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Despite crowd, no witness will discuss police shooting

ST. PETERSBURG — Frustrated and desperate for leads, police on Wednesday issued an unusual public plea for eyewitnesses to Saturday night's shooting of a teenager by a police officer outside a chaotic graduation party.

More than 250 teenagers attended the party, but not one has stepped forward to say what happened to Javon Dawson. Even the victim's brother has refused to cooperate, police said.

Police have spoken to the officer who pulled the trigger. But they have not been able to talk to any teenager who saw the shooting.

So police plan to distribute fliers in neighborhoods, appeal for help from black ministers and set up automated phone calls to every family with a child who attends Gibbs High. They also might set up a booth at Gibbs for people to talk to police.

"A significant number of people must have seen some aspect of this," said police Maj. Michael Puetz, who is overseeing the department's criminal investigation. "Obviously, we want to try to talk to those individuals."

The reluctance of witnesses to cooperate in police investigations stems from complex issues of race and culture. While the "stop snitching" ethos has figured prominently in criminal investigations in St. Petersburg and other cities, it has frustrated investigators in this case.

Police say Dawson's 14-year-old brother, Keon, refused several times to talk to investigators about the shooting.

Keon told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday that he was with Dawson when he was shot and that his brother did not point a gun at police.

Police say they found a revolver near Dawson's body after the shooting with three spent shell casings. They released a photograph of the gun Monday.

Puetz declined to discuss other physical evidence because he wants to wait until the department's investigation is complete. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which conducts its own review, also declined to comment.

Dawson's girlfriend, Uniquekwa Burrowes, 15, said teenagers don't want to get involved with police.

"People don't want to put their name in it," she said. "It's probably because they don't like the police; what they did was real messed up. … They just don't want to talk about it."

Bob Dekle, a former prosecutor and legal skills professor at the University of Florida Fredric G. Levin College of Law, said it has always been difficult for police to get teenage witnesses to cooperate in investigations, calling it "par for the course."

"When you're talking about teenagers, you're talking about kids," Dekle said. "When something bad happens, a kid doesn't want anybody to know."

The "stop snitching" movement has gained national prominence in recent years, fueled by underground videos and hip-hop songs. The rap star Cam'ron said on 60 Minutes that he wouldn't call authorities even if he knew a serial killer lived next door.

Officer Terrence Nemeth told police he shot and killed Dawson on Saturday night in the 3100 block of Freemont Terrace S after Dawson pointed a gun at him. Nemeth and seven other officers went to the area after neighbors complained about noise and said youths were blocking traffic.

Police say Nemeth fired twice and struck Dawson both times, in the shoulder and lower back. He said Dawson was trying to run away as he pointed a gun at the officer. Police also say Nemeth saw Dawson, 17, fire a gun in the air several times.

Puetz said it is common for a group of officers who arrive at a loud party to split up and walk through a crowd to get people to leave.

Maj. J.R. Thompson, who heads the department's internal affairs unit, said it could take weeks to finish the investigation. Speaking generally, Thompson said investigators have to interview witnesses, take statements and often do re-enactments of shootings.

"You've got to be thorough," Thompson said. "I don't think we should cut corners."

The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement has said it found witnesses to the shooting who contradict the police account but has refused to identify them.

Uhuru officials called a news conference for today to discuss the shooting and plan a demonstration Sunday. On a recent event notice, the group said Dawson's death was connected to plans for a new Tampa Bay Rays waterfront stadium.

The notice says the ballpark plans and the shooting are "part of efforts to gentrify and disperse the historically African community and turn St. Petersburg into an enclave for wealthy white people."

Times staff writers Cristina Silva and Casey Cora contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at or (727) 893-8472.

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Police ask anyone with information to call (727) 893-7164.

Despite crowd, no witness will discuss police shooting 06/11/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 18, 2008 5:21pm]
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