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Tampa could pay $30,000 to settle suit over fatal police shooting of Ybor club worker

TAMPA — The city of Tampa could pay $30,000 to settle a lawsuit filed over the death of an Ybor City nightclub employee shot and killed by a police officer in 2008.

The proposed settlement, scheduled to be voted on Thursday by the City Council, would end a federal lawsuit over the death of Roobik "Tony" Vartanian.

Vartanian, 35, was working as a security manager for Club Prana on Sept. 6, 2008, when he was shot by Tampa police Officer Richard Harrell.

That night, Vartanian had been involved in an altercation with two patrons inside the club, at 1619 E Seventh Ave.

The men left but told Vartanian that they knew where he lived — in a home behind the club — and started walking in that direction, according to the suit filed by his widow, Jennifer Vartanian.

To defend his home and protect his 3-year-old daughter, Vartanian got a .40-caliber Taurus pistol from another employee at the bar and started to pursue the men, according to court pleadings.

That's when Harrell and his partner rolled up in an unmarked van. They were in plainclothes, but with vests that had "Police" and a gold emblem of a police badge on the front, and had their badges on lanyards around their necks, police said.

In a deposition, Harrell said Vartanian was pursuing the men from the club, carrying a gun and yelling a racial slur, and that he was going to kill one of them.

Harrell said he got out of the van and shouted for Vartanian to drop his gun.

"I yelled twice," he said. "I said, 'Police, drop your weapon. Police, drop your weapon.' "

Instead, he said, Vartanian turned, started moving quickly in his direction and swung his arm around to point the gun directly at him. In fear for his life, Harrell said he fired his Glock 19 once, hitting Vartanian in the left part of his chest.

But Jennifer Vartanian's suit contended that the officers didn't identify themselves, and quoted witnesses to that effect.

Recia Henry, an attendant at a parking lot behind Club Prana, and her husband, Joshua Henry, who was visiting her that night, said in sworn statements that they were 30 to 60 feet from the shooting with a clear view.

The couple said Vartanian never yelled a threat or slur, never raised his gun or pointed it at the officers. They said they did not recognize the officers as police and did not hear them identify themselves or tell Vartanian to put down his weapon.

"I just heard the gunshot," Recia Henry told a detective on the night of the shooting. "No 'Freeze!' No nothing."

An internal affairs investigation concluded that Harrell used deadly force to protect himself and did not violate policy. Police interviewed nine people who said they saw some or all of the shooting, and while the versions of events varied widely, most heard Harrell yell some kind of command, according to the internal affairs report.

Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober concluded the shooting was justified.

Before the city and attorneys for Jennifer Vartanian reached the proposed settlement, her suit had been scheduled to go to trial this month in U.S. District Court.

The city denies it or Harrell has any liability in Vartanian's death, but its attorneys recommend the council approve the settlement. Continuing to defend the suit could cost more than the city will pay to resolve it, they said.

Of the $30,000 settlement, $15,150 will cover attorneys' fees and costs. The balance will be held for Vartanian's daughter, Isabella, now 6.

Harrell, who still works for the Tampa Police Department, said in his deposition that the incident changed his life.

"Mentally and physically, it is devastating to take a life," he said. "It is not what I signed up in this job to do."

After he learned that Vartanian, like him, had a young daughter, he thought it "could've been me not coming home to her, and she wouldn't have a father."

"I still dream about this little girl, because I think about his family and what he went through," Harrell said. "And not that I did anything wrong, because I know I did not, but it is something that I hope to never have to do again. Because whether you are right or wrong, it sticks with you. It is a hard thing to do."

Tampa could pay $30,000 to settle suit over fatal police shooting of Ybor club worker 12/12/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 7:19am]
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