PINELLAS PARK — Vice squad officers watched Thursday night as the two men appeared to sell several rocks of crack cocaine to an undercover cop.
Time to move in.
They tried to maneuver several police vehicles around the suspects' car, hoping to block it in, a common police tactic.
But the white Monte Carlo broke free, bolted out of the Shoppes at Park Place and sped south on U.S. 19.
At the same time, a South Carolina woman, her three young children and a friend were turning left on U.S. 19 to 70th Avenue.
The Monte Carlo broadsided them, killing the mother and hospitalizing the other four.
The two suspects, both young St. Petersburg men, fled on foot but were arrested soon after. On Friday, police could not explain how the Monte Carlo got away from them.
The crack sold for $120.
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Officers in Pinellas Park have been working undercover for some time now, buying crack cocaine in an effort to build cases against local dealers. Thursday was supposed to be a big payoff, with at least three busts in the area of the former ParkSide Mall.
The first two arrests went smoothly. The third did not.
An undercover officer agreed to meet Rashane Deangelo Barber, 21, in front of the garden center at the Target. Officers had bought drugs from him three times before.
At 8:51 p.m., police said, Barber's half brother, Devonta Thorton Merriex, 20, pulled the Monte Carlo into the lot. The undercover officer bought six rocks for $20 each. As police moved in, the car took off.
Officers did not try to chase it and lost sight of it as it turned south onto U.S. 19. Moments later came a crash and a plume of smoke.
Only three minutes had elapsed since the Monte Carlo had entered the shopping center.
Police and paramedics who had been part of the take-down team rushed to the scene. The Monte Carlo was empty.
A Ford Taurus with its side bashed in was about 10 yards away. Dead behind the wheel was Nachenga E. Robinson, 32.
Injured but alive in the back seat were her children: Eric, 13, Obadiah, 11, and I'on, 8.
In the front seat — also injured — was Caroline Johnson, 51, a friend of Robinson's father.
All are from Florence, S.C.
Rescuers needed extrication tools to get everyone out of the Taurus.
"They were all conscious at the scene," said Pinellas Park police spokesman Sandy Forseth. "They couldn't get out of the car right away. … It was a pretty nasty scene."
The children were taken to All Children's Hospital. The family requested no information be released about their conditions.
Johnson was at Bayfront Medical Center in critical condition Friday.
As paramedics helped the survivors, police and Pinellas sheriff's deputies began searching for the suspects. Barber was arrested about 20 minutes after the crash in the parking lot of a nearby restaurant, the Egg Platter.
A sheriff's deputy with a K-9, Deuce, tracked Merriex to a back yard off 62nd Avenue and found him hiding in a pile of debris and vegetation. He was taken to Northside Hospital and treated for scrapes and a dog bite.
Merriex was charged with vehicular homicide and multiple counts of leaving a crash scene. Barber was charged with multiple counts of cocaine sale and possession.
Both remained at the Pinellas County Jail Friday night on high bail amounts.
Records show the brothers have long criminal histories. Barber's dates to 2004 and includes five drug charges.
Merriex's record begins in 1997, when he faced a larceny charge at age 9. He was arrested at age 11 for burglary and at 12 for battery. He later faced charges of vehicle theft, obstructing police and aggravated assault with a weapon, records show.
Merriex's family said he was run over by a truck as a child, which broke his leg and caused mental problems. They said he has a quick temper.
"He's not focused," said George Henderson, 57, his great-uncle. "He's really not straight in his mind."
Flora Henderson, 82, the boys' great-great grandmother, raised them when they were little. Records show their mother was facing her own problems with the law at the time. In 1992, Jacqueline Barber was sentenced to prison for robbery. She's currently in the Pinellas County Jail, facing two charges of aggravated battery.
Henderson said she raised sweet, smart boys who went to church. They moved out of her house when they were grade-school-age to live with their mother, she said.
"I know it was a total accident," Henderson said, adding she would pray for the victims. "I'm so sorry. I don't know what to do."
Gary Bennett, spokesman for TIC-The Industrial Co., said Robinson, a journeyman welder, was hired in June to start work at the Bartow Power Plant on Weedon Island.
She was living with her children and her father in an extended-stay motel in Pinellas Park.
Robinson, who had worked various stints with TIC in the past, was known as a hardworking woman.
"She was a talented and dedicated welder who did everything possible to take care of her kids," Bennett said.
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The method used by Pinellas Park police to nab drug dealers is common practice. Forseth said suspects usually don't escape.
"It's that element of surprise that is the tactical advantage," he said.
Still, the department will review the operation, which is routine. "We will look at it and see if there are any flaws or mistakes ... that might have led to his escape," Forseth said.
Though he defended the decision to hold an undercover drug sting at a busy shopping and dining mecca, Forseth agreed that having drug deals in such a place could endanger innocent people. But, he said, police tend to be at the mercy of drug dealers, who like to set up deals in populated places. Police try to get dealers to more secluded areas, but it cannot always be done, he said.
"This kind of shows the character these drug people have," Forseth said. "They have no regard for humanity."