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Family recounts ordeal after officer was shot in St. Petersburg robbery

ST. PETERSBURG — She was home alone with the kids that night. Her husband was at work.

The undercover St. Petersburg police detective was following a hunch. Moments later, his instincts proved to be dangerously correct.

At home, the phone rang.

"It's the one call as an officer's wife that you never want to get," she said.

Her husband was shot while arresting a robbery suspect.

Minutes later, she was at Bayfront Medical Center. Officers swarmed the hospital. She was taken to her husband.

He was conscious, but pale and in pain. He had been shot several times. The surgeon was ready.

Husband and wife rode the elevator to the operating room, alone. They held hands. He told her to take care of their kids.

Then, moments before he was wheeled into the operating room, the detective looked at his friend, Sgt. Tim Montanari. "Take care of my wife," he said.

• • •

Before that night, a series of violent convenience store robberies had gripped the city in fear. Five clerks had been shot.

The detective was on surveillance the night he became the sixth victim. About 10 p.m. Jan. 26, he and his partner noticed something peculiar: Three teens ditching their bikes in an alley near a gas station. The detectives followed them.

Minutes later, police say, two of the teens robbed the store and shot the detective as he was trying to arrest the third teen — who had been acting as a look-out.

Surgery lasted two hours. But it was days before anyone knew that the 41-year-old father of five would be okay — or just how close the 19-year veteran cop came to dying.

But after a week in the hospital, the detective went home Monday. His wife and older brother made their first public comments Tuesday to the St. Petersburg Times.

They wanted to thank the public and the Police Department for what they called a generous outpouring of support.

The Times is withholding the names of the detective and his family because he works undercover.

• • •

The detective is the youngest of five. He was inspired to become an officer by the older brother, a federal agent.

He is a natural on the job.

As a patrolman he won every foot chase. As a community officer he enjoyed talking to residents. His athleticism made him perfect for SWAT.

But mostly, he was just good at catching bad guys.

"You might catch one burglary in progress every five years," said Sgt. Montanari. "He would catch them daily."

His brother, the agent, dealt with several feelings when he learned of the shooting. "It was shock and guilt," he said. "I thought: 'I got him into this.' "

• • •

The older brother was on a flight hours after the shooting. At the hospital, he learned how perilous the situation had been.

One bullet went through the detective's side, rising and just avoiding his internal organs.

"It missed his heart by a fraction of an inch," the brother said.

He came out of surgery in critical condition. The detective still needed a ventilator to breathe. But that didn't stop him from telling his wife he loved her.

"He'd squeeze a short time for the 'I' and a little bit longer for the 'love' and a little bit shorter for 'you,' " the wife said. "It was beautiful."

• • •

Two days after he was shot, the ventilator came off. Shrapnel remains in his body to this day. But the worst is over.

The family has been overwhelmed by support. Restaurants dropped off food. Fellow officers ran errands. Strangers donated money. The detective has started reading his nearly 2,000 get-well cards.

• • •

The alleged shooter, 18-year-old James Allen Seay, was arrested on charges of attempted murder of an officer and armed robbery. The other teens also were arrested.

The wounded detective hopes to be back to work in six months.

"In our eyes," his brother said, "he's a hero."

On the Web

For previous coverage, go to links.tampabay.com.

Words of thanks

Family expresses gratitude in a letter to the editor. 8A

Family recounts ordeal after officer was shot in St. Petersburg robbery 02/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 4, 2009 7:51am]
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