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Two St. Petersburg officers slain by wanted fugitive

ST. PETERSBURG — Police Chief Chuck Harmon gazed down at the personal mementos in his outstretched hands.

In the right was the gold wedding ring of K-9 Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, a 39-year-old father of three who was fatally shot Monday trying to arrest an armed fugitive hiding in an attic. He was off-duty and on his way home when he decided to help his colleagues.

In the chief's left hand was the silver badge of Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, the 48-year-old husband mortally wounded when the suspect fired down through the ceiling at officers as they heroically tried to rescue Yaslowitz and an injured deputy U.S. marshal.

The man who rained down bullets from the attic was Hydra Lacy Jr., a 39-year-old convict and registered sex offender. The brother of St. Petersburg boxing great Jeff Lacy, the fugitive vowed days earlier that he would not go back to prison.

The harrowing scene was unlike anything St. Petersburg has seen, unfolding over seven tense hours on a residential block of 3700 28th Ave. S in front of dozens of residents and TV cameras.

The first gunshots rang out at 7:29 a.m. Both officers were pronounced dead at the hospital a few hours later. The injured marshal survived. The suspect's body was found about 2:15 p.m. in the rubble of the home where he made his last stand.

St. Petersburg has not had an officer killed in the line of duty in 30 years, and has not had two officers die together in 73 years. But like Tampa last year and Miami last week, the city was grimly reminded Monday of the dangers of wearing a badge.

And its police chief did not want to put down the last reminders of two brothers in uniform that he will never see again.

"I'm having a hard time letting them go," Harmon said, looking at the personal effects. "These gentlemen … I consider them friends, and I'm going to miss them."

• • •

Hydra Lacy first slept in a prison cell at age 17, then served another stint for sexual battery of a teenage girl.

The Florida Regional Fugitive Task Force targeted him weeks ago, police said, after he failed to show up for court.

"We've been looking for him for a while," said Pete Cajigal, assistant chief to the U.S. Marshal's Office for the Middle District of Florida.

Their search brought three task force members — an undercover St. Petersburg detective, a Pinellas sheriff's deputy and a deputy U.S. marshal — to 3734 28th Ave. S at 6:58 a.m. Monday. They had visited the home before looking for Lacy, police said, and hoped a resident there could help.

A woman whom police did not identify told them they could find Lacy hiding in her attic, probably armed. Property records identify the homeowner as Christine Lacy, but police would not confirm they spoke to her.

The team took the woman outside and called for backup at 7:07 a.m., police said.

One of the officers who responded was Yaslowitz, an 11-year veteran and member of the elite K-9 unit. He and his canine partner, Ace, had just finished their shift and were heading home. "He volunteered to go by," Harmon said.

The team radioed in at 7:11 a.m.: Suspect hiding in the attic.

• • •

The officers needed a step-ladder to get into the attic. Backup officers joined task force members. Police did not say how many officers made the initial arrest attempt.

Yaslowitz climbed into the attic. He left Ace in his SUV. The deputy marshal, a 15-year veteran in his mid-40s who was not identified, was right behind him.

They were wearing bullet-resistant vests, police said. They had called out for Lacy to surrender. Then they went in.

That's when the first gunshots rang out.

Lacy was armed with a semi-automatic pistol, police believe, and his initial burst hit Yaslowitz and the marshal.

Yaslowitz was "gravely wounded," the chief said, and fell inside the attic. The wounded agent came tumbling down from the ceiling. His vest stopped one slug in the upper torso, but the second penetrated his lower body.

None of the task force members were hurt. But the situation was grim: Yaslowitz and the marshal were trapped inside with an armed suspect.

• • •

The first rescue attempt came minutes later. Officers armed themselves with AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and ballistic shields that can repel most rounds.

Sgt. Baitinger, a 14-year veteran who was now a patrol supervisor, joined the rescue team.

But when they went in to free the wounded officers, Lacy fired down at them.

The team returned fire and pulled out the marshal. But Baitinger was hit at least once, police said, the slug missing his vest and striking his upper torso.

