugene denied shifting the car into reverse and trying to hit the officers.

Eugene was charged with grand theft auto. For causing the car to roll backward, he faced a more familiar charge — aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

He was returned to jail where he waited for his sentencing in the Lisa Bishop case.

 

Eugene's cold act of violence touched every part of her life. She began to carry a small .22 pistol in her cowboy boot when she and Mike went out at night. If Morgan, her daughter, rode her bike to the convenience store at the end of the block, Lisa would telephone the store two minutes later to make sure Morgan arrived safely.

While she was on patrol one night, a group of teen-agers who recognized her had threatened her: "Next time, that gun won't go click."

Like many crime victims, Lisa blamed herself for not reacting differently during her assault. When Eugene had her on the hood of the car, she froze. A friend told her about the Green Berets in Vietnam, about how they were trained to react instantly. Even if they were sound asleep, they would wake up swinging or shooting if disturbed. Lisa didn't know whether the story was true, but the Green Berets and their quick reactions haunted her.

When she tried to imagine Eugene's face, she couldn't. Gradually, he had lost his status as a person.

But Lisa wasn't ready for what she learned on the morning of Eugene's sentencing Jan. 29.

She arrived in Judge Allen's courtroom and sat down next to Shirley Williams at the prosecutor's table. As she took off her coat and laid it across the back of a chair, Williams handed her something. It was a copy of Eugene's presentencing investigation report, a confidential document about Eugene's past.

Lisa couldn't believe what she was reading. She flipped back to the beginning of the form to see whether she had the right report. The one she was reading said the defendant had been arrested five times and charged with eight felony offenses.

Eugene's juvenile record showed that his first brush with the law was in 1989, when he was charged with assault. He broke another boy's teeth in a fight. In 1991, he was charged with carrying a concealed firearm. In the winter of 1992, he tried to burglarize a pawnshop. In July, he attacked Lisa. And then the grand theft auto charge.

Eugene's journey to this courtroom began long before the Fourth of July. He was no newcomer to crime, as Lisa believed. He wasn't a lost kid who caved in to peer pressure one mistaken night.

Lisa glared at Eugene, who stood less than five feet from her in the courtroom. She swallowed hard to fight back her anger and tears.

You son of a bitch, she thought. What would you have done if Mr. Merrell had not reached out for that gun?

Lisa tried to focus on Williams, the prosecutor, who had a peacefulness Lisa envied. Lisa did not want to come unglued. She was furious. She kept staring at Eugene.

You have taken up so much of my time, she thought.

Eugene stood in front of the judge, with Carl on one side of him and Charles Scruggs on the other. He was dressed in jail clothes. Lisa rose from her chair and moved next to Williams. They all stood there, inches apart, waiting.

So much hung in the balance. Judge Allen could sentence Eugene as a juvenile or as an adult. His punishment could be as lenient as community control, or as harsh as seven years in prison.

Carl knew that Eugene had embarrassed the judge. Although she knew her decision would be sharply criticized by the city's police officers, she let Eugene go home for Christmas. And Carl figured the judge must be angry with him. Her one condition to Eugene's release was that Carl be with his son at all times.

Judge Allen quietly read the presentencing investigation report, compiled by a probation officer.

The report contained a family's well-tended garden of secrets.

Judge Allen placed the papers aside and spoke.

"No one asked (Eugene) at trial — and I won't ask him now — what he intended to do if Mr. Merrell had not pulled the gun away from Miss Bishop's head."

Judge Allen noted that it was clear Eugene's sense of judgment was underdeveloped. She wondered aloud whether he might suffer from a disorder such as fetal alcohol syndrome.

"Did his mother drink when she was carrying the child?" she asked, looking at Carl and sounding truly curious.

"Some," Carl answered, startled by the question.

The judge asked to hear from Eugene.

"I know I let y'all down," he told the judge, who regarded him with detachment as he softly spoke. "I know you stuck your neck out and let me go home for the Christmas holidays. I didn't go lookin' for trouble, it just happened. I'm real sorry for what happened."

The judge looked at Lisa. "Officer Bishop?"

"I would ask the court he be sentenced to the maximum you're allowed," Lisa said, her voice laced with anger. "I wonder how sorry he would be and what kind of apologies he could offer my family were I not here."

