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Inmate accused of trying to grab deputy's gun in Hillsborough court

TAMPA — Even before he tried to grab her gun, the deputy was wary of the young man sitting at the end of the inmate bench.

And among the handful of tall, burly deputies working Judge Martha Cook's courtroom Tuesday morning, 5-foot-2 Master Sgt. Tracy Wallace probably stood out to the inmate, too.

Wallace could feel Robert Lewis Bridges' eyes on her as she moved about the courtroom. She could see him studying her black service belt, glancing at the Taser and the handcuffs. She could sense him staring at her pistol.

That was all it took for Wallace's 18 years of experience to come through when Bridges lunged at her, grappling for her weapon with both hands. She blocked his grasp, dashing away as her fellow deputies stepped in.

Wallace's actions, which played out in less than five seconds, were the subject of adulation from her superiors, who paraded her before a throng of news cameras Wednesday afternoon in front of the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse.

"I believe a disaster was avoided," Wallace said. "I have no idea what his intent was, but I have to assume the worst."

Wallace has been with the Hills­borough Sheriff's Office since 1995. She has served most of her tenure as a jail deputy, but was moved to court duty about two weeks ago, sheriff's officials said.

She was one of three deputies named in an internal review of the case of a jail inmate, Allen Hicks, who spent more than 36 hours in jail without receiving treatment for a fatal stroke. The review noted that Wallace erred in allowing Hicks into the jail without a medical assessment. Though none of the deputies were disciplined, all three were moved out of booking.

Bridges, 24, has been locked up since February on multiple charges, including burglary, grand theft and obstructing an officer. Records show he has a lengthy criminal history and did a short stint in prison in 2009.

Clad in leg shackles, handcuffs and a waist chain, Bridges watched the deputies as he waited for his name to be called for a hearing in his case. Just after 9 a.m., he made the grab, swiftly lunging forward as Wallace passed before him, on her way to a different courtroom.

In the corner of her eye, she saw him coming. She twisted to her right to block his grasp and pulled away before the gun left its holster. The other deputies tackled Bridges and carted him away to a holding cell.

"We do a lot of training as far as weapons retention," said Col. Ken Davis, who oversees the sheriff's jail operations. "… It could not have gone better. His intention was to get her weapon. His intentions beyond that, I don't know."

Spectators, attorneys and court personnel seemed unaware of the incident as it unfolded. None seemed to know about the danger that had been averted.

Bridges now faces charges of battery on a law enforcement officer and depriving an officer of means of protection.

As for Wallace, a surge of adrenaline kept her heart pounding for about an hour afterward, she said. But she is satisfied that she was adequately prepared for such an occupational hazard.

"When it happens for real, the training just kicks in," Wallace said. "We always have to be ready for someone to try this sort of thing."

Times staff writer Peter Jamison contributed to this report.

Inmate accused of trying to grab deputy's gun in Hillsborough court 07/31/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 1, 2013 12:34am]

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