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St. Petersburg police find suspects in woman's slaying in a grimly familiar place: the attic

ST. PETERSBURG — The search for suspects in the death of a woman whose body was found in a lake on Christmas Day brought officers to an apartment door Wednesday night.

Where, they asked the woman who lived inside, was her boyfriend?

He's not here, she said. Officers searched and found nothing. Then they looked up.

The officers had not yet searched the attic — a hiding place grimly familiar to the city's police force.

A fugitive hiding in an attic just a half mile away killed two St. Petersburg officers in a harrowing Jan. 24 gunfight.

This time officers were better prepared. They were out in force. They called for special equipment they could use to safely scan the attic before going up.

Officers also took precautions on Jan. 24, but everything seemed to go wrong that day. Everything went right on Wednesday.

Two unarmed men were hiding in the attic at 3210 39th St. S, according to police, and surrendered. They were charged with killing the woman found in the lake. A third man was charged Thursday.

The men tortured and beat the woman, police said, because she had stolen four pairs of children's shoes the men intended to give as gifts for Christmas.

The two men who climbed down from the attic Wednesday were Letrell McKnight and Santonio Smith, both 21. Darryl Williams, 35, was arrested Thursday.

All three men were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Stacia Berman, 42. All three have extensive arrest records in Pinellas County.

Berman was a transient, according to police, who at the time of her death was staying with the three men in their apartment at 527 Eighth St. N.

Police described their home, Apt. 3, as a "drug trap." Berman had a long criminal record that included arrests for drug possession and prostitution. The men were supplying her with drugs, police said.

Then the shoes disappeared. The men found someone who had bought a pair, police said, who told them Berman sold it to him.

The men confronted Berman on Christmas Eve. Witnesses reported hearing a loud commotion or fight about 10 p.m. Then witnesses said they saw the men carrying a body into the complex's carport and loading it into the trunk of a red Chrysler 300.

Berman's body was found at 3:35 p.m. Sunday, Christmas Day, floating on the north side of Lake Maggiore near the 2800 block of 13th Street S.

Police said the men used an instrument — they would not identify what — to inflict pain on Berman. She was punched and kicked, police said, until her head and chest were covered with bruises. She was strangled with an electrical cord left knotted around her neck. Her body was found wrapped in a bed skirt.

"No one admitted that they were trying to kill her," said police spokesman Mike Puetz. "There was an acknowledgement that they were trying to inflict pain on her. They were very forthcoming about that.

"But at some point in the process, she succumbed to the beating."

• • •

Hydra Lacy Jr. was facing 30 years in prison when he disappeared in November 2010. A fugitive task force spent weeks tracking him down.

They visited his estranged wife on Jan. 24 to ask her about his whereabouts.

They didn't know Lacy was there. He had climbed into the attic to hide.

K-9 Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz searched the attic with a flashlight and collapsible mirror before he and a deputy U.S. marshal climbed up.

Yaslowitz saw Lacy and ordered him to surrender.

The marshal had his Taser out. Yaslowitz had his gun out. Lacy's arms were spread, according to police, as he feigned surrender inside the darkened attic. But he was hiding a gun.

The city is still reeling from what happened next: Yaslowitz was killed and the marshal wounded; Sgt. Thomas Baitinger was fatally shot trying to rescue them; and Lacy was killed in the shootout that followed.

Searching cramped and dark spaces is part of the job, police Chief Chuck Harmon later explained.

But in response to Jan. 24, the force bolstered its arsenal and equipment and added tools to make attic searches safer.

The officers and marshals in Wednesday's incident were part of the same task force. They were waiting for one of those new tools to arrive before searching the attic: a tactical mirror, which is a large mirror and flashlight mounted to a 12-foot pole.

Before the tactical mirror arrived, the two men surrendered and came down.

The girlfriend, Britney Johnson, concealed the men's whereabouts, police said.

She "adamantly denied" they were there, or hiding in the attic, according to a police report, even when officers threatened to arrest her.

Johnson, 21, was arrested on a charge of being an accessory after the fact. She was released from the Pinellas County Jail after posting $5,000 bail.

The men charged with Berman's death were held without bail Thursday night.

St. Petersburg police find suspects in woman's slaying in a grimly familiar place: the attic 12/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 29, 2011 11:30pm]
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