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Deadly shots may redefine young police officer

Terrence Nemeth, a 2001 Northeast High School grad, joined the police force in 2007.

Terrence Nemeth, a 2001 Northeast High School grad, joined the police force in 2007.

ST. PETERSBURG — He's the former captain of his high school wrestling team, an ex-Marine who served in Iraq, a rookie police officer praised for sound judgment and tapped for a prestigious assignment.

Now, at age 24, Terrence Nemeth is facing something most cops never confront in their careers.

This much is undisputed: Nemeth shot and killed a 17-year-old high school student after a raucous graduation party last Saturday night.

Nemeth told investigators he shot Javon Dawson after the teenager fired several shots in the air, ignored commands to drop the gun and pointed it at him as he turned to flee.

Dawson's relatives dispute the police account, saying witnesses contend Dawson was unarmed when Nemeth shot him, though none have stepped forward to tell police what they saw. An activist group has taken up the case as an example of police misconduct tied to efforts to gentrify the city.

Police have released a photograph of a revolver found near Dawson's body with three spent shell casings.

As the accusations swirl, Nemeth has kept a low profile. The Police Department said he was unavailable for comment and declined to release a photograph of him in uniform.

But records and interviews with people who know Nemeth suggest someone who is calm under pressure and at ease with the public.

After joining the Police Department a year and a half ago, Nemeth earned accolades from supervisors and training officers. He was recently tapped to join a special unit, Operation Safe Summer, that cracks down on juvenile crime and helps guide troubled youths to social service programs.

Many police officers never fire a gun in the line of duty, much less kill someone. Indeed, police shootings in St. Petersburg are rare. Officers have shot at someone only once or twice a year in the past five years.

His high school wrestling coach says Nemeth never lost his calm, even in stressful matches.

"He's a guy of tremendous integrity, and I can't say enough good things about him," said Bill Dudley, a St. Petersburg City Council member who coached Nemeth at Northeast High. "I find it very much out of character that he would do something like that unless he was provoked."

If he was frustrated, he did little more than sigh or clench his fists. He never started fights. And he often stayed late to mentor younger teammates.

"Coaches sometimes know more about kids than their parents," Dudley said. "If I could have a whole team full of kids like Terry Nemeth, that would be absolutely great."

Nemeth graduated in the top third of his class at Northeast High in 2001. After graduation, he worked as the operator of a small blimp that dropped coupons at Tampa Bay Devil Rays games at Tropicana Field. He joined the Marines in 2002. While in the Marines, he took some classes at Central Texas College.

John Franzone, his supervisor at the Devil Rays job, remembers Nemeth telling him he wanted to join the Marines after Sept. 11. "All of us who worked with him were very proud," he said.

Nemeth was in the Marines for four years and served in Iraq. He earned badges for rifle and pistol marksmanship.

After receiving an honorable discharge in 2006, Nemeth moved back to St. Petersburg and applied to be a police officer. By April 2007, he had completed the field training program and was working the evening shift as a patrol officer. He earned praise for being "on point" in dealing with people.

This year, he was tapped to join Operation Safe Summer. Again, his supervisors praised his judgment in difficult situations.

"He possesses good verbal defusion skills, allowing him to quickly de-escalate most situations," one supervisor wrote. "As a result, Officer Nemeth is able to minimize the necessity for the use of force in most situations."

Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Deadly shots may redefine young police officer 06/13/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008 9:55pm]

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