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An all-too familiar ceremony draws mourners near and far

ST. PETERSBURG — Once again, law enforcement officers from all over the nation gathered with city residents at dusk to pay respects to a veteran St. Petersburg police officer who was killed in the line of duty.

Monday night's wake for Officer David S. Crawford at First Baptist Church felt chillingly familiar. Just one month ago, thousands came to the same church for the visitation and funerals of Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48, and Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, who were killed Jan. 24.

The church's senior pastor, Rev. Walter Draughon III, said he felt privileged to provide sanctuary — yet again —for a city rocked by the first police killings since 1980. Nevertheless, he felt disturbed by the timing.

"It's not a redundancy as much as it is a painful repetition," Draughon said. "It's like we had this painful car wreck. We're still coping with it. And then we get hit again and we just haven't had time to recover from the first."

Hundreds returned Monday night to mourn Crawford, who was killed Feb. 21 while checking a report of a prowler. St. Petersburg police say Nicholas Lindsey, 16, has admitted shooting the officer. He has been arrested on a charge of first-degree murder.

A memorial service with full law enforcement honors will be held at 11 a.m. today. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend, as they did for the funerals of Baitinger and Yaslowitz.

On Monday night, they started lining up before the family arrived.

At one point the line stretched down one end of the church and all the way inside. One by one, they moved single file toward the Crawford family.

They waited to pay their respects at the flag-draped coffin of Officer Crawford, then turned around and hugged his family members and shook the hands of the officers on his squad. Officers brought their spouses. Spouses brought their children. Officers came and went as they started and ended shifts.

When the family needed a break, the officers of Squad 22 — Crawford's unit on the midnight shift — received mourners.

On the screen above, photos of Crawford were shown as 3 Doors Down's When I'm Gone played in synch with the slideshow. Many of the photos were at odds with his persona as an officer with a gruff demeanor.

There he was as a young patrol officer; cradling his daughter, Amanda, when she was a baby; wearing a cowboy hat on stage for a skit; tending to horses; and the iconic photo: Officer Crawford, hands clasped in the front, leaning against his police car outside Tropicana Field, neither smiling nor frowning, just looking pretty matter-of-fact. It was the photo placed on the wreath that sat on the hood of his patrol cruiser, which was parked outside the church — and also the photo placed atop his casket.

"I think a lot of people are still numb," said Mayor Bill Foster. "I've had people share their feelings that we've lost our innocence. We went 30 years without this. It's just numbing."

Many out-of-town officers attending Monday night's wake, such as Thomas Carey, were returning after being here last month. The police chief for the Woonsocket, R.I., Police Department, Carey, 58, retired as a major from the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2008. He brought his department's honor guard down for the memorial last month. They're back again.

He knew all three fallen officers, working with Crawford on midnights and helping supervise Baitinger and Yaslowitz.

Carey said Crawford was a guy who enjoyed grunt work.

"He was just a person who liked being a police officer, to put on his uniform, to drive his police car, to go out and handle calls," Carey said. "He was very proud to be a police officer."

Carey and his officers paid their respect at Crawford's coffin and then to his family. On the way out, Carey hugged St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon.

"I hope you never have to go through this," Harmon told him.

Mourners included City Administrator Tish Elston, senior administrator of community enrichment Goliath Davis, former mayor Rick Baker, and City Council members Leslie Curran, Wengay Newton, Herb Polson and Chairman Jim Kennedy.

Also in attendance was former police Chief Mack Vines, during whose tenure Detective Herbert R. Sullivan was killed in 1980 — the last officer killed before the past month of police deaths.

"It's a tragic situation in such a short period of time,'' Vines said.

It wasn't just officers paying their respects. Lucie Paulucci, 55, has been a Rays season ticket holder since the very beginning.

She drove from her Brandon home Monday to say goodbye to Crawford, whom she knew as a gregarious man who stood guard over Section 140 by the Bullpen Cafe and pulled practical jokes.

When someone got rowdy or profane, then he became Officer Crawford.

To chase down an errant fan, she said, "you'd be surprised how fast he could move."

Paulucci arrived early before the receiving line got too long and stayed late. Two hours later, she was finally ready to leave. She wonders what it will be like on Opening Day without her friend.

"I think it'll hit me like a ton of bricks," she said.

An all-too familiar ceremony draws mourners near and far 02/28/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 10:08am]
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