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Teen accused of killing St. Petersburg officer described as quiet, troubled, but no 'thug'

ST, PETERSBURG — On Facebook, Nick Lindsey sneers at a camera, fist clenched, teeth biting a thick wad of cash. "Hood rich," it says in the background of his profile picture. "Young Savage," he dubs himself.

Just 16 this month, Lindsey already had a rap sheet with charges of grand theft auto. He missed 42 days at Gibbs High this school year.

That is the teenager who police say gunned down a veteran officer with a spray of bullets Monday night.

This is the "Lil' Nick" his family, neighbors and school officials know: He loves football and family. He struggled with grades but was quiet, polite and obedient. He high-fived his older brother each morning and, the day after the fatal police shooting, took his kid brother to the park.

He was a follower, not a leader, and sometimes ran with a bad crowd. But he had a mother and father and extended family in his life, people who showed up for his parent-teacher conferences and seemed to care about what became of him.

Mayor Bill Foster remembers being struck by that fact last year, when he sat in Lindsey's den while joining police on a curfew check. Unlike some of the other troubled kids the mayor visited that night, Lindsey looked him in the eye and talked about his goals.

"This one's going to make it," Foster recalls thinking.

• • •

Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey lived in the Citrus Grove Apartments on 15th Street S, a low-income complex with little grass and young men who hang out in the back playing dominoes. Broken blinds hang from many windows. Some residents say they don't let their children go outside.

The apartments are less than three miles from Gibbs. Yet the sophomore showed up for only seven class periods this month, said principal Kevin Gordon.

"I can recall from last year having a sit-down talk with him about attendance," Gordon said. And this year, "I would see him in passing and really just try to encourage him to come to school."

Deneen Sweat, 43, said her son was due in truancy court on March 7 as a result of his excessive absences.

When Lindsey did attend school, he remained mostly disengaged.

"Every time I would see him, he was by himself. He didn't hang out with a lot of people," said Kathryne Scott, 15, a classmate at Gibbs and John Hopkins Middle. "He was pretty quiet. . . . He smiled a lot, but he didn't really talk much."

Kathryne said Lindsey might have been in a fight or two, but he wasn't disruptive.

Sherry Howard met Lindsey at Hopkins, where she headed a discipline program. Though Lindsey ended up in the program several times, Howard said he did not act up like other kids.

"Usually you have to redirect kids, tell them, 'Sit down, be quiet,' '' Howard said. But Lindsey "wouldn't be like some of these kids, 'F-you.' You tell him to do something, he would comply."

At Hopkins, she talked to him about two arrests in 2009 on car theft charges. At Gibbs, where she is now the volunteer coordinator, she counseled him about poor grades and attendance.

"I said, 'Do you want to be a statistic? You have to be here to get your education,' " she said. "He said, 'You're right, Ms. Howard. I'm going to do better.' "

Lindsey didn't open up to her about his home life. Because he was so quiet, Howard said, it took time to establish a relationship. She sobbed Wednesday as she spoke about him.

"I know some thugs here," Howard said. "That kid is not. When I saw him on the streets, he'd say, 'Ms. Howard, how are you doing?' Always polite. Always polite."

She had the same questions many people did after seeing images of a skinny kid staring out from a police cruiser Tuesday night: How did this happen?

"What made him that angry? What made him snap? He doesn't seem like he wouldn't respect or comply with the officer," she said. "What was the catalyst that made him get to the point that he had to shoot this man? Because that's not him. That's not this child."

• • •

Lindsey cried in court Wednesday. So did his father, Nicholas, who apologized on behalf of his only son and gave his condolences to Officer David Crawford's family.

But neither Lindsey's parents nor his older brother shed much light on how things went so wrong.

They said the tattooed, happy-go-lucky teen didn't do drugs. They never knew him to have a gun, and they don't know where he got $140 to buy one.

Anthony Sweat, 19, dismissed his brother's tough online personality as typical teen behavior.

In the elder brother's opinion, Lindsey failed himself.

"He has a great family structure," Anthony Sweat said. "He got clothes. He got plenty of food in the refrigerator, he got a place to stay, you can turn the lights on, you can turn the air conditioner on, the fans work. You got cable, you got Internet, anything you want. There's nothing wrong with the family. If anything, like I say, he failed himself."

Both Lindsey's brother and father have arrests in their past, and the father has drug convictions on his record. The brother said Lindsey's father came around frequently to take his son shopping. Dale Cunikin, 33, a maintenance worker at the apartment complex, called Lindsey's mother "a sweet person" and "a good mom" who tried to keep things in order.

"I understand we're in the projects and everything, but we make the best of what we got," Anthony Sweat said.

Lindsey was often seen hanging around the complex with his friends. He liked to listen to rap music, go to movies and eat hamburgers, rice and pork chops.

Lindsey lived for football. Last fall, he played on the St. Pete Lil Devils recreational team and stood out for his speed.

"He was an all-around athlete, no matter where you put him," said Ben Fortner, Lindsey's uncle and coach. "He would be wide receiver, running back, punt returner, kick returner."

Fortner said his nephew wanted to raise his grades to be eligible for spring football at Gibbs.

Though family members said they never expected Lindsey to turn violent, Fortner acknowledged his nephew made poor friend choices in recent years.

He said Lindsey fell in with the Bethel Heights Boys, a neighborhood gang associated with one of the city's most infamous murders: the April 2009 death of Paris Whitehead-Hamilton, an 8-year-old girl killed in the midst of a gang feud. Lindsey lived in the same complex as one of the suspects in that case.

The complex used to be called Bethel Heights Apartments, from which the gang drew its name.

"He wasn't a bad kid," Fortner said. "He was with the wrong crew. All kids make that mistake, and sometimes we can't help it. I preached to the little cat every day. I really did. And I hate to see him just throw his life away like he did."

• • •

The mayor of St. Petersburg guesses it was about eight months ago that he sat in Lindsey's apartment and discussed the young man's future.

Foster was tagging along with a police unit that checks in nightly on juvenile offenders to make sure they're home. He wanted to better understand what motivated teens to break into cars and stir up trouble.

At the time, Foster was encouraged by what he saw in Lindsey. The young man sat next to his mother on a couch, with a couple of aunts nearby. He said he wasn't hanging out with a bad crowd, and he wanted to make the football team.

On Wednesday, the mayor mourned the loss of that kid.

"I have a great deal of emotion for the child that I met eight months ago," Foster said. "A 15-year-old that had a life ahead of him, who had goals, who had aspirations and who could articulate it, and who was respectful to me."

The mayor had a much different feeling toward the young man who police say admitted to murder.

"I have zero emotional attachment to that person," Foster said. "He made a decision, and he will pay the consequences for the rest of his life."

Times staff writers Curtis Krueger, Michael Van Sickler, Jamal Thalji, Richard Martin and Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report.

Teen accused of killing St. Petersburg officer described as quiet, troubled, but no 'thug' 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 10:29pm]
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