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By the side of the road, a place to remember a good cop who died

Hours before the funeral at the sprawling church in the suburbs, two women in a black pickup pulled into the parking lot of a used appliance store on hardscrabble Nebraska Avenue.

It was early, rush hour, school buses and commuter traffic rumbling toward downtown Tampa. For the women in the truck, though, you would have said it was late.

They wore dark green shirts and heavy work shoes, Wal-Mart name tags dangling from their necks. They had just finished the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift. It was time to go home, but not before they stopped here, for the cop who died.

In a few hours, thousands would gather at a beautiful church 13 miles away. Police from as far away as Canada, politicians, handsome police dogs, the stunned and grieving family, and people who cared about a good guy named Mike Roberts would fill the church, spill into a hall and watch from outside. They would wear crisp uniforms and white gloves, dark suits and black dresses. Amid fresh flowers and tall white candles, they would talk of his life and mourn his loss. They would brush at tears through a Mass for a good cop who died on Nebraska Avenue.

(Might Roberts, whose friends always seemed to bring up his sense of humor when they talked about him, have appreciated this detail — how the male cops had to wait in a line a dozen deep for the men's room before the service while there was no wait at the ladies'? "Cop culture," said a female officer in the bathroom, and everyone laughed.)

But all that would come later, the governor's arrival, the police chief's eulogy, the dark blue hearse and the playing of taps, somber traditions for a fallen officer.

Out on Nebraska Avenue, where police say Roberts died at the hands of a man with a shopping cart and a terrifying arsenal of guns, was a different church. It sprouted by the stop sign at Arctic Street, where people left vases of now-wilting glads and carnations that swayed with the passing traffic, a stuffed koala clutching a red heart, a big yellow balloon. Tethered to the stop sign was an American flag.

The women surveyed, disappointed that a small statue of a police officer had disappeared. But a prayer candle, the kind in glass, burned on. "That little candle was lit all night," said Laurie Douberley.

I asked how often they came, and they answered together: Every night, every morning. "We check the candles," Priscilla Ahrens said. "We relight them."

Douberley met Cpl. Roberts through neighborhood watch and thought him "a nice guy." Ahrens never did, but it didn't matter. It's respect. We talked about what happened here and she dabbed at her eyes with the shoulder of her work shirt.

Later at the big church, they handed out a flier printed with his photo — spiky hair, polished badge, half-grin. On the back was a story of a police officer who gets in to heaven because he has already done his time in hell.

In the parking lot, two women who just worked the kind of night shift cops know well brought an offering of their own: a candle. The glass was printed with a prayer to a guardian angel: Ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen, it said.

They lit it, the smell of vanilla mixed with decaying flowers at this place for remembering at the side of the road.

By the side of the road, a place to remember a good cop who died 08/25/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 27, 2009 11:01am]

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