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St. Petersburg honors fallen officers, others who aided them

ST. PETERSBURG

The city on Friday honored three officers who died in the line of duty in a span of 28 days this year, and the comrades, firefighters and doctors who came to their aid.

K-9 Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger and Officer David S. Crawford were posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor and the police Purple Heart. Police Chief Chuck Harmon presented the medals to the officers' families at the Coliseum at a ceremony attended by more than 700 people.

"You have always made me proud," the chief told his police force. "But our recent time together has made me even prouder."

Yaslowitz and Baitinger were killed Jan. 24 by an armed fugitive hiding in an attic. It was the first time St. Petersburg had lost an officer in the line of duty in 30 years. More than 10,000 attended their funeral.

Then, 28 days later, Crawford was shot and killed while questioning a prowling suspect downtown, police said. A 16-year-old was charged with murder.

The widows of the three slain officers sat in the front row with their families. Donna Crawford and Paige Baitinger cried as they received the awards, hugging Harmon and Mayor Bill Foster.

Lorraine Yaslowitz handed her medals to her three children, who studied them closely. "It's an honor, it makes me really proud of Jeff," she said.

It was only in the last few days that she stopped getting cards and flowers every day from strangers lending support. Politely smiling to well-wishers, she said she feels strong knowing she's not alone.

"There are times when the gravity of Jan. 24 hits me," she said. "That's when I'm reminded by my faith, the people around me and Jeff: It's all part of a plan."

For their actions during that Jan. 24 siege, 14 officers received the department's highest honor: the Medal of Valor.

"It is given to those who distinguish themselves for conspicuous bravery," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt, "in this case, literally in the face of gunfire."

Rescue Team: Sgt. Karl Lounge, Officer Douglas Weaver and Sgt. Tom Baitinger

The call had gone out: 10-24, officer down, shots fired.

K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz was badly wounded inside the attic with the fugitive. Another officer had pulled an injured deputy U.S. marshal into a bathroom.

They were trapped in a home with a gunman who vowed he would not return to prison.

The officers huddled in the back of the house. The plan was simple: "We need to get them," Officer Doug Weaver said.

He grabbed the ballistic shield from a young officer. "I'll do shield," he said. "You cover me."

But Sgt. Tom Baitinger took the shield back.

"You got the long gun," Baitinger told Weaver. "You cover me."

Baitinger led the way, shield up. Weaver and Sgt. Karl Lounge followed, carrying AR-15s.

What happened next will be etched in St. Petersburg history.

Lounge and Weaver exchanged gunfire with the fugitive. Weaver was shot at as he tried to pull Yaslowitz down from the attic. Baitinger was hit during the rescue attempt. Weaver carried the marshal out and went back in for a wounded Baitinger.

The gunman fired down through the ceiling. Lounge, alone in the living room, returned fire.

"I'm next," Lounge thought to himself. "I don't know where the bullets are coming from, but I'm dead."

He survived. Baitinger and Yaslowitz did not.

Weaver and Lounge were awarded Medals of Valor.

First Entry Team: Officers Douglas Weaver, Bradley Bryan, Jason Deary, David Gerardo, Matthew Hansell, Donald Herring

After freeing Baitinger and the marshal, Weaver went back to his cruiser to put on his tactical gear.

The Tactical Apprehension and Control team, the city's version of SWAT, was massing.

Weaver loaded a fresh magazine into his AR-15 and went to the command post. Everyone was focused on rescuing Yaslowitz. Weaver was frank: he thought the officer was dead.

But he was ready to lead the team back inside to get him.

Weaver and Bryan bore rifles. Officers Matthew Hansell and Donald Herring carried ballistic shields. Officers Jason Deary and David Gerardo carried nothing, as they planned to carry Yaslowitz out.

Their first entry was met by gunfire. They pulled back.

"He's trying to kill us," Weaver said later. "He was just lying in wait."

More tear gas was fired into the house.

Then Weaver led the team back in. TAC Officers John Paulina, Patrick McGovern and Ronald Try joined them for the second entry. Weaver fired up into the ceiling avoiding the area where Yaslowitz lay.

Deary, 6-feet-7, couldn't free Yaslowitz. He peeked into the attic and saw the gunman had wrapped the officer's legs in wire and duct work. The gunman's bullets flew. Deary wrapped his arm around Yaslowitz's leg. If he was hit, the team could free Yaslowitz by pulling on Deary.

Gerardo got down on all fours so Deary could stand on him. Then Deary ripped Yaslowitz free.

"I don't know if you want to call it a trap or bait," Deary said later. "But it was certainly meant so we couldn't get our officer out."

For their actions, 11 TAC officers received Medals of Valor.

Support: Emergency radio dispatcher Lawanna Medaries, Detectives/hostage negotiators Gary Gibson and Anthony Foster

Emergency radio dispatcher Lawanna Medaries was a calm voice in the storm.

The fugitive task force needs backup at 3734 28th Ave. S.

"The subject is possibly hiding in the attic," she radios officers. "Advise that (he) possibly has a gun in the house …"

Minutes later, shots ring out. The dispatcher's voice never wavers.

"Shots fired," she said. "Is everything l0-4 there?"

It's not.

"Units, just code 14, we have two officers down, 7:29."

"Make sure you use cover."

"Any negotiator this channel?"

The negotiators were Detectives Gary Gibson and Anthony Foster. They tracked down the gunman's cell number and got him on the phone.

The detectives kept trying to talk him down. The gunman kept stalling, hanging up. He was shot, he said, and getting cold. On it went for an hour.

They asked the gunman to surrender, to free the injured officer. They even offered to exchange themselves as hostages.

"It violates Hostage Negotiation 101," Gibson said. "But desperate times call for desperate measures."

The gunman never budged.

"Let me get my thoughts together," the gunman told them. "I'll be out in a couple minutes."

He never came. Five hours, 16 minutes after the shooting started, he was found dead.

Medaries was awarded an Exceptional Service Award for her performance that day, Jan. 24.

Other winners



Medals of Valor

• Officer Timothy McClintick, who was inside the house when the shooting started Jan. 24 and pulled the injured marshal to safety.

• Officer Max McDonald, who aided the rescue team.

• Tactical Apprehension and Control Team members Patrick McGovern, John Paulina, Ronald Try, Ruben DeJesus and Darrell Goodrow.

Exceptional Service Awards

• Sgt. James Haley, who helped the TAC team plan its assault.

Police Life Saving Awards

• Officers Joshua Innes, Thad Crisco, Candace Marklin and James Stewart for giving medical aid to the fallen officers.

• St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue firefighters, paramedics and SWAT paramedics James Cunningham, Kevin Dooley, Joseph Grasso, Matthew Grasso, Daniel Gulick, David Jones, David Kirby, Richard McKinney, Corey Wagner, Nicholette "Nicky" Walker, Michael Weaver and Leo Williams.

• Four Bayfront Medical Center surgeons who worked on all three officers: Dr. Steven G. Epstein, Dr.Jeffrey L. Johnson, Dr. Amy J. Koler and Dr. Nicholas W. Price.

St. Petersburg honors fallen officers, others who aided them 05/20/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 21, 2011 12:40am]
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