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At 16, life unravels for St. Petersburg teen accused of killing police officer

He wanted to play football and go to college. He wanted to provide for his mom. And he wanted out of St. Petersburg.

He was 12, a shy wisp of a boy. But he had a plan, he told Demetrice Richardson. He had to if he wanted to date her daughter.

It was the first time Richardson spoke to Nicholas Lindsey.

The last time was a week ago, in the county jail.

Lindsey's wrists and ankles were shackled. He'd put on weight. His hair was longer. Fuzz was starting to grow on his face.

She saw him on a TV monitor. They talked through a handset. They joked and laughed as they used to. Mostly.

"He had his moments when he was down. I tried to lift his spirits," Richardson said. "He said he's just ready to get it over with."

Lindsey, now 17, is charged with fatally shooting St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford last year when the veteran lawman tried to question him.

When his trial starts Monday, he'll be the first person accused of killing an officer to face a Pinellas County jury in two decades.

The story of how he went from a quiet kid who lived for football to one who could turn 18 while serving a life sentence is not simple, or unique.

It is one too often repeated: a toxic mix of a bad environment, a bad crowd and bad choices.

The kind of combination that can turn a kid into a killer.

St. Petersburg had not lost a police officer in the line of duty in 30 years — until 2011.

In the span of 28 wrenching days, three officers were shot and killed on the job. Crawford, 46, was the last to die, on Feb. 21, 2011.

Minutes after the shooting, hundreds of officers rushed downtown to help find the shooter. They blocked off large swaths of the city. Heavily armed teams of officers searched methodically while detectives worked the streets.

The city's shock was magnified when the massive manhunt ended with the capture of a slender teenager: Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey. He had turned 16 just nine days before.

A video camera in the interrogation room recorded his tearful confession.

His parents, Deneen Sweat and Nicholas Lindsey Sr., urged him to do the right thing. To tell the police what happened.

"Mom, Daddy, I'm sorry," Lindsey said on Feb. 22, just 23 hours after Crawford was killed.

Then the sobbing teen said: "I just started shooting."

• • •

The pieces of Lindsey's life don't seem to fit.

His bedroom was like any teen's, messy, laundry piled up. He slept on a Power Rangers pillow. But tucked underneath his mattress, police found bullets and pain pills, prescribed in his name.

He was a kid who went out of his way to help others, who'd buy a teacher a Pepsi just because.

But he also flashed gang signs on Facebook and mugged for the camera with a wad of cash between his teeth. There, he called himself "Young Savage."

Lindsey was charged with first-degree murder. He will be tried as an adult. If convicted, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

After his arrest last year, Lindsey's family spoke to the Times about the gang influence that started to creep into his life, and the struggle to keep him straight after he started getting into trouble with the law.

His family did not comment for this story. But others in his life — adults, teachers, friends, classmates — talked about the Lindsey they knew.

"He went from the most lovable, friendliest boy to a tough teenager over the years," said Cecil Odom, 61, who runs the youth football league where Lindsey played. "What transformed him? The neighborhood. The community. The things that he faced. The same things that transformed a lot of people.

"I want you to see the big picture. This ain't about Nick. Nick just happened to be the result."

• • •

Demetrice Richardson calls it her "five-second" rule. That's how long a boy who wants to date her daughter has to explain his plans for the future.

Anything more than five seconds? "I know it's a lie," said the 36-year-old mother of three.

She knew Lindsey's family, knew he went to John Hopkins Middle School. It was 2007, and Lindsey and Richardson's oldest daughter were in the seventh grade.

"He was so shy," Richardson said. "She had to drag him over."

Lindsey passed the mom's test. He started hanging out with the whole family, even going to church with them on Sundays. He couldn't sing, though. Richardson's younger son and daughter laughed at him.

Richardson gave him rides home from school. He and her daughter argued about who was smarter. On report card day Lindsey ran to the mom's car. He had made the honor roll.

The young relationship lasted a year and a half.

"When they broke up, my two little ones wanted her to move out of the house," Richardson said. "They were so upset with her."

Miz Daisy's picture shop is across the street from John Hopkins. It's owned by Odom, the football league president. Every day after school, Lindsey would stop to see if Odom needed any help.

The boy would take out the garbage. Then he and Odom would sit and talk. It took awhile for him to open up. Lindsey was quiet around adults.

"He's not shy," said Latavin Brinson, 16, a friend who played football with Lindsey. "Not around his friends."

Lindsey liked to hang out around the neighborhood, liked to crack wise on his friends. It wasn't mean-spirited. He wanted to have fun, or to help.

"If you needed something, you asked Nicky," said Brinson's sister, 17-year-old Laterria Rowe. "If you needed lunch money, Nick would get it for you."

He got into trouble at John Hopkins, but nothing too serious. Sherry Howard used to supervise the in-school suspension room there. That's how she first met Lindsey. He was not like the other kids who ended up there.

"Oh, they make you want to pull your hair out," said Howard, 43. "I've been cursed out, all kinds of stuff. But never from him. He never told you what he wasn't going to do. He just did what he was asked."

Lindsey, at times, seemed frail. He had asthma. Allergies could knock him out. He had a slow heart rate. He needed hearing aids for both ears. He was always at the doctor or the hospital for some reason.