"This whole offense has torn my world upside down," she said, "personally and professionally. In my personal life, I have become very cold. It's created a disturbance in my home life."

Shirley Williams began to speak, but Lisa stepped forward.

"Your honor," she said, lifting her chin and clasping her hands. "Is he sorry for what he did or is he sorry that he got caught?"

There was a drawn-out silence as Judge Allen looked down at her papers. Eugene cast his eyes downward.

"I'm declining to sentence him as a youthful offender," the judge said, finally.

Strike one for Eugene. He would not be going to a boot camp for juvenile offenders, as Scruggs had proposed. He would be going to prison. Carl's shoulders sagged.

"For the aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer," the judge continued, "statute 775.08236, I'll sentence him to five years in a Florida state prison, with three years minimum mandatory for the firearm and because the crime involved a law enforcement officer, those minimums to be sentenced concurrently. That five years will be followed by 10 years probation, followed by $455 in court costs, psychiatric evaluation and 250 hours of community service work."

The bottom line was three years. Eugene was going to prison for at least three years. Carl stood there, not moving, holding the diploma his son earned for attending school classes in jail. He brought it to show the judge. She never asked to see it.

The lawyers snapped their briefcases shut, the clerk pounded documents with a rubber stamp and the judge looked down to sign paperwork. Carl hung there. Even after everything, he clutched that diploma as stubbornly as he clutched his belief in Eugene.

Eugene was taken from Carl's side by a bailiff who guided him to the inkpad, where each finger was rolled and printed, one at a time, on a sheet of fresh white paper. Handcuffs were snapped around his wrists.

The sound was an unmistakable click.

 

EPILOGUE

On April 16, 1993, Eugene appeared in court on his car theft charges. He pleaded no contest to grand theft auto and aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer. Judge Allen sentenced him to a 5 1/2 years in prison, to run concurrently with his previous sentence. He is currently at the Hillsborough County Jail, waiting to be taken to the Reception and Medical Center in Lake Butler, where incoming Florida inmates are processed before being sent to their designated prison.

There is little trace of the boy arrested last July. Eugene's voice has deepened, he has grown nearly three inches and gained 47 pounds. He recently wrote Judge Allen a letter asking about the possibility of his record being expunged when he is released from prison. He still believes he can be a police officer some day.

Carl also gets a letter once a week.

Dad:

I just don't know how to thank you for all you have done for me. I know you're probably saying stay out of trouble but after this experience believe me I will stay out of trouble 'cause I'm going to try and find me a job to occupied by time 'cause you can believe one way or the other I'm going to get that 300 ZX car unless you have an objection about it.

Carl Williams is trying to leave public housing and rent an apartment in north Tampa. His janitorial business is growing, and he still coaches baseball in the evenings near the projects.

Linda Evans, Eugene's mother, was released from a north Florida prison on April 16, the same day Eugene was sentenced for auto theft in Hillsborough County. She returned to Tampa.

William Merrell still lives in Ponce de Leon with his girlfriend and three children.

Officer Gil Mercado hopes to transfer off the X-ray squad this year and onto another specialized squad. A letter of commendation was placed in Gil's personnel file following Eugene's speedy arrest. "Gil Mercado is going to be a future leader of the TPD," his supervisor noted in his most recent evaluation.

Officer Lisa Bishop has been transferred from her beloved midnight shift to days. Though she objected, her supervisors felt she needed to work in a less stressful atmosphere. Her new schedule has at least allowed her more time with her family. The tensions between she and Michael have eased.

Lisa rarely thinks of Eugene, although she refuses to leave her back exposed, even while having dinner at a restaurant. Her back is always against a wall.

 

About The Story

Times reporter Anne V. Hull began following this case in August 1992, three weeks after an attack on a Tampa police officer. The series is based on hundreds of hours of interviews. Most of the quotes and anecdotes that appear in the series are from the reporter's notebook; others are based on the recollections of those interviewed.

Anne V. Hull, 31, joined the Times as a feature writer in 1985. She is a 1979 graduate of Northeast High School in St. Petersburg. She attended Florida State University.

Metal to bone: This time, a gun is held to an officer's head — by a teen — but doesn't go off 11/22/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 22, 2013 6:06pm]

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