School resource officer Kenneth Fridlund found the student who smelled like gasoline coming out of a boys' restroom.
"Officer, come here, I want to show you something," 13-year-old Kenny Stoltman told Fridlund, according to authorities.
Fridlund followed the boy back toward the bathroom Tuesday morning at Carwise Middle School.
Suddenly, the boy turned. Knife in hand, he lunged at the veteran police officer and thrust a 4-inch blade into his stomach, Pinellas deputies said.
Injured and bleeding, Fridlund held onto the seventh-grader as the boy stabbed him twice more and struggled violently to unholster the officer's gun. Fridlund, 55, was able to knock the knife away, maintain control of his firearm, unleash pepper spray on his assailant and, finally, unclip his handcuffs so a school staffer could shackle the student.
Through it all, Fridlund never let go of the boy, said his supervisor, Pinellas County Schools Police Chief Tom Gavin.
"He's been wounded. He's in a lot of pain. He's bleeding and all he cares about is making sure this kid doesn't get away in order to hurt anybody else," Gavin said.
Before Thursday, the Sheriff's Office had declined to answer questions about what specifically happened during the violent encounter.
Meanwhile, Kenny's grandmother said Wednesday that her grandson told her the stabbing was accidental, and that Fridlund was struck by the knife when he pulled Kenny toward him.
But the Sheriff's Office on Thursday offered a strikingly different account of the incident, describing it as a calculated and frenzied attack that could have taken Fridlund's life.
"This was not just a little scratch," Gavin said. "This was a serious abdominal wound."
Fridlund suffered internal bleeding from the cut to his abdomen and underwent emergency surgery at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa. He remained hospitalized Thursday. Gavin said he's improving and eager to get back to his job.
School police and deputies hailed his efforts as heroic, saying he likely prevented students and staffers from being injured, or worse.
"If he's willing to attack a police officer, we can only speculate what he'll do next," Gavin said.
"The outcome could have been a whole lot different," added Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats.
Ambush at school
According to sheriff's investigators, here's what happened:
Kenny's first-period teacher at the middle school at 3301 Bentley Drive noticed at the start of the school day that the boy smelled like gasoline. The 13-year-old said he had spilled gas on himself at home and asked to use the restroom to clean up. He went to the bathroom and stashed 11 bottles of gasoline in a stall.
The teacher used her radio to alert school staffers about the boy smelling of gas. Fridlund, who was roaming the campus looking for the source of the odor, heard the transmission and went to the restroom.
Kenny came out and summoned the officer toward the bathroom. Fridlund was following him when the boy swung around with the knife.
"I saw the knife at the last second," Fridlund reportedly told Gavin.
Gavin added, "He said 'I tried to put some distance between me and the kid,' which is what our training calls for."
"But he was on me and he stabbed me in the gut," Fridlund told Gavin.
As they struggled, Kenny stabbed the officer in the shoulder, deputies said. When Fridlund fell to the hallway floor, the boy jumped on him and stabbed him a third time, in the arm.
One school staffer laid on the boy's legs. Another put Fridlund's handcuffs on him. Then staffers turned their attention to the officer, removing his bulletproof vest and putting pressure on his stomach wound.
Fridlund told Gavin that he knew Kenny, but had never had any problems with him.
Investigators said the boy brought the gas from home in glass bottles that "are designed for nothing other than to be used to create a firebomb or destructive device," said sheriff's Sgt. Tom Nestor. "They're saying it has, like, a blue cap on the end you put the wick into."
Kenny's sister, 18-year-old Katrina Mathews, said Kenny told her he took the bottles from her collection of Japanese "Ramune" soda bottles. The bottles are sealed at the top with a marble, which must be pushed into the neck to release the soda. Newer versions have a slit in the top to make them easier to drink from.
Katrina Mathews said some of the bottles are missing from the family's Oldsmar home.
Kenny told investigators he intended to scare some boys who were bullying him.
Pinellas schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said officials never received any reports of bullying from Kenny or his grandmother, who has custody of him. The grandmother, 60-year-old Chris Mathews, said her grandson had never mentioned the bullying to her until she visited him Tuesday night at the facility where he was taken for a mental health evaluation.
Gavin said that, so far, officials haven't found evidence to support the bullying claim. "We're still checking. That may be the case, but so far — nothing."
Nestor said Kenny "also made other claims we can't go into" in regard to his motive.
Investigators searched the family's home. Katrina Mathews believes they removed only Kenny's computer.
Reached by phone Thursday, Kenny's grandmother was shocked to hear the new details.
"This is not at all what he had said to us," she said. "I don't know what to say. This is shocking. As you can tell by our story, this was not what was relayed" by Kenny.
She doesn't think her grandson remembers all the details of the attack but acknowledged that the new account made her question the details he relayed to her.
"I don't know what to believe," she said. "I don't know what happened."
Times staff writers Ron Matus and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report.