Saturday, December 16, 2017
Public safety

'Protective custody' was no protection for man beaten in transport van

Thomas Morrow opened his eyes for the first time in five days on Thursday. From his bed in Bayfront Medical Center's intensive care unit, he gave a brief thumbs up.

The 59-year-old's spleen has been removed. He's on a ventilator, one lung is collapsed and his head and right arm are bandaged. He has brain injuries his doctors call severe.

On July 6, an officer found Morrow drunk and asleep on a bench in Treasure Island. The officer placed him in protective custody under the Marchman Act, a state law designed to help substance abusers who might be a danger to themselves or others.

But there was no protection for Morrow inside the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office transport van where he was handcuffed and shackled for a ride to jail.

Within minutes, the van picked up Leonard David Lanni Jr., 37, who was also drunk and was accused of pushing guests at a St. Pete Beach hotel, records show. Morrow fell from his seat in the van and Lanni pounced, kicking him repeatedly, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The van driver flagged down two deputies for help.

During her first visit to the hospital, Morrow's wife, Sharon, couldn't bear to see her husband's condition.

"I couldn't make it past the curtain," she said Friday through tears. "My friend's husband was holding on to me, and I went back outside. And every day, I'm just trying to deal with it."

• • •

Morrow was detained by police after a stranger spotted him, obviously impaired, trying to get in his Ford Explorer on 107th Avenue in Treasure Island. The stranger led him from the vehicle and Morrow walked to the bench, where he fell asleep.

An officer wrote in his report that Morrow "was unable to sit up on his own and needed assistance getting up due to his severe balance impairment."

Morrow told the officer he had drunk two glasses of vodka within the past two hours, but had been drinking all day.

His wife of 35 years, Sharon Morrow, said her husband has had problems with alcohol. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 2008 and remained sober for three years. But after some family deaths, Morrow began drinking again.

"He was off and on trying to control it," said Sharon, 57.

The Morrows, who started dating in high school, moved to Florida from Long Island about 25 years ago. Morrow is an electrician at the Tampa Convention Center. He's also an avid kayaker and fisherman who hoped to go skydiving for his 60th birthday on Oct. 4.

The weekend her husband was beaten, Sharon was in North Carolina with their 20-year-old daughter for a wedding. In the darkness of her hotel room, her iPhone buzzed to life at 4 a.m. Sunday. It was a blocked number, so she didn't pick up. In the morning, she had a voicemail message from a detective saying her husband had been hospitalized.

Now, doctors tell her it's too soon to tell whether Morrow will make a full recovery.

"I focus on looking ahead, but then I still can't get over that this actually happened," she said.

She contacted a lawyer, Michael Babboni of St. Petersburg, who on Friday told the Tampa Bay Times, "This was a continuous, severe, savage beating that does not happen in 30 seconds, 1 minute or 2 minutes. … Whoever was driving was not paying attention."

The incident happened five days after employees with G4S Secure Solutions, a private security firm, replaced deputies who had driven the transport vans.

"I can tell you preliminarily, from what I know of the facts and what occurred, there is nothing at this point that is glaring, there is nothing that indicates to me that the G4S officer did anything improper," said Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.

Lanni remains at the Pinellas County Jail on disorderly conduct and aggravated battery charges in lieu of $20,150 bail. He has previously been arrested on trespassing and marijuana charges.

Morrow has no criminal record in Florida.

On Friday afternoon, Sharon Morrow headed to Bayfront again to see her husband. She talks to him every time, though he can't answer.

"Tom, I'm here," she tells him. "It's going to be okay."

Times staff researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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