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Colleagues: Fallen St. Petersburg officer's tough exterior hid tender heart

ST. PETERSBURG — The first day David Dehoyos walked into the police station locker room, he noticed Officer David Crawford standing with two other officers.

"My God, that's a big mustache," Dehoyos remembers thinking. He was convinced Crawford, a country boy born and bred, would be a terrible partner for him, since he was a city boy from the Bronx.

He soon learned otherwise. Crawford, who usually wore his grumpiness like a turtle wears a shell, turned out to be both a great teacher and a great friend, sharing barbecues and fishing trips.

"My daughters called him 'the Big Teddy Bear,' " said Dehoyos, now a Department of Defense employee.

Crawford died in a hail of bullets Monday night while checking a report of a prowler. Police say Nicholas Lindsey, 16, has admitted shooting the officer.

Dehoyos was one of several current and former St. Petersburg police officers who stood in the glare of television lights Friday morning to share memories of Crawford, who joined the force in 1985.

Every one of them looked big and tough. Every one of them struggled to choke back tears.

Some failed.

By far the biggest of them, and the one closest to Crawford, was retired Officer Mike Roberts. Roberts is black, Crawford was white, but Roberts said, "He was more than just my best friend. He was my brother."

Both served on the midnight shift for years. In fact, Crawford insisted on working the midnight shift nearly his entire career. Partly it was so he could spend days with his family, Roberts said. But partly it was because "the city at night is a completely different place."

The squad that worked midnights relied on each other more, and became tighter friends. It wasn't a flashy job — no bank robbery calls — but one that affected many people's lives. They dealt with residential and car burglaries, and lots of domestic violence calls. Those became something of a specialty for Crawford.

Despite his intimidating size and gunfighter's mustache, Crawford could be gentle and compassionate with victims. He made sure they got the treatment they needed, and if they needed a place for the night he'd make sure they made it to a domestic violence shelter.

Yet he also knew how to talk to the aggressors so that, by the time he was done, they were thanking him for his help, Dehoyos and Roberts said.

"As big as Dave was, his heart was bigger," Dehoyos said.

Crawford never talked about why he took so much time with domestic violence cases, Sgt. Karl Lounge said, but he was so expert at it that he taught other officers the right way to handle them.

"I called him my diamond in the rough," said retired Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina, who selected Crawford as part of a pilot program for special domestic violence training provided through federal grants. "Because he was so well read, he really understood the concept."

If you had asked Crawford, 46, to define himself, he'd say he was "a crusty old veteran," Lounge said. "He was never at a loss for words, and if he had an opinion, he said it."

If you saw him at the station and asked how he was doing, Crawford would grumble that it didn't matter, nobody cared, and anyway it was time to get rolling. But away from work, he dropped the tough facade and let himself smile.

He was a proud father, always boasting about the accomplishments of his daughter, Amanda. When she was younger, he made it a point to meet her school bus every day.

He bowled with Roberts in the Police Olympics. He was an avid reader of crime novels. He loved baseball, turning part of his home into a shrine for every bit of Tampa Bay Rays memorabilia he could find. He worked security at Rays games, usually standing near the first-base foul pole.

"He'd try to trade to get that corner," Lounge said.

And he loved pulling practical jokes on his friends, especially when they visited his rural home. "He had so much fun watching this city boy on the farm," Dehoyos said. He said he couldn't really talk about some of the pranks, blushing.

In short, Lounge said, "Dave was a hell of a guy."

His loss is bitter for the department, but making it even harder to take is the fact that it comes less than 30 days after the Jan. 24 killing of Sgt. Tom Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz.

"We've barely caught our breath from a month ago, and now we have to lay down another brother," Detective Eric Holmes said.

A viewing is scheduled for Monday from 5 to 8 p.m. and a memorial service is Tuesday at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church on Gandy Boulevard — the same church where the funeral for Baitinger and Yaslowitz was held.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@sptimes.com.

Colleagues: Fallen St. Petersburg officer's tough exterior hid tender heart 02/25/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 25, 2011 11:05pm]
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