Saturday, June 23, 2018
Public safety

FDLE clears FHP trooper of wrongdoing in September cemetery shooting

PINELLAS PARK — The Florida Department of Law Enforcement cleared a state trooper of wrongdoing Wednesday in its investigation of a shooting at a Pinellas Park cemetery.

A 119-page report of the investigation of the Sept. 10 incident details the events that led Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Daniel Cole to shoot cemetery owner Clifford F. Work.

Work, 48, who owns Royal Palm North Cemetery, was asleep inside a maintenance shed on the property when Cole, accompanied by two Pinellas Park police officers, knocked at the door about 6 a.m., according to the report. Cole had tracked a signal from a stolen motorcycle, which led him to the shed.

Confused, and thinking the visitors might be there to rob him, Work picked up a handgun before opening the door, the report stated. Cole then fired 15 shots from a rifle. One round pierced Work's thigh.

"Following the completion of this investigation it appears that Trooper Daniel Cole was in the legal performance of his official law enforcement duties and acted within the scope of his legal assignment," the report concluded.

It was unclear Wednesday if anything more would come of the shooting or whether Work plans to pursue legal action. His attorney, Todd Vargo, did not return a call for comment.

What is clear, according to the report, is that Work and Cole both feared what awaited them beyond the building doors that morning.

It was still dark outside and raining lightly when Cole headed east on Gandy Boulevard about 5:30 a.m. As he drove onto the interstate, Cole received an alert on a LoJack device, notifying him of a signal from a stolen motorcycle in the area. He followed the signal to a shed at the cemetery, 6200 Gandy Blvd.

Cole heard music and other noises coming from inside the shed, the report said. The light was dim and Cole used a flashlight and a light mounted on his handgun to survey the building. Around the shed's bay doors, he could see a white light shining from inside.

Cole was nervous. He called for backup and took out a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle from the trunk of his car, according to the report. He moved into the darkness east of the building while he awaited backup. When two Pinellas Park officers arrived, the three men approached the building from all sides. Cole knocked at the door, loudly and repeatedly, and got no response.

Inside the shed, Work awoke on a cot, confused and unaware of the time of day or who was at the door, the report said. Work, who lives in Tampa and owns a company that operates multiple cemeteries, regularly sleeps in the shed, he told investigators, because he is "a hard worker" and likes to work on projects into the wee hours.

Work kept a radio on to drown out the noise from the rain, he said. He kept the lights on because it was dark, and "there are some strange things that happen in a cemetery late at night."

When he saw that it was still dark outside — too early for any of his employees to have arrived — he wondered if someone had come to rob him. He picked up his Glock 30 handgun and walked to the door.

Outside, Cole held his rifle steady as the door jolted open and the dark silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway. He saw Work's right hand rise and a flash of silvery gray.

"The gun is right dead aimed at my head," Cole told investigators. "I could see full muzzle, full barrel, shadow of the bore, you know, and I fired, I'm trying to run backwards in a sense while firing."

He fired the rifle 15 times as he took cover behind a nearby pickup. A bullet went through the back of Work's right thigh. He was treated at Bayfront Medical Center.

Work never fired his gun.

Work told investigators he knew nothing about the stolen motorcycle, a $60,000 custom Suzuki, which authorities recovered behind the shed. The bike belonged to Thomas Singleton, a former Pinellas sheriff's deputy who was fired in 2006 after he had sex on duty with a waitress in a different St. Petersburg cemetery.

A 13-year FHP veteran, Cole has been the subject of 10 internal affairs investigations. In 2001, Cole shot a man in the hand during a traffic stop when the man made a sudden movement toward Cole after ignoring commands to show his hands. The man turned out to be a Christian minister who was unarmed and was driving erratically after getting lost. He said he was trying to show the trooper his wallet when he was shot.

Last year, Cole was investigated after he used a Taser to subdue a handcuffed woman, who fell and hit her head. She fell into a coma and suffered debilitating brain damage.

Cole was cleared in both cases.

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