ST. PETERSBURG — Before he started each shift as a private security officer, Mathew F. Little would don his black uniform, gun belt and protective vest and leave his fiancée with these words:
"I love you," he would say, "and I'm coming back."
It was a promise he could not keep Monday. St. Petersburg police say the 26-year-old security officer was shot and killed early that morning while patrolling a large apartment complex where police sirens aren't uncommon.
Little was shot at close range in an area his vest didn't protect, police said. He was found lying between two parked vehicles inside the Mariner's Pointe Apartment complex at 1175 Pinellas Point Drive S. His sidearm was missing, and police have yet to find a motive or suspects.
He was the first officer to die in the line of duty in the 19-year history of Critical Intervention Services, a private Largo firm whose 300 officers provide security in Tampa Bay, Orlando and Jacksonville. His death comes just a few months after three St. Petersburg police officers were shot and killed earlier this year.
"There's something going on. There's no doubt about it," said the firm's chief executive officer, K.C. Poulin. "It's scary — it's a disturbing trend."
Little dreamed of a career as a sworn officer. He had made the final cut to be selected as a cadet at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. The Brandon resident also was set to marry his college sweetheart, Suzan Leyczek, on Nov. 11.
"It was supposed to be our lucky day," she said.
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Little worked primarily in a high-crime area west of the University of South Florida in Tampa. But on Sunday he was filling in on the night shift in St. Petersburg.
Mariner's Pointe is one of many St. Petersburg complexes patrolled day and night by CIS. Little parked his patrol car about 1 a.m. and messaged dispatch from his laptop: He was going on foot patrol.
At 1:07 a.m. someone heard gunshots and called police. Two officers arrived at 1:14 a.m., searched the area and said they found nothing. A resident they spoke to said he hadn't heard anything. They left at 1:51 a.m.
By then CIS dispatchers couldn't get Little on his radio or cell phone, police said. They were supposed to touch base every 30 minutes. The firm called St. Petersburg police, who went back to the complex at 1:59 a.m.
They found Little about 2:09 a.m. lying between two trucks near the pool and tennis court area. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Several gunshots were fired, police said, and Little was struck above his bullet-resistant vest. They didn't say what Little was armed with, but did say he was not shot with his own weapon. CIS officers typically carry 9mm semiautomatics or .38- or .357-caliber revolvers.
Circumstances suggest Little was taken by surprise, but Poulin said they don't yet know what happened.
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Mariner's Pointe resident Ida Boyd, 61, says if she pulls up to her apartment after dark she'll wait for a security officer to walk by on patrol before she gets out.
The private officers are well-known to many residents who complain they don't feel safe unless private security is there.
There are 368 apartments in Mariner's Pointe, a low-income complex across the street from waterfront homes. The community has seen its share of crime and violence. In September, three men were arrested for robbing two teens at gunpoint at the complex and firing a gun to prove it was real. Most recently, on May 7, a resident reported five gunshots being fired from a car as it sped out the gate.
Residents complain they see too many people who don't live there come to buy drugs. The front gate used to close automatically but was broken so many times that it's now left open, they said. The back gate is locked.
There are security cameras at the complex, but police wouldn't say if the tapes contained any clues about Little's death.
Many residents there are now in mourning. "I'm sorry this happened to him while he was doing his job," Boyd said. "He was here to protect and serve."
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Little worked at CIS for nearly two years but wasn't hired the first time he applied.
He didn't give up.
He earned his state security officer certification, paying his own way.
"That showed a lot of initiative," Poulin said.
Little had 125 to 150 hours of training, finished the antiterrorism program last year and aced firearm training in April. He was known for being able to "de-escalate" tense situations. In Tampa his usual beat was a low-income, high-crime area outside USF, where he graduated.
Little was well aware of the risks of his job, his family said.
"He knew it was dangerous," said his mother, Cynthia Little, 53. "We all were just holding our breath that he would get out of the security work."
A Sarasota High graduate, he was known for his wit and love of the outdoors. His best friend was his younger brother Chris.
He met his fiancée, Leyczek, 27, at Florida State. They met online, but before they could meet in person her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Little sent flowers. They've been dating since 2004, transferring to USF.
They took turns proposing to each other and talked about having kids.
All the chaos Little saw in St. Petersburg made him especially uneasy, Leyczek said. There were bad situations, gangs, large crowds, lots of drinking and fighting. But it also made him want to do more. That's why he wanted to become a sworn officer.
"He always wanted to make sure people were safe," she said, "and would get back to their families."