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St. Petersburg police clear officer in teen's shooting death

ST. PETERSBURG — Police officials have determined that a city officer followed department policies when he shot and killed a teen outside a graduation party this summer.

The evidence police collected during an internal affairs investigation showed that Officer Terrence Nemeth acted properly when he shot and killed 17-year-old Javon Dawson on June 7.

This latest report, released Monday, wrapped up the myriad investigations into the shooting of Dawson, a Gibbs High School sophomore.

The shooting prompted some protests from Dawson's family and local activists but did not prompt violence or widespread protests like the fatal police shooting of TyRon Lewis in 1996.

The 800 pages of reports released Monday offered no new answers about the Dawson shooting but shed some new light on the chaotic night authorities say Dawson and Nemeth, 24, took aim at each other around a crowd of hundreds of teens.

And for the first time, the public was provided a detailed account of the incident in the officer's own words.

• • •

Nemeth graduated from Northeast High in 2001. He spent four years in the Marines. In the military, he never fired a shot. That changed this summer, in his second year with the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Nemeth and other officers were called to the Shining Light Masonic Lodge to disperse a crowd of teens. A graduation party had grown out of control at 3101 Freemont Terrace S.

Nemeth said it was 10:45 p.m. when he noticed something happening across the street.

"I just heard screaming," he said, "and then as I looked over there was some kind of commotion amongst the crowd and then I saw muzzle flashes in the crowd."

Nemeth said it looked like a fight inside a scrum of 150 to 200 teens had led to gunfire.

"I could see a black male waving a gun into the crowd," Nemeth said. He was describing Dawson.

The teen had a gun, the officer said: "He pointed it at me and then pointed it back in the crowd and fired off at least one more shot."

The officer said he was 25 feet away when he pulled out his .40-caliber Glock and started yelling.

"Police," Nemeth said he yelled. "Drop the gun."

Nemeth said he yelled it "seven or eight" times. He feared Dawson had already shot or killed someone in the crowd.

"At this point I thought I had at least (a) homicide," Nemeth said. "I didn't know if (Dawson) had shot someone already or was trying to."

The officer said he chased after Dawson and got 12 to 15 feet behind him.

"He looks over his shoulder and begins to bring the gun up to level it on me," Nemeth said, "and that's when I fired the first shot."

"I did see him flinch and I saw blood and he brought the gun back up after that."

It was less than a second later, Nemeth said, that he fired again. The teen was now hit twice.

Nemeth said he saw Dawson throw the gun down, then stumble and fall into a yard.

"I believe I said 'Stay on the ground,' " he said, "and then I asked him what his name was."

Dawson never answered.

Paramedics were called. An angry crowd was forming.

Officer Deangelo Stoner used pepper spray, trying to hold the crowd back while Dawson lay dying.

Then Stoner heard Nemeth speak to the teen: "Hold on and hang in there."

Paramedics arrived as Dawson went into convulsions. He was pronounced dead.

• • •

Several investigations have now cleared Nemeth.

The Police Department and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office cleared him of criminal wrongdoing. Gov. Charlie Crist asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to review the state attorney's report. FDLE officials agreed that the shooting was "justifiable homicide."

Monday's latest report answered whether Nemeth violated department policy.

Nemeth has been on desk duty since the state attorney cleared him in August. But police Chief Charles "Chuck" Harmon said no decision has been made about his next assignment.

Nemeth could not be reached for comment Monday. Neither could the Dawson family.

Nyabinga Dzimbahwe, a spokesman for the International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, said the Dawson family does not believe he was armed. It disputes the official reports about what happened that night, he said.

The state says forensic evidence connects Dawson to the gun found at the scene. But Nemeth remains the only eyewitness to what actually happened.

"Nobody out of the hundreds of people there, with the exception of the cop who shot him, said Javon Dawson had a gun," Dzimbahwe said.

Harmon said Nemeth was called in at the end of Monday's shooting review board for the verdict.

"I think he was looking for closure, and that's happened for him," Harmon said. "The only thing I sensed is that he was happy it was all over."

Staff writer Nicole Hutcheson contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

St. Petersburg police clear officer in teen's shooting death 11/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 5, 2008 9:03pm]
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