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More than 10,000 gather to mourn fallen St. Petersburg police officers

ST. PETERSBURG

Two flag-draped coffins sat side-by-side inside the sanctuary of First Baptist Church. Two devastated families looked on. Two hearses waited outside, waiting to bear the bodies of two fallen officers.

A river of police cruisers lined Gandy Boulevard Friday morning, their lights silently flashing, as more than 10,000 gathered, their sorrow compounded by the deaths of both St. Petersburg police Sgt. Thomas J. "Bait" Baitinger, 48, and K-9 Officer Jeffrey A. "Yaz" Yaslowitz, 39.

All kinds came to pay their respects. Bikers and retirees. The governor and mayor. Callow teens and tough jail guards. Family and friends. Brothers and sisters in uniform. All gathered to remember the men who lost their lives in Monday's violent confrontation with a fugitive convict.

"As a pastor I am in denial at this point," said Phil Lilly, one of the pastors at First Baptist Church, as he began his invocation. "As a former uniformed police officer, I am angry."

• • •

Inside the church, there were tributes to the two slain officers — to their faith in God, their friendliness and humor, their generosity, their strong sense of duty.

"Today we celebrate Tom and Jeffrey," said the Rev. Christopher Schmidt of Parrish United Methodist Church. "We celebrate that of them which lives on in the hearts of each of us."

Detective Mark Marland talked of his friend, Sgt. Baitinger: "Tom was the type of sergeant that everyone wanted to work for. Tom was the type of leader that led from the front. . . . I've been able to find comfort in the fact that Tom is in a better place and is at peace.''

Two days before the officers were killed, Lt. David Gatlin said, he and Yaslowitz talked about dying — the risk officers face every time they go to work.

"You know what?" Yaslowitz told Gatlin. "I'm ready. I know that I'm ready if it happened today."

Casey Harvey, Yaslowitz's 18-year-old nephew, spoke of his uncle's strong faith and character: "I hope others will be influenced by the life of this man and the goodness inside of him. . . . They say there are no perfect men, but my uncle was pretty darn close.''

St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said the city would never forget the families or their sacrifice: "To the entire family, we love you. And know that this community will continue to lift you up with prayer and will support and stand by you long after the setting of the sun this day because we know that you will have moments of darkness."

Police Chief Chuck Harmon also spoke of his fallen officers — and his fury with their killer.

"Hydra Lacy Jr. took a piece of me — two pieces, actually, about two hours apart, on Monday," said Harmon, his cheeks flushed.

"This violent felon, this criminal, this rapist, this wife-batterer, and this murderer . . . as far as I'm concerned, got off too easy."

• • •

Outside, as the funeral began a few minutes after 11 a.m., video from inside the church flashed on giant screens. The crowd of thousands fell silent, straining to hear. The only other sounds were the whipping of helicopter blades and the whimpering of hundreds of police dogs.

Yaslowitz's and Baitinger's police vehicles were parked hood to hood, wreathes on each.

Dorothy Silva, 67, and her husband Ed, 69, rode their bikes a mile down Fourth Street from their Lamplight Village home to be there.

Tears rolling under her sunglasses, Mrs. Silva said, "I just had to be here. People call for police whenever they're in trouble. Now they need us."

Katie McKendree, 17, asked her mom to let her miss school at Seminole High so she could attend. Long ago, Yaslowitz's K-9 squad helped her train her German shepherd, she said.

She thought about his three children: Caleb, 12; Haylie, 8; and Calen, 5.

"I just wanted to be here," she said. "Out of respect, I guess. It's so awful for those kids to lose their dad. . . . There's just no point."

• • •

At 1:03 p.m. everyone slowly marched outside to say their final good-byes.

As First Baptist pastor of worship Alberto Bent sang There Will Be a Day, all the officers outside the church rose from their seats and began lining up by ranks, department by department. Blocks of officers in gray, white, khaki, blue, green, according to the uniform colors of their department. Some came from as far away as the Dane County Sheriff's Department in Wisconsin, where Baitinger worked before moving to Florida.

Martin County sheriff's Deputy Brian Youngblood clutched his friend's widow, Paige Baitinger, as her family walked up the aisle. Her husband's squad followed behind.

Lorraine Yaslowitz, 40, held the hand of her youngest, Calen, 5, as she led her family out. Both of her husband's units — K-9 and SWAT — walked behind.

Outside hundreds of St. Petersburg police officers lined up, their green caps pointing toward the hearses. Thousands of officers from across Tampa Bay and the state stood with them in support.

At 1:42 p.m., hundreds of right hands climbed into salute position. The St. Petersburg police K-9 force led the pallbearers and caskets. Then came the 21-gun salutes — three volleys for each officer. Seven helicopters flew overhead. Two veered off in the traditional "missing man formation" to honor the fallen.

The bagpiper played Amazing Grace. The bugler played taps. The St. Petersburg honor guard slowly folded each American flag corner-to-corner, white-gloved hands perfecting each fold.

Harmon and the mayor knelt before each widow to present their husbands' flags.

Then came the traditional final call: the call-signs of Baitinger (S-23) and Yaslowitz (K-2) rang out from a police radio speaker. No response. Both officers were declared "10-7" — out of service.

Their call-signs will never be used again.

"Their acts of bravery and heroism shall never be forgotten," the female dispatcher declared. "May God rest their souls."

Ace, the canine partner that Yaslowitz left behind, howled and barked.

• • •

Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Carrie Cooper, 30, spent five years as a patrol officer in St. Petersburg. Baitinger trained her, teased her, taught her the right way to do the job.

Now, outside the church, she battled conflicting feelings that must haunt every officer.

"The first thing that happens, when you learn an officer is shot, is you get all incensed and want to get every bad guy you can and stick them somewhere they'll never get out," she said, wiping away tears. "Then another thing happens. You start thinking you don't ever want your own family to go through this."

Autumn Galluccio, 8, sat on a curb, wearing her best blue dress and silver shoes. Her mother had pulled her long hair into a ballerina bun with a sequined tiara.

As she wiped tears from her freckled cheeks, Autumn said she begged her mom to let her come because "those officers are from St. Pete and so are we . . . I don't know them but they're my friends. It makes me so sad."

Her mother, Carolyn Galluccio, 42, remembered when Detective Herbert R. Sullivan died in 1981, the last time an officer was shot and killed in her city.

"I was 11," she said. "I remember feeling so violated and scared. Those police were supposed to protect us, but that was the first time I realized they weren't safe either. It just brings it all back here today.

"All these officers — I hope I never have to see this again."

Times staff writers Waveney Ann Moore, Rita Farlow and Danny Valentine contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Coverage inside

Fellow police officers and everyday folks talk about the slain officers; plus a full page of photographs from the day. 10-11A

More photos, video

Find coverage from the past week along with photo galleries and video stories at tampabay.com

More than 10,000 gather to mourn fallen St. Petersburg police officers 01/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 2:00pm]
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