But that didn't keep him from football. He loved to play. He was a running back in the St. Pete Lil Devils youth football program. He was fast, elusive, tough for his size. He was coachable, and he found the end zone a lot.

"He was the kind of player that the crowd would be oohing and ahhing when he was playing," said Odom. There were up to 400 kids in the league. But Odom noticed Lindsey. Everyone did. He was that good.

Football was more than a game to Lindsey.

"That was the way out," Howard said. "That was gonna be his way out."

• • •

The change came in the summer of 2009.

Lindsey didn't hang out with his friends anymore. He ran with a rougher crowd, an older one.

"I think he was trying to fit in," Rowe said, "and it just took him the wrong way."

Lindsey was 14 that summer. He was about to start his freshman year at Gibbs High School.

This is the age when teens are most vulnerable to criminal behavior, according to University of South Florida professor Shayne Jones, an expert in criminal psychology.

Running with an older group that already commits crime is the "strongest risk factor" for a younger teen to turn to crime, Jones said.

It's a natural age for a boy to find himself, said Wali Shabazz, 64, who runs a mentoring program for young black males on both sides of the bay.

But like too many of his peers, Lindsey found the wrong thing.

"It's an identity crisis," said Shabazz. "Being a man is equated to being a gangster, to being hard and being tough. That path is calling out to someone who is trying to find himself in a maze of confusion."

In an interview last year, Lindsey's mother said the family tried to keep him out of that life. But he was already being drawn in.

"He looked around at all the kids not going to school in the complex and said, 'Why do I have to go to school?' " Deneen Sweat told the Times in 2011.

Lindsey's father has a long record of drug arrests. But he still provided for his son, Sweat said, and used his own life as a warning.

"Don't make the mistake I made," the father would tell his son.

• • •

It wasn't hard for Lindsey to find the wrong path. It was all around him.

Sweat and her three sons lived in the Citrus Grove Apartments on 15th Street S, ground zero for a neighborhood gang called the Bethel Heights Boys.

For generations St. Petersburg has been afflicted by homegrown gangs. They grow up together, get in trouble together, go to jail together. No initiation needed. If you live in the neighborhood, you're already a member.

Citrus Grove used to be called the Bethel Heights Apartments, hence the gang's name. In April 2009 the gang was linked to one of the city's most infamous murders, the drive-by shooting that killed an 8-year-old girl.

Three gang members were sentenced to prison.

The teenaged Lindsey who fell in with Bethel Heights was different than the boy everyone remembered from middle school. He had become angry, combative. He got into fights with rival gangs in Childs Park and Harbordale.

"He kind of shared football with fighting," Odom said. "I don't have enough information to say what he was doing. He just seemed like a different boy."

He was struggling in school, with grades and attendance. But he didn't act out. To his old friends he was still Lil' Nick. "Him hanging out on the streets and him hanging out in school," Rowe said, "it was like different people."

Rowe knew Lindsey from their John Hopkins days. She tried to warn him.

"Slow down. You're moving too fast. You're headed in the wrong path," she said to him. "But he's the same age. I can't tell him anything.

"He thought I was trying to be funny. But I was trying to be serious."

By Thanksgiving 2009 he had been arrested twice: He tried to steal a minivan, using a brick, then took a joyride in a stolen car with some friends.

Lindsey started his sophomore year in 2010. Everyone expected him to play football for Gibbs, but he didn't have the grades. In six months he had missed 42 days of school.

His mother thought they had a solution: send him to a job training program. "We wanted to get him out of this environment," she told the Times last year. The judge was to hear about it at a truancy hearing on March 7, 2011.

Friends, though, still saw flashes of the old Lindsey.

A month before his arrest, Lindsey called Richardson and asked her to come get him. He wanted to take her family out to eat. They ordered Domino's.

"We were laughing and playing outside with the kids," she said.

Richardson tried to get him to straighten up.

"Just because you live there," she told him, "that's not who you have to be."

• • •

On the night of Feb. 21, 2011, some residents were having a barbecue outside their downtown apartment at Third Avenue S and Eighth Street.

They saw a young black male, skinny, in a hoodie. He was hiding in the shadows of the parking lot, near the cars. He broke a brick apart. Then he leaped over a short wall and disappeared.

They called 911.

Crawford answered the 10:30 p.m. call.

Born and bred in St. Petersburg, Crawford lived for the outdoors, but found his calling on the streets. He was a father and a veteran patrol officer. He loved working midnights, loved his squad, his own band of brothers.

That night, Crawford parked his cruiser and called out to the skinny teen at Second Avenue S and Eighth Street.

That's when Nicholas Lindsey wheeled around, police said, and opened fire with a semiautomatic pistol from just 5 to 8 feet away.

Crawford was not wearing a bullet-resistant vest. In his hand was the notebook from his shirt pocket. Mortally wounded, he pulled out his weapon and fired wildly as he collapsed, but hit nothing. The shooter was already running.

The officer didn't have a chance.

Times researcher Caryn Baird, staff photographer Cherie Diez and staff writer Michael Kruse contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

At 16, life unravels for St. Petersburg teen accused of killing police officer 03/17/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 12:54pm]

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