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10 years of reckoning | A special report

Former Pasco County deputy recalls chasing killer

The cop killer raced his white pickup north on Interstate 75, fleeing the carnage he'd created but unafraid to inflict more.

A Pasco County Sheriff's deputy jumped into the chase.

Flying up the highway at 100 miles per hour, the killer turned and leveled an angry, scary, teeth-clenched stare out his back window, then raised his right fist and shot a bird at his pursuer.

The deputy shot one back.

"That was my introduction," recalled Jim Campbell, "to Hank Earl Carr."

• • •

Their encounter took place 10 years ago tomorrow.

The events of May 19, 1998, left an indelible mark on law enforcement throughout Tampa Bay. Three law enforcement officers were killed that day, along with a young boy. In the aftermath, police policies would change and weapons would be upgraded. Officers everywhere were reminded of their constant vulnerability.

Campbell, who found himself in the thick of the rampage, says he wasn't personally changed by that extraordinary day. He was already a veteran cop by then, and he knew what to do.

"I was glad it was me chasing him and not a rookie deputy," Campbell said, "because he would have been right up on his bumper and he would have been killed."

• • •

On May 18, the day before Carr's treachery, Campbell had stopped for breakfast at the Denny's at State Road 54 and I-75. Walking in, he saw a familiar face. It was Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James "Brad" Crooks. Campbell and Crooks had worked several accident scenes together. Crooks was a 23-year-old rookie.

The next day, both would work the interstate, and both would encounter Hank Earl Carr.

• • •

Crooks was first.

He spotted Carr farther south on the interstate and pulled him over on the SR 54 exit ramp. Carr bolted out of the pickup and shot Crooks dead.

Minutes later, unaware of what had happened to Crooks, Campbell picked up the chase.

The pickup barrelled on, passing cars in the median and on the shoulder.

"I saw him fire a couple shots into civilian cars," Campbell said.

• • •

Campbell is retired now. He left the Sheriff's Office in 2006 with 31 years in and an engraved gold watch.

He and his wife, Zaida, live in a tidy waterfront house in Land O'Lakes. He takes his motor home to NASCAR races and is a longtime Bucs season ticket holder.

Campbell, 61, is still a quintessential cop, a smoker with an unsentimental speaking style who dresses impeccably, even in retirement.

His memory of May 19, 1998, is vivid but imperfect. He remembered Carr driving a Chevy S-10. It was a Ford. Campbell thought the first call went out about 1:15. It was nearly 3 p.m.

He doesn't get emotional recalling his close encounter. He saw worse as an Army Ranger in Vietnam.

"It never entered my mind to stop — and I wasn't trying to be a hero or anything like that," he said. "It was just the training that I had that I was chasing a wanton killer."

• • •

Campbell stayed at a tight but safe distance from the truck's bumper. But then Carr turned and fired a bullet that tore through Campbell's windshield, past his right ear and into the safety cage behind him.

"I knew what it would take to do that," Campbell said.

He had thought Carr was armed with a handgun. But a handgun couldn't cause that kind of damage to his car.

In fact, Carr had an SKS assault rifle. That morning, authorities believe, he used it to kill his girlfriend's son, 4-year-old Joey Bennett. Two Tampa detectives investigating that crime confiscated the weapon and put it in their trunk as they took Carr into custody.

They never noticed the handcuff key around his neck. Sitting in the back of the detectives' car, Carr used the key to get loose, reached over the seat and grabbed one officer's gun.

Then he killed Randy Bell and Ricky Childers, veteran homicide detectives whom Campbell had known and respected.

• • •

On most days, Campbell would stop by the station at the beginning of his shift and check out an assault rifle to have in the car for extra fire power. But first thing on the morning of May 19, he was told to catch up on a backlog of calls and didn't get a chance.

After Carr shot at him, Campbell got on the radio and alerted other officers about Carr's firepower.

"It could cook through our cars like Swiss cheese," he remembers saying.

Carr kept shooting. Campbell had to keep a good distance between them and could not get off a clean shot in return. Then a fragment from one of Carr's bullets caught Campbell in the neck. He pulled over briefly, realized he wasn't badly hurt and pressed on.

Dozens of law enforcement vehicles had joined the pursuit. A sharpshooter tried to take out Carr from an overpass. Hernando deputies sprayed the truck with bullets.

Carr never let up, even shooting at a police helicopter.

With a bullet in his buttock and driving with a flat tire, Carr coasted into a gas station just across the Pasco-Hernando county line. Campbell pulled off behind him and unloaded five or six rounds from his shotgun at the pickup.

But it was empty. Carr had run into the convenience store and taken a clerk hostage. Campbell stayed at the scene for about 45 minutes until his body suddenly shut down.

"I had lost enough blood and my adrenaline was crashing," he said. He woke up in an ambulance, with the siege at the convenience store still on.

He watched from an emergency room TV as a smoky flash from SWAT team explosives lifted the roof off the convenience store. He and his wife both remember how the monitors beeped loudly as Campbell's heart rate slowed when the news came: Carr had shot himself dead.

• • •

Campbell cried when he learned of Crooks' death. He attended Bell and Childers' massive, public funeral in Tampa with his arm, embedded with broken glass from the chase, in a sling.

He took about a week off from work, then returned to a desk job overseeing deputies' off-duty assignments. He hated it.

For a time he worked in the agriculture unit, then went back into road patrol before retiring.

Campbell received the sheriff's medal of valor for his work on May 19, 1998. And that's exactly how he regards his actions: work.

"I wasn't going to stop chasing him," he said. "That's what I was paid to do, and I was going to earn my money that day."

So why did he reciprocate Carr's hand gesture?

"I really don't know," Campbell said. "Just to show him I was as pissed off as he was."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.

Former Pasco County deputy recalls chasing killer 05/17/08 [Last modified: Sunday, May 25, 2008 9:44am]
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