Three decades after St. Petersburg officer's slaying the ache remains

ST. PETERSBURG

Officer Mike Garafalo was hoisting the flag outside his office early Monday when he heard the convoy of police cruisers screaming by.

It had been more than 30 years since St. Petersburg had lost a police officer in the line of duty.

But somehow, Garafalo knew.

Garafalo, a school resource officer at Pinellas Technical Education Centers, jumped into his car and joined the convoy on its way to the scene of a shoot-out.

As he drove, that dark summer day came flashing back: Aug. 18, 1980 — the day a drug dealer shot Detective Herbert Ray Sullivan.

And Garafalo lost his best friend.

When Garafalo joined the city police force in 1975, Herb was his mentor. When he moved into Bear Creek Apartments, Herb became his next-door neighbor. The young officers watched Bucs games together, barbecued with their wives, hung out at the pool. And on the streets of St. Petersburg, they watched each other's backs.

"Herb was funny, brave, a great athlete, the best cop," said Garafalo, 58. "He was family."

Every August for 30 years, Garafalo has put flowers on Herb's grave. Every Christmas, he gets a card from Herb's widow. He keeps his friend's framed photo from the Police Department in a chest, keeps a black flag striped by a thin blue line folded with it. A tribute to the fallen.

And every morning, when he leaves for work, he takes Herb with him. "Herbert R. Sullivan," says a pewter band encircling his right wrist. The band is inscribed with the letters "E.O.W." — for end of watch — and the date he died.

In three decades, Garafalo has worn through six of those bracelets. But time hasn't eroded the ache. Beneath his bulletproof vest, there is still a hole where his buddy should be.

By the time Garafalo got to the crime scene Monday, more than 100 officers were already there. He didn't know two had been killed. Didn't know names.

But he knew what he needed to do.

• • •

Officer Mike Garafalo was sleeping that afternoon in 1980 when he heard a neighbor pounding on his apartment door. He was 28 then, assigned to night patrol, so in the daytime he slept. Herb had been promoted to the vice squad.

"Herb's dead! Herb's dead!" Garafalo's neighbor kept screaming. He didn't believe her. How could Herb be dead?

He was such a thorough cop, so careful. One of the few officers with a college degree. He was only 30, married to a beautiful blond nurse. They had just bought their first house. Herb had spent that morning ripping weeds from their new yard.

How could he be dead?

Garafalo called the police station. Yes, the chief confirmed, Herb was gone.

About 1 p.m. that day, Herb had been across town in a pickup parked outside a motel. He wore curly long hair and a droopy mustache, part of his cover. He had spent weeks setting up this drug buy.

Herb was in the driver's seat, waiting for his partner, who was in the motel inspecting the cocaine. On the passenger seat next to Herb was a briefcase. Inside: $65,000.

One of the drug dealers, a 23-year-old cook named Sammie Lee Mathis, walked up to the driver's side of the pickup and shot Herb in the chest. Twice.

Then he took the briefcase of cash, ran to his car and drove to the Tampa airport. He gave the money to William G. Haake, 32, who owned a moped shop — and had set up the whole deal. Both men are now doing life in prison.

• • •

"I got to help carry Herb's casket," Garafalo said, sniffling. He remembers lowering his friend into the yawning hole, having to let go. "I was trying to watch out for his wife," Garafalo said. "She was so young. She shouldn't have had to go through this. No one should."

Herb's widow, June, stayed in St. Petersburg for three years, then moved to Pennsylvania — where she eventually remarried and raised five children. She is 58 now, and still has Herb's badge and "a whole trunk of his stuff." Plus hundreds of condolence cards and letters from strangers.

By phone from Pennsylvania, she said her heart went out to the new young widows whose police officer husbands were killed Monday. She plans to call them and tell them, "I'm truly sorry for your family's loss."

She said she doesn't have any advice. "On how to cope, or heal, or anything. Everyone's situation is different. It's just, it won't ever go away."

Even after all these years, she said, "I don't feel comfortable talking about Herb, or what happened. It's too much to bring up again. Too much to go through."

• • •

Garafalo left the shootout scene Monday believing one officer had been killed. He was watching the TV outside his office that afternoon when he heard two were dead. Then he saw the photos. And had to sit down.

He had trained Tom Baitinger on the streets. Taught Jeff Yaslowitz at SWAT school.

Though Garafalo had left the force years earlier, retired, then become a school resource officer, he knew these guys. They were friends.

"It just hit me so hard," he said. "Brought me back to Herb, then back to their families, all they'll have to go through."

At home that night, Garafalo opened the chest where he keeps Herb's photo. He pulled it out, touched his friend's faded face. Then he unfolded the black flag with the thin blue line.

Even before he knew who was killed, he knew what he had to do.

He hoisted that flag outside his office the next morning, beside the Stars and Stripes. Both at half-staff. "Thirty years is a long time for a city to go without losing a police officer," he said. "But not nearly long enough."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researchers Natalie Watson and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Three decades after St. Petersburg officer's slaying the ache remains 01/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 6:02pm]

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