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Cpl. Michael Roberts receives hero's farewell from 4,000

LUTZ — They stood shoulder to shoulder in the heat, wearing the colors of the law — navy, green, white, black — each aware that this could be one of them.

Thousands of uniformed officers blanketed the grounds of St. Timothy Catholic Church in silence Tuesday, waiting half an hour for the last roll call, the one that signaled a final farewell to Cpl. Mike Roberts, father, husband, son and Tampa police officer.

Roberts, 38, died in the line of duty Aug. 19, shot down by a man he stopped to question, a man concealing four guns as he pushed a grocery cart down Nebraska Avenue in the dark, according to police.

As Roberts' wife and his mother stood by, officers from dozens of agencies watched with flat lips and curled fingers at their hips, tears rolling down stern faces.

Cindy Roberts faced her husband's flag-draped coffin as pallbearers loaded it into a navy blue hearse. She hugged a second folded flag to her chest and leaned her head on the shoulder of an officer beside her.

The only sounds were the buzz of helicopters overhead, the whimper of a police dog in the distance and the clicking of a professional photographer's camera on a nearby roof.

A police dispatcher's grainy voice broke the silence, calling out over the radio for Roberts by his sign.

"Lincoln 61," the voice echoed under the cloudy sky.

Silence.

"Lincoln 61," the voice repeated.

Silence again.

"Cpl. Mike Roberts, please respond."

Nothing.

A tall Tampa officer standing a few feet from the hearse blinked as he held his salute. Sweat dripped from the rim of his hat onto the back of his collar. Tears fell from his eyes.

• • •

Roberts used to admonish his wife of six years never to tell him "goodbye" when he left for work.

"Only, 'See you in the morning,' " Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue told those gathered in the sanctuary.

The couple wed in May 2003. They met while he was pulling extra duty in the bank where she worked. He called her a few days later and, according to Hogue, they have "been together ever since."

A Clearwater native, Roberts was raised in St. Johns, Newfoundland, but returned to Tampa after college with $300 in his pocket and hope for success. He joined the Police Department in 1998 and also served in the U.S. Army and Air Force reserves.

Everyone says his 3-year-old son, Adam, was the joy of his life.

Roberts wanted him to grow up to be a K-9 handler like his dad. So, he and fellow K-9 Officer Troy Neal brought the dogs to Adam's prekindergarten class for a demonstration.

"A demo," Hogue said, "that Adam still talks about today."

• • •

Before the funeral, Detective J.T. Nixon and his wife held hands as they neared the church. Her face appeared drawn and her eyes sad, but she stopped to let her husband speak.

Nixon's whole family knows he and Roberts followed parallel paths in career and in life.

They were cadets together and became fast friends.

The first time Roberts introduced Nixon to Cindy at a friend's wedding, Nixon knew they were a match.

"She was serious enough to handle him and also fun," Nixon said. "He was very much in love with her."

Nixon and Roberts' sons were born two months apart.

In July, both men got promotions and celebrated together with their families at the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City.

As he waited for the funeral service to start, Nixon removed his hat when he talked about what he wants Adam to know about his dad. He used the word "hero," but he stopped himself.

"I don't really have the words."

Nixon hopes never to be the reason people gather like this.

Next to the childhood loss of his grandfather, Roberts' death is the hardest he said he has ever been dealt.

• • •

The service began at 10:30 a.m. with Ave Maria. The scent of candles filled the sanctuary. A small photograph of Adam rested on a table above another of his father.

At the center of the room, two officers stood watch over a casket draped with a white cloth.

Father David DeJulio knew Roberts from his home church, St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa. He recalled how Roberts used to direct traffic before Mass and slip into the back of the church after all the cars were in place.

"It's bad enough that this special man was killed," DeJulio said. "It's worse that he was a cop. Killing a cop fractures the very foundation on which our society is built and rips apart the fabric from which our society is made. Killing a cop doesn't just break the law, it demonstrates the epitome of contempt for the God that created the world and provided the laws on which it is governed."

• • •

Kim Cragg brought her daughters, Katy, 11, and Kirsten, 8, to hand out bottled water to help keep the crowd of 4,000 hydrated.

"This hit close to home," she said. Her voice cracked and her eyes welled as she explained.

Cragg's husband is Officer Steven Cragg. Like Roberts, he has 11 years with the Tampa police.

Steven Cragg knew Roberts, worked beside him, liked him.

The two were together in 2005, when they rescued a suicidal man with a rope around his neck who intended to jump off a bridge.

Along with a third officer, they received the Police Department's Life Saving Award for their actions.

Since Roberts' death, the family has talked about the "what ifs" of daddy's work.

As Kim Cragg spoke, a uniformed officer approached.

"Hey, Daddy," Katy said, her father's police cap perched atop her curly-haired head.

• • •

Before the hearse pulled away just after 12:30 p.m., an officer led Cindy Roberts to a white stretch limo.

Adam climbed inside first and sounded excited to be in the back. She climbed in next, lowered the dark-tinted window and looked at all the faces of men and women still standing at attention.

She blew a kiss to one of the officers who assisted her. Then she bowed her head, pressed a tissue to her face and let the window roll back up.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Thanks from wife

Cindy Roberts, wife of Cpl. Mike Roberts, issued this statement before her husband's funeral Tuesday:

Last Wednesday night I lost my best friend, confidant, husband and the father of our son. The pain is made more difficult since his death was caused by such an intentional, senseless, and violent act.

I would like to thank the media for giving us time to grieve as we prepare for Mike's final resting place. The city and the residents of Tampa have been exceptionally generous to us. Many thanks are due to Police chief Stephen Hogue and Mayor Pam Iorio. They have been very supportive and have grieved along with me.

This will be a long journey for us and I welcome your continued support and prayers as we continue to work through our grief. We would like to request that you continue to respect our privacy.

Cpl. Michael Roberts receives hero's farewell from 4,000 08/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 1:46pm]

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