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Police vow intense search for suspected cop-killer Dontae Morris

TAMPA — An intense manhunt closed its second day Wednesday with a bristling show of force but no arrest of the man wanted in the slayings of two Tampa police officers.

Late Wednesday afternoon, scores of officers with assault rifles, police dogs and an armored assault vehicle ringed an apartment complex on N 43rd Street. The law enforcement turnout included police, sheriff's deputies, FBI agents, even the Border Patrol.

But after nearly three hours, officers left without finding 24-year-old Dontae Rashawn Morris, the man suspected of shooting officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab early Tuesday.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said the authorities had responded to what was believed to be a reliable tip that Morris had been seen at the Kenneth Court Apartments.

The slayings and the search have left police drained but determined, she said.

"They're just heartbroken, there's no other way around that, but we're professionals and we're going to do what it takes to place this cop killer in custody," she said. "However long it takes … we're going to keep up this effort and this intensity until Dontae Morris is under arrest."

Castor said police think Morris is still in the Tampa Bay area and has had help eluding police.

"With the amount of pressure that we have out in the community right now, that he can stay underground this long is very surprising to me," Castor said. "It indicates to me that he's had assistance on more than one level."

As authorities increased the reward for Morris to $100,000, hundreds of law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies pitched in to help.

In District 2, where the slain officers worked, police went door to door distributing fliers.

Officer Jason Degagne, who handed the fliers to people standing outside businesses in east Tampa, had been working or at the hospital since the call came in about the shooting.

"Once we catch this guy, then I'll grieve," he said.

Tampa police have committed officers from specialty, narcotics and detective squads to the effort. As new units, such as a Lakeland SWAT team, arrived, Tampa officers who had worked day and night were sent home.

Castor said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was working to determine where Morris got the handgun he used to shoot the officers. She said the weapon was not recovered at the scene, and police consider Morris armed and very dangerous.

Police have received tips from as far away as Sarasota and Polk County. As the investigation has gone on, the quality of the tips has improved, allowing investigators to concentrate on a smaller and smaller area.

"This is a very dynamic investigation," Castor said.

• • •

Wednesday afternoon, Morris' mother, Selecia Watson, also was brought to the Kenneth Court Apartments. At the front of the yellow police tape, the Morris family pastor, John D. Anderson, stood hoping that the search would end without violence.

He said the family has been speaking with police all day, trying to help them find Morris.

"They're trying to compose themselves and do the best they can with this situation," said Anderson, senior pastor of New Testament Missionary Baptist Church in Thonotosassa.

Connie Burton, a local activist who lives in the apartments, said police came into the complex at 4:41 p.m. Wednesday. Detectives showed Morris' picture to residents as they combed for tips. Soon, they followed with SWAT officers and finally officers in heavy gear.

She said police handcuffed two men inside Apartment 1105.

Residents who had their homes searched said police knocked first. If no one was home or answered, they opened doors with keys. They asked residents to step outside.

Burton said they acted professionally.

"Not very aggressive at all, not hostile," she said.

• • •

Despite Morris' lengthy rap sheet, which dates to when he was just 16, the accusations stunned some friends and family.

"It hurt my heart that this young man would find himself in this type of trouble," said Tamara Smith, 65, who knew Morris as he grew up in the east Tampa neighborhood. "He has always shown the utmost respect to me."

The Rev. Anderson said Morris' family was shocked. "They never expected anything like this to happen," he said.

Little is known about Morris' upbringing, other than that he bounced around several schools before his first arrest. He attended high school at Wharton, King, Chamberlain and Armwood high schools. At one point he played wide receiver briefly on King's football team.

Then-coach Joe Severino doesn't remember Morris but said his then-assistant coach Orlando Goodes called Morris "just a kid going to high school, playing football."

"It's shocking to hear Dontae was involved in this," said Goodes, a Tampa police officer.

By the time he was 21, Morris had already been charged with crimes ranging from cocaine possession to attempted murder. His first arrest came at 16, on a charge of disturbing the peace on a school campus.

As a juvenile, he was also charged with vehicle theft, battery on a school employee, drug possession and the possession of a weapon at school.

On Feb. 15, 2004, a Tampa police officer saw Morris get out of a sport utility vehicle that had been reported stolen three days earlier, an arrest report states. As the officer approached him in a marked patrol car and ordered him to stop, Morris ran.

The officer caught him five blocks away. Morris told the officer he had exchanged $200 worth of crack cocaine for the car. Once he was in custody, police said they found four white rocks in his possession.

The next year, he was accused of gunning down a man.

Witness Maurice Dyal told lawyers that Morris, a neighbor, was a passenger in Dyal's car on Oct. 30, 2005. They were driving around, drinking gin, when Morris told Dyal to pull over because he needed to relieve himself.

Dyal pulled to the side of the road, Morris got out, and Dyal told lawyers he heard Morris say, "Give it up." Then Dyal said he heard a gunshot and a scream.

Morris jumped back in the car, unloaded and re-loaded a shotgun and said, "Somebody gonna die tonight," Dyal told investigators.

The victim was James Wright, who was shot in the side. Police found a shotgun shell on a seat in the car. An evidence photo from the case shows Morris hogtied in chains after his arrest, his fingernails long and his eyes in a bloodshot stare.

But after a jury trial, Morris was acquitted. According to court files, Dyal changed his statement when he spoke to attorneys.

In 2008, Tampa police were searching for an auto theft suspect. Police saw a group of 10 men, including one who matched the suspect's description.

Morris was part of the group. When police approached, Morris fled through back yards. He was caught after a brief foot chase, and officers learned he had five outstanding warrants.

In that case, Morris pleaded guilty to obstructing or opposing an officer without violence.

Morris has spent a total of almost three years in prison, beginning in April 2004 when he was behind bars for 10 months on cocaine charges. He spent two more years in prison beginning in April 2008 for cocaine possession.

He was released in April. According to the Department of Corrections, Morris' tattoos include the word "MOB" on his face. His left arm sports his nickname, "Qwalo," and "venni, vetti, vecci," a riff on the Latin for "I came, I saw, I conquered."

His right arm features happy and sad faces, which are often understood to mean that the wearer will laugh now and cry when he's behind bars, said state attorney's investigator Norm Miller.

Times staff writers Shelley Rossetter, Nandini Jayakrishna, Justin George, Jessica Vander Velde, Alexandra Zayas, Danny Valentine and Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report.

SWAT members move in to search an apartment building off N 43rd Street in Tampa Wednesday. They left without their suspect.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

SWAT members move in to search an apartment building off N 43rd Street in Tampa Wednesday. They left without their suspect.

Police vow intense search for suspected cop-killer Dontae Morris 06/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 1, 2010 1:17am]

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