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Suspect arrested in slaying of St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford

ST. PETERSBURG

Officer David S. Crawford loved his job and his midnight shift.

He had a knack for handling people. So when he stopped his cruiser Monday night to talk to a suspected prowler, alone, in the dark, it was just part of the job — one he had done a thousand times before.

Only this time it cost him his life.

Crawford, a 46-year-old married father of one, was shot and killed in the line of duty. A city shattered by the murders of two officers just 28 days earlier found itself mourning the loss of a third — even as it mounted the largest manhunt in St. Petersburg history to find his killer.

Late Tuesday night, police announced the desperate search had come to an end. They had a suspect in custody: 16-year-old Nicholas L. Lindsey.

The announcement came 24 hours after the officer was shot. After hundreds of heavily armed officers descended upon the neighborhoods south of downtown, searching buildings, alleys, even canals for Crawford's killer. After deciding to close three schools Tuesday, fearing for the children's safety with a killer on the loose.

Despite the grief that gripped his department, police Chief Chuck Harmon had vowed earlier Tuesday that his officers would press on and identify and capture the person who took another of their brothers from them.

"It's been very painful for us, but it doesn't deter our determination to bring the suspect to justice," he said. "It's apparent, looking into the eyes of the men and women working here, that they're committed."

• • •

The call came in at 10:30 p.m. Monday. The caller said a man holding a brick was in his back yard along the 700 block of Third Avenue S. The caller saw the man jump a wall or fence and disappear and thought he might be a burglar.

Officer Donald J. Ziglar, 41, was first on the scene at 10:34 p.m. Crawford was a few seconds behind and took his search in a different direction.

Crawford saw someone matching the prowler's description at the southwest corner of Second Avenue S and Eighth Street S. He parked his cruiser at an angle near the intersection and approached.

Police have yet to release details of what happened next, but the outcome was tragic.

The man pulled a gun and shot Crawford several times. The longtime officer, who was not wearing his bullet-resistant vest, managed to return fire, police said.

There was no evidence, however, that the wounded officer struck his assailant.

The gunbattle took place at close range, police said. Shell casings were found within a 15-by-20-foot area on the sidewalk near the driver's side of the police cruiser.

Michael Ponce de Leon and Steve Buck were the first to reach the wounded officer.

The brothers were driving around downtown when they saw the officer slump to the ground. They hit the brakes.

Ponce de Leon ran to the bleeding officer.

"Officer down!" Ponce de Leon said he yelled into the officer's radio.

The response seemed immediate, he said, as dozens of police units quickly appeared.

"No, not again … not again … " the officers kept saying, Ponce de Leon said, as they started chest compressions on their comrade.

Police would not comment on Ponce de Leon's account. According to their time line, Ziglar found his fellow officer wounded at 10:37 p.m. and made the "officer down" call.

Police believe the gunman ran away toward the southwest, leaving behind a black Nike flip-flop. Officers later found the other shoe at a shopping plaza a few blocks away.

They are testing the Size 10 sandals for DNA, but Harmon said what investigators really need is for someone to come forward with information about the killer's identity and his whereabouts.

The suspect was described as a black male in his late teens or early 20s, with a slender build, standing 5-foot-9 to 5-11 and wearing a dark-colored hoodie jacket and shorts hanging below his knees and white socks.

Harmon also warned that anyone who tries to harbor the suspect could be charged in the officer's death, as well.

"We are going to use every resource at our disposal in a relentless effort to bring the suspect to justice," the chief said.

• • •

More than 200 officers from different agencies across Tampa Bay poured into the city to take part in the massive manhunt.

The police presence was reminiscent of the thousands of officers who came to attend the memorial for St. Petersburg police Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, who were killed in a Jan. 24 standoff with a doomed fugitive.

But Tuesday was not a day for honor and reflection. Not yet.

It was a day to hunt a killer.

A perimeter was set up around the scene within minutes, strengthened by a steady flow of reinforcements throughout the day. A staging area was set up at Tropicana Field, where tactical teams and armored vehicles gathered.

Police stopped people entering or leaving an area roughly bounded by Fourth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets and Fourth and 15th avenues south. They asked for ID and looked in trunks.

Police helicopters searched overhead as officers went door-to-door, asking people if they had seen anyone or anything suspicious.

They knocked on Don Enge's door at 1 a.m. Tuesday.

"This is too much. Not again," he said of the fallen officer. "I can't stand to see this. It's just not fair."

Investigators arrived at Margaret Connell's home on Fourth Avenue S at 9 a.m.

They warned her that the shooter was "still on the loose and he's armed." They did not ask to search her house.

Inside the perimeter, some residents could look from their front porches to see scenes that could have been clipped from war movies. Officers dressed in black fatigues or camouflage, carrying semiautomatic rifles, stormed into vacant homes and other locations where tips led them.

The drone of helicopters became a familiar sound.

At one point late Tuesday morning, children from Bayfront's Child Development Center were escorted away so officers could search inside. Police gripped their rifles and set up positions on Eighth Street, just outside a fenced-in playground.

On Highland Street, just south of 11th Avenue S, a team of SWAT officers burst into a vacant home as other officers took defensive positions behind trees, weapons drawn.

Jay Behish, 37, worked the register at Suncoast Groceries at 600 16th St. S while officers blocked the street outside. The Arab immigrant kept flipping his TV back and forth from the local news to the satellite television channel al-Jazeera to watch as protesters battled their own government in Libya.

"This is more like what you see in the Middle East," he said, looking at the officers outside, "not the United States."

• • •

A stunned city carried on as best as it could despite the closed schools and businesses, the blocked streets and altered bus routes, officers at every intersection.

The perimeter was abandoned about 3 p.m. Tuesday. But the manhunt continued.

The two St. Petersburg officers who were killed last month lost their lives after an attempt to arrest a fugitive hiding in an attic went terribly wrong. But what happened to Crawford on Monday is more reminiscent of the recent deaths of three Tampa police officers — Cpl. Mike Roberts and Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab — all killed in a 10-month span between August 2009 to June 2010. They all died while approaching an unknown suspect who turned out to be armed and dangerous.

Tuesday's manhunt was much like the search for the suspect in the deaths of Curtis and Kocab: Dontae Morris. It too involved helicopters, SWAT teams and squads of officers scouring a targeted perimeter. Tampa's manhunt ended after nearly four days, when an informer turned in the suspect.

St. Petersburg's manhunt ended Tuesday night.

Arrangements for Crawford's funeral have not been made yet. Mayor Bill Foster spoke at the two St. Petersburg officers' memorial last month, a eulogy he'll need to make again.

"We're in uncharted territory," Foster said. "But we're a resilient community. We're a loving community.

"Together we will get through this. Together we will get through this."

Times staff writers Danny Valentine, Rita Farlow and Richard Martin and researchers Shirl Kennedy and Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

.donations

How to help

Anyone wishing to donate to the family of Officer David Crawford may send contributions to Suncoast Law Enforcement Charities, Inc., 14141 46th St. N, Suite 1205, Clearwater, FL 33762. For more information or to inquire about Credit Card donations, call (727) 532-1722.

Suspect arrested in slaying of St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford 02/22/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 9:20am]

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