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Fallen St. Petersburg officers remembered by colleagues

ST. PETERSBURG — Their friends and colleagues called them "Yaz" and "Bait."

Yaz was a tenacious athlete known for his quiet nature with a passion for the Boston Red Sox. Bait was a jovial cheesehead and Green Bay Packers fan from Wisconsin with a penchant for hugging co-workers having a bad day.

To the general public, they are better known as Jeffrey Yaslowitz, 39, and Thomas Baitinger, 48, the first St. Petersburg police officers killed in the line of duty in three decades. They will be memorialized during a viewing today, followed by a funeral Friday at First Baptist Church, 1900 Gandy Blvd., in St. Petersburg. More than 15,000 people are expected to attend, including Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

But on Wednesday, during a more intimate news conference, six friends and colleagues of the fallen officers shared their memories and the pain they felt in the aftermath of Monday's shooting. One by one, the street-hardened police veterans did something they don't normally do on the job: reveal their emotions.

"I hope I can keep it together," said Maj. Michael Kovacsev before he described Yaslowitz as a religious man dedicated to his family, which included his wife, Lorraine, and three children, Caleb, 12; Haylie, 8; and Calen, 5.

The two were teammates on the department's flag football team, which traveled the state to compete. In a 2008 game in Manatee County, Yaslowitz broke his ankle. He was upset because in six weeks he was to try out for the department's prestigious 12-member specialized canine unit. That Yaslowitz still passed the physical tryout, despite his bum ankle, is a testament to his tenacity, Kovacsev said.

Kovacsev started to cry as he recalled the moment on Monday when he learned his friend was gone.

Maj. Cheryl Oliver, who supervised Baitinger, recalled the sergeant as a supportive co-worker for six years before she was promoted to supervise him. They'd often talk about their religious faith.

Sgt. Daniel Barber recalled Baitinger as a reassuring presence on stressful days.

"He'd smile, extend an arm and say, 'C'mon, give me a hug,' " said Barber, who said he expects Baitinger to be rooting from up above for the Packers in this year's Super Bowl.

Detective George Lofton recalled Baitinger as a good sport who made everyone feel better.

"He would light up the room," Lofton said.

An undercover officer, whose identity wasn't revealed, stepped to the microphone wearing shades and a hooded sweatshirt. Baitinger, who is survived by his wife, Paige, "died a hero," he said.

The undercover officer said he knew Yaslowitz from their days on the SWAT team. One thing he found out about Yaz was how competitive he was. He always wanted to be first. And that's what he was on Monday, he said, when he volunteered to head to 28th Avenue S and help a task force serve a warrant on Hydra Lacy, who was hiding in the attic. Of course he would volunteer to go up first and inspect the attic, the officer said, that was his nature.

"He wanted to be first, and I miss him," he said, his voice shaking. "My friend Yaz went to some place that I haven't been to yet. And he's waiting for me."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Fallen St. Petersburg officers remembered by colleagues 01/26/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 28, 2011 11:23am]
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