The rescue team got Baitinger out, too, but could not reach Yaslowitz up above as the suspect shot at them. No one knew the wounded officer's condition.

Heavily armored tactical officers from across Tampa Bay rushed to the scene armed with small tanks equipped with battering rams to knock down doors and walls.

Hundreds of officers swarmed the neighborhood known as Perry Bayview. Stunned onlookers watched from afar. The standoff had begun.

• • •

Lacy later texted a relative that he had been hit. Negotiators had "intermittent" talks with him, police said. But he refused to surrender.

Willie Mae Norton, 60, wanted to help with those talks. She said she helped raise Lacy since he was 12. Norton said she last saw Lacy on Saturday.

"He said, 'You know I'm on the run,' " Norton said. "He told me, 'I'm not going back to jail no more.' "

On Monday, Norton asked police to let her try to persuade Lacy to give up, but she didn't get to speak with him.

The second rescue attempt came about 9:20 a.m. The sound of tear gas canisters echoed through the neighborhood, followed by hundreds of shots.

A Pinellas sheriff's armored vehicle punched a hole in the front of the house, police said. Then the St. Petersburg SWAT team stormed inside.

Lacy fired at them, police said, and they returned fire with semi-automatic rifles, aiming at the ceiling.

They were under fire as they rescued Yaslowitz, police said. Officers rushed him to a waiting ambulance with a surgeon inside.

"When they knew Jeff was upstairs in this attic, without hesitation, they risked their lives so he wasn't left behind," said Mayor Bill Foster.

• • •

Police never heard from Lacy again. The next few hours were spent trying to capture him without risking any more lives.

Armored vehicles from the Tampa Police Department and the Department of Homeland Security joined the standoff. They punched more holes in the house. Robots with surveillance cameras were sent to peer inside.

The results were dramatic: Police slowly demolished the house.

Lacy's body was found at 2 p.m., but police did not say whether Lacy was killed by their bullets or his own.

By late Monday, the house was largely gone. An excavator grabbed chunks of walls, depositing material into dump trucks.

"We're just looking for evidence at this point," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

The unidentified woman at the house will likely face no charges, police said, because she cooperated. Christine Lacy, the home­owner, can also seek damages from the city, police said, as they defended their decision to tear the home apart.

"We didn't care," Harmon said. "Our mission at the end was to get him out.

"We weren't going to let anybody else get killed or injured."

• • •

Carol Jewell, Christine Lacy's sister, says the tragedy could have been avoided if officers had picked up Lacy in November, after he failed to show up in court on an aggravated battery charge.

Jewell said her sister told police that Lacy was at the 28th Avenue house, but they would not pick him up because they did not have a warrant. Christine Lacy also told police that Lacy had been ordered to stay away from her, according to Jewell, but the officers said they did not have the paperwork.

"After they left her, I took her to my house," Jewell said. "If they had arrested him in November when we called police, he never would have been a fugitive."

Court records show that a judge in the domestic violence case had ordered Lacy to stay away from his wife, that Lacy failed to appear for a Nov. 1 trial, and that the court sent an electronic warrant to the Sheriff's Office the next day.

"There were efforts made to pick him up in the past," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz, "and he had every opportunity to turn himself in."

• • •

The last St. Petersburg officer to die in the line of duty was Detective Herbert R. Sullivan in 1980. He was shot in an undercover drug buy by a suspect who sneaked through a police perimeter. In 1937 the city lost two officers to a vengeful drunk who gunned down William G. Newberry and James W. Thornton.

Harmon, the city's top cop, is a man whose nine-year tenure is best known for his reserve. That was not the case on Monday.

He called it "the worst day you can imagine."

"I want to tell you our community is safe," Harmon said. "But in my mind, as a police officer, … this criminal … this cop-killer … did a terrible injustice to this community and two of the people who served this community.

"I feel a lot of anger. … It's going to take a lot of healing for us."

Times staff writers Kameel Stanley and Andrew Meacham contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

Two St. Petersburg officers slain by wanted fugitive 01/24/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 16, 2012 3:35pm]
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