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In the Age of Nowhere to Hide, how can a suspected cop killer disappear?

TAMPA — The most wanted man in Tampa fled Tuesday morning, on foot, into the shadows of a carefully watched, high-tech, modern American city.

The clock starts. Three days slide by. The suspected cop killer is still missing, exceedingly rare, and we wonder: In the Age of Nowhere to Hide, in a media-saturated city of 340,882, how can a man just disappear?

"A person can only hide for so long in modern society," said Mayor Pam Iorio, 57 hours after the shooting of two police officers. "We're too connected."

If he's alive, a small and tight network of friends and relatives is keeping suspect Dontae Morris low, say experts who study criminal gangs. If he's still in Tampa, and police think he is, he's relying heavily on them.

"He has contacted his associates and probably has gotten resources" from them, said career profiler John Moriarty, inspector general for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

"He has a good network of people who are helping him go underground," said Sgt. Thomas Dixon, who investigates gangs and vice at the Polk County Sheriff's Office.

"We've had people give them money, get them a vehicle, whatever it takes to get them out of the area," said Lt. Michael Wallace with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office gangs unit.

Those around Morris are lending help out of loyalty, or fear, and they're breaking laws to do so. That will last only so long.

Soon, the experts said, Morris will need money. He won't be able to earn it himself. His friends and relatives will get tired of supporting him.

"You can stay down low for just so long," Dixon said. "You're going to get caught."

• • •

"This is the No. 1 priority in the city of Tampa," Iorio said Thursday morning, sure-voiced, in front of a bank of television cameras. "The intensity that you see right now will not let up."

That intensity?

Two hundred officers from seven agencies with dogs and guns and flashlights. Billboards flashing Morris' mug from Miami to Atlanta. Tactical teams searching attics. Cops swarming cemeteries and abandoned buildings.

That's what we can see.

What we can't see are cell phone traces and debit card monitoring, phone taps and video surveillance, cameras watching the streets in the University Area and Ybor City, powerful enough to call a quarter on the sidewalk, heads or tails.

Police are using technology.

"All of it," said Tampa police Chief Jane Castor. "He can assume that we're watching him or looking for him with everything we've got.

"Every technology known to man has been or will be deployed."

Still, no Morris.

He left fingerprints on MySpace.com. He calls himself Qwalo Da Don. He posted photos and a video, but nothing since 2008.

Over on Facebook, Morris' sister claimed to have spoken with him.

"YEAH E I TALKED TO HIM!" Audra Callaway wrote in an exchange with a man claiming to be Morris' godbrother.

The man wrote that Morris called him early Tuesday looking for Callaway. He wrote something else, too: "QWALO KEEP RUNNING … ALL DAY…."

Those are cracks. Now it's a matter of time, police and experts said. The break is coming.

Dixon, with the Polk County Sheriff's Office, remembers when they caught up with the killer of Winter Haven police Officer Johnnie Patterson. It was two days later at his grandmother's house.

"It felt like forever."

Witnesses step forward, he said, even more than usual, when the victim is in law enforcement.

There is no such thing as a cold case when it comes to a slain police officer.

• • •

The intensity of the search is starting to rub blisters in a neighborhood with hard feelings.

Three squad cars pulled next to Darrin Cogmon, 38, as he walked in east Tampa.

"I take the glasses off and look at them," he said. "I ain't him."

Cogmon's friend Shanae Jones, 25, said: "You know how they say black people all look alike."

Nathan Lamar was resting in his room at Johnson & Kenneth Court Apartments, on 43rd Street north of Hillsborough Avenue, on Thursday when three armed officers barged in asking if he knew somebody.

He said police were kicking in doors, taking cell phones.

"They're putting pressure on us," he said. "This wouldn't be happening in the suburbs."

Cherell Mitchell, seven months pregnant, with two young kids, stood outside the gates of her apartment Wednesday for four hours, she said. She told police her kids were hungry and thirsty, and she had to go to the bathroom.

"They said they don't care," she said.

About 10:30 a.m., SWAT officers went into a block of units in the Boulevard Homes public housing complex, asking residents to evacuate while they searched apartments.

Charise Hunter, 26, and her 6-year-old son left their apartment barefoot while they were asked if they knew the suspect.

"I got to move," she said, clutching her son. "It's just a wakeup call for me to get up out of here."

Over at the command center, Iorio begged patience.

"If, along the way, we have to evacuate an apartment complex, if we have to block off a street, and people are inconvenienced, it is a small inconvenience when you take into account what we're trying to accomplish here," she said. "And what we're trying to accomplish is the capture of someone who has killed two of our police officers and likely killed other people."

Another news conference ended, another day drew to a close, and the FBI put Dontae Morris' mug shots at the top of its most-wanted list, above a photo of Osama Bin Laden.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or sokol@sptimes.com.

In the Age of Nowhere to Hide, how can a suspected cop killer disappear? 07/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 2, 2010 12:45pm]
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