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Tampa police question witnesses to shooting by officer

TAMPA — Two days after an undercover officer fatally shot an Ybor City nightclub manager, police and a Tampa attorney were seeking witnesses to help them determine if the death was justified.

Roobik "Tony" Vartanian, 35, an employee of Club Prana since 2007, was involved in an altercation Saturday with two patrons outside the club when Officer Rick Harrell arrived at the scene, jumped out of his unmarked van and, according to police, ordered Vartanian to drop his weapon.

Police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Vartanian turned from the patrons and pointed a gun at Harrell, prompting the officer to fire one bullet, hitting Vartanian in the abdomen.

Vartanian died at Tampa General Hospital.

Anthony T. Prieto, an attorney for Vartanian's wife, questioned police actions Monday.

He said witnesses told him Vartanian never pointed his gun at the officer and that Harrell never announced himself as a Tampa police officer. Prieto said his office would be conducting its own interviews with witnesses this week.

Harrell, 39, a Tampa officer since 2002, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an internal investigation into the matter.

Harrell came to Tampa after 12 years with the Orange County Sheriff's Office. He transferred to the plainclothes street anti-crime unit two weeks before the incident, McElroy said. Prior to that, he was a uniformed patrol officer.

His personnel file contains numerous flattering evaluations, describing him as hard working, reliable and respected.

Police did not release the names of shooting witnesses Monday, saying it is an ongoing investigation. But McElroy said investigators have questioned people who say they heard and saw Harrell announce himself as Tampa police and order Vartanian to freeze and drop his weapon.

Harrell also was wearing a badge and a protective vest with the letters "TPD" emblazoned on the chest and back, McElroy said.

Vartanian's altercation with two patrons from Orlando began after one of them began pounding the wall, McElroy said. The man, a bouncer back home, later told police he did it as a sign of appreciation for the music.

But Club Prana management didn't appreciate it. Vartanian and other club managers escorted him out of the bar. The conflict escalated as they emptied out on Sixth Avenue, not far from Vartanian's home.

McElroy said Vartanian ordered one of the other Prana employees to go back into the club and retrieve a gun. She said Vartanian yelled racial slurs at the men. The men had seen Vartanian walk from his home to the club earlier in the evening, McElroy said, and told him they knew where he lived.

That's when Harrell and fellow Officer Cesare Myles arrived.

Tampa police question witnesses to shooting by officer 09/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 2:39pm]
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