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Legal limbo in 1981 Tampa officer's killing may be near end

TAMPA — Carlos Bello is a convicted killer, but he is not condemned.

In 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the death sentence he drew for slaying a Tampa police officer during an undercover drug bust. At least 11 times since then, judges have sided with the mental health professionals who said Bello was not competent to participate in further legal proceedings.

Those rulings have kept Bello, 55, locked up in state hospitals rather than prison or on death row, despite differing opinions about the severity of his mental illness.

The legal limbo could be nearing an end.

After the latest round of evaluations, two experts agree that Bello is now competent to be sentenced. A judge will hear their testimony Friday before making a final determination.

Tired of what one called the "vicious circle," prosecutors and members of the local law enforcement community are cautiously optimistic.

"They're just extremely painful moments to relive," said Hills­borough State Attorney Mark Ober, who was friends with the fallen officer. "If there is in fact closure with the criminal justice system, we need to proceed and get it over with."

• • •

Bello's mental health complicated his prosecution from the start.

The Cuban refugee with no more than a middle school education had been in the United States about a year before he directed a 50-pound marijuana deal on July 24, 1981, at an East Tampa home. When police officers moved in to make arrests, Bello fired shots from a snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver.

He pierced the heart of narcotics Detective Gerald A. Rauft, killing the 38-year-old father of two. Bello also hit Detective Robert Ulriksen in the elbow, stomach and arm. Ulriksen, who survived and identified Bello as the gunman, did not want to comment for this story.

It took six years for Bello to be deemed fit to stand trial.

After his arrest, he tried to commit suicide by jumping from the second floor of the county jail, court records show. He was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He would get stabilized on drugs at the mental hospitals, then deteriorate when he returned to the county jails and stopped taking his medication.

Walter Lopez, Bello's attorney at the time, said the medication merely masked a serious illness.

"He was crazy as a bedbug," Lopez said. "You could not communicate with the man. He didn't know what was happening."

Bello was convicted and sentenced to the electric chair in 1987, only to have his sentence overturned two years later. Lopez and mental health experts convinced a judge that Bello was not competent to be resentenced.

Judges found Bello incompetent in 1990, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, and 2005. In August 2001, Dr. Arturo Gonzalez wrote a letter to the court saying that after examining Bello a dozen times since 1981, he doubted the defendant's competency would ever be restored, court records show.

Not everyone believed that Bello's impairment was as severe as he made it out to be. As the years passed, his treatment teams at two state mental hospitals suspected that he was exaggerating the symptoms of his mental illness to avoid punishment.

Reports from the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee in 2004 make a case for malingering.

Psychologists noted that Bello was a bit of a loner but engaged in animated conversations during meals. He administered his own insulin, changed his bed linens and kept himself clean. He didn't mumble or talk or yell to himself, according to the reports.

His behavior changed when he knew the hospital staff was watching, or when talk turned to his crime. He voiced delusions, saying that the CIA was trying to read his mind and steal his formula to cure AIDS. He claimed he invented the first computer and the first DVD. He said he didn't cut his long, scraggly beard because that was where his power lay.

"Mr. Bello has the capacity to manifest appropriate courtroom behavior, if he chooses to do so," wrote senior psychologist Alan Steed. "His efforts to avoid returning to court are believed to be within his control and not related to symptoms of a mental illness."

Prosecutor Darrell Dirks, who helped try Bello in the 1980s and remains on the case, said he has long had the sense that the state hospital professionals were frustrated when local evaluators didn't share their opinion. He said the varying findings may have resulted from the length of time spent with the defendant, criteria applied in the evaluations and the fact that Bello often stopped taking his medication once he returned to jail.

Unlike the mental hospitals, county jail officials can't force inmates to take medicines against their will, said Dr. Beth Weaver, medical director for the Hillsborough jails.

• • •

The two doctors who have found Bello competent to proceed did not wish to comment before Friday's hearing. Their reports are not public record, so it is not yet clear why they reached their conclusions.

The Public Defender's Office, which now represents Bello, will argue that he remains incompetent, said attorney Chuck Traina.

As things stand, the State Attorney's Office still plans to seek the death penalty. Such a punishment, however, will likely be met with skepticism on appeal. Florida Supreme Court justices have tended to give heightened scrutiny to death sentences imposed on severely mentally ill defendants, one expert said.

"Courts are also likely to look even more carefully at death sentences in cases, like this one, where the crime occurred so long ago," said Richard J. Bonnie, director of the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Bello was not available for an interview. He is under special supervision at the jail because he has been refusing to eat most meals, Weaver said. He thinks jail officials are poisoning the food.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Legal limbo in 1981 Tampa officer's killing may be near end 09/20/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 22, 2008 5:42pm]

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