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Immigrant gets two life sentences in shooting of St. Petersburg police detective

LARGO — Velislav Matzov could have run for it. Or he could have put his hands up and just given up.

He did neither. Instead, Matzov aimed his .22-caliber pistol at an undercover St. Petersburg police detective and pulled the trigger five times.

It was a decision that nearly cost the officer his life.

Instead, it cost Matzov the rest of his life.

For his crimes in a 2008 robbery-turned-shootout, the 20-year-old Bulgarian immigrant was sentenced Monday to spend the rest of his life in prison.

"You have forfeited your right to live in society," Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley told the defendant as she handed down two concurrent life sentences at the Pinellas County Criminal Justice Center.

In August, Matzov was convicted on charges of attempted murder and robbery. On April 30, 2008, he and members of the Haines Road Cru street gang robbed a Blockbuster Video store, authorities say, unaware they were under police surveillance.

When an undercover detective tried to stop the masked suspects, authorities say, one fled and one opened fire. Both Matzov and the officer were hit.

The minimum sentence Matzov faced was 25 years for each charge. At Monday's sentencing, defense attorney Debora Moss and the defendant's family and friends pleaded for leniency, for a sentence that would allow Matzov to restart his life after prison.

"There is life at age 50, I would say," Moss said. "I think everyone here who has immigrated … will tell you they do believe in second chances.

"He should be given the opportunity to live a life again after he is punished."

The wounded detective and his wife attended the sentencing, but did not speak. They didn't need to.

Courtroom 3 was packed with fellow officers. They told the judge how the injured detective — whose name is being withheld because he works undercover — came within minutes of dying in the hospital that night.

They talked about the last-minute surgery that saved his life, the infections and follow-up surgeries, and the long rehabilitation before he returned to the Crime Analysis and Surveillance Enforcement unit in July.

It's the same St. Petersburg police undercover team that he was on when he was wounded.

"It's a terrible thing to see your friend and co-worker bleeding and lying on the ground with a bullet in his gut," a CASE unit detective, whose name is being withheld because he works undercover, told the judge. "I think that without a miracle that night, without the doctors and nurses, I think that this would be a murder trial."

Other detectives described Matzov's affiliation with the Haines Road Cru, a criminal gang involved in drugs deals, robberies and gunplay before that 2008 shootout. Even after his arrest, they said, Matzov continued to associate with other members through jailhouse letters.

Two others await sentencing in the 2008 shooting. Matzov himself awaits trial on unrelated charges including robbery and trafficking in hydrocodone.

"There is life after 50," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John. "But Mr. Matzov doesn't deserve it. He nearly took away a husband, he nearly took away a father, and he nearly took away an outstanding member of this community because he didn't want to get caught."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Immigrant gets two life sentences in shooting of St. Petersburg police detective 10/12/09 [Last modified: Monday, October 12, 2009 10:26pm]
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