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Police experts question St. Petersburg mayor's decision to raze Lacy house

ST. PETERSBURG — As the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office conducts an investigation into the shootout that killed two St. Petersburg police officers last week, there won't be an opportunity to analyze one thing most homicide cases have.

The crime scene.

Mayor Bill Foster ordered the immediate demolition of the house where the officers were shot, a decision that experts interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times say will compromise future investigations.

The State Attorney's Office is looking into the suspect's actions and the officers' use of deadly force. While it seems clear that Hydra Lacy Jr. shot the officers, determining how the gunfight unfolded will be more difficult.

The department itself will review the Jan. 24 shooting to figure out which tactics worked, and which didn't, so officers can learn from the tragedy.

"It's important for people to understand what happened so it doesn't happen again, not just for St. Petersburg, but for Florida and all over the United States," said David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Gone is the chance to pore over the scene, to take detailed measurements and photos, and the ability to walk officers through what remained of the house.

"For some officers, at least, when you walk them through the scene, it prompts them to remember things," Klinger said.

After a series of shootouts with Lacy, the front end of the house was essentially shredded as officers used armored vehicles to rescue a trapped officer. They continued to rip apart the house until Lacy was found dead.

"It was the safest way to try and extricate him from where he was concealed in the attic," said police Chief Chuck Harmon.

The back of the house appeared intact in aerial photos taken after the siege.

Foster's decision to demolish the rest of the house, which Harmon said he agreed with, was uncommon, if not unprecedented, experts said.

"It's unusual not to have that scene," said David Walcher, sheriff bureau chief of Arapahoe County, Colo., who was the incident commander at the Columbine shootings. "With any major incident, you always want to go back and understand what happened."

Clues at the scene could indicate a number of things: Did officers run out of ammunition, and if so, when and where? When an officer moved somewhere in the house, did he expose himself to danger? Or did he improve the tactical situation? During the rescue attempts, did officers have the right equipment to extricate the wounded officers?

"All sorts of fine-grained things that become very important about a half-inch one way or a half-inch the other way and that mean life or death," Klinger said.

Bullet trajectories into the remaining sides of the house and shell casings could show where the police shot in relation to Lacy's location.

"Did they find all the weapons?" Klinger said. "Fingerprints, fiber, DNA that show who has been in the house recently? Now it's all in a swamp somewhere, and I can't vouch for its integrity."

A crime scene of "this magnitude" being destroyed by a mayor is unheard of and the police chief should have stopped him, said Jon Shane, a former SWAT commander in Newark, N.J., and an assistant professor in law and police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"These kinds of after-action investigations have to take place," he said. "When you deprive yourself of cool, calm deliberation, you lose the ability to step back and determine what happened in the right sense and the wrong sense. And then you're no better off than you were 30 seconds before the shooting started."

It's also unclear if Foster overstepped his authority in ordering the demolition.

While the city's charter broadly gives the mayor responsibility "for the administration of all city affairs," Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn acknowledged it does not explicitly give the mayor powers over crime scenes or demolitions.

In Tampa, the authority to order emergency demolitions rests with the city's neighborhood improvement manager, who must then notify a condemnation team to inspect the property, said City Attorney Chip Fletcher. The mayor doesn't have that authority, he added.

St. Petersburg's city code grants the mayor powers to designate someone, such as the fire marshal or the top building official, to make emergency condemnations, but Foster said he didn't seek advice from either of those officials beforehand.

In the days that followed, Foster gave these reasons for his decision:

• The house could not be saved or renovated.

• Demolishing the house was the best way to retrieve the guns at the scene. Police said they recovered weapons, but it's unclear whether they were found at the home or in the rubble.

• The residue from 100 canisters of tear gas in the house made it unbearable for city workers and a hazard to residents.

• The house was too unsafe to reoccupy or retrieve belongings.

• The house posed a safety risk for neighborhood children.

• The house would be a reminder of loss to the community and police department.

• The house could serve as a rallying point to incite riots.

• The home's removal could help start the healing process in the community.

Foster said that if Lacy had been caught alive, he would have delayed the demolition. But given Lacy's death, Foster didn't think it was worth risking the lives of any more officers to gather evidence.

After Foster gave the order, it took city workers about eight hours to demolish the house and take the rubble to a compost site near Dell Holmes Park.

House parts, such as wall plaster, wood flooring and concrete, were intermingled with twisted and shattered furniture parts, broken dishes and ripped clothing. The home's concrete foundation, which was removed last, was dumped on top of the debris.

It had to be removed later so officers could sift through the rubble.

Klinger also questioned the mayor being at the scene during the shootout. Foster said he "stayed out of the way," but his mere presence can distract commanders, Klinger said.

"The people making decisions at the scene, the SWAT commander, the chief of police, need as few things as possible cluttering their minds," Klinger said. "The mayor being there, looking over their shoulder, clutters their minds."

Walcher said it wasn't necessarily wrong to demolish the house if properly trained people determined it was in danger of collapse. "I would think it would be the police and the structural engineers who can make that determination," he said.

Foster called his public works administrator, Mike Connors, to order the demolition. Connors, a structural engineer, said he arrived two hours later and understood why the mayor wanted it razed. Connors said it was unsafe to inhabit. However, he didn't think it would collapse immediately. In the short term, he said, it was "okay."

"Evidence collecting purposes, it was safe," he said. Asked how long he estimated they had to collect evidence, Connors said "hours" but could not be more specific. He added that the storm the following night could have blown the house down.

Rick Dunn, the city's top building official, said he also agreed with Foster's decision. When he saw the house Monday afternoon, it was clearly unsafe, he said. Still, he didn't know that Foster had ordered it to be razed until he watched the news that night.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and reporters Kameel Stanley and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

A crime scene is dismantled

Officers arrive at 3734 28th Ave. S at 6:58 a.m. Jan. 24 to interview Christine Lacy about her estranged husband, fugitive Hydra Lacy Jr. She says he's in the attic. Backup is called and officers attempt an arrest. Police say Lacy fatally shot a St. Petersburg officer and wounded a deputy U.S. marshal. Minutes later another St. Petersburg officer is fatally wounded while rescuing the marshal. The other officer is trapped in the attic until a SWAT team and armored vehicle break into the house and free him at 9:25 a.m. The police chief announces at 11:10 a.m. that both officers have died.

Five hours after the last officer is rescued, armored vehicles continue to tear apart the house until Lacy's body is found at 2:15 p.m. Foster then orders city crews to tear down the rest of the house. Crews begin breaking apart the house about 4:30 p.m., with police and other workers sifting through debris. By 7 p.m., real demolition begins, ending about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

Seven triple-axle dump trucks haul 48 loads of the rubble more than a mile to a city mulching site next to Dell Holmes Park on 22nd Street S. House parts, such as wall plaster, wood flooring and concrete, were intermingled with twisted and shattered furniture parts, broken dishes and ripped clothing. The home's concrete foundation, which was removed last, was dumped on top of the debris mound. Dozens of officers pore through the rubble until 4 p.m. Tuesday. A storm that night drenches the exposed rubble, which was left unguarded.

Police experts question St. Petersburg mayor's decision to raze Lacy house 02/01/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 3, 2011 1:53pm]
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