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Two Tampa police officers shot, killed during traffic stop

TAMPA — Two Tampa police officers were shot to death Tuesday during a traffic stop, touching off a massive manhunt that led to the capture of one of two people wanted in connection with the killings.

Hours after the deadly encounter, the wife of one of the slain officers went into labor with the couple's first child.

Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis, both 31, were shot to death at 50th Street and 23rd Avenue at about 2:20 a.m., police said. Both were shot in the head, Mayor Pam Iorio said.

As the city reeled from the second fatal police shooting in less than a year, an intense search led to an apartment complex where the car used in the shootings was found a few miles away. The driver was holed up in an apartment in the same complex.

The shooting suspect, a passenger in the car, was identified as Dontae Rashawn Morris, 24, an ex-convict with a lengthy arrest record and no known address, police said. He ran away, witnesses said, and by early afternoon was still at large.

Police issued an arrest warrant for Morris on two counts of first-degree murder charges and felony possession of a firearm.

The driver of the car was identified as Cortnee Nicole Brantley, 22. Police said a tip led them to the Bristol Bay Apartments, 4821 Bristol Bay Way, where they went door to door before finding Brantley in apartment 202.

"They looked in the closets, bathrooms, inside the cabinets, under the beds," said Ernesto Alfau, who lives in the complex.

They made every one stay inside and out of the way, Alfau said. When he looked out his back window he could see men crouched in the grass and trees with guns in their hands.

At 1:10 p.m. a flatbed truck left the complex with the red 1994 Toyota Camry police said was used in the killings.

Police asked the public's help in the manhunt, but advised caution.

"If you shoot two police officers in cold blood you've got to be considered very dangerous,'' Castor said. "It's our goal to get them off of the streets. … It would be in their best interest to call and turn themselves in.''

Morris is described as black in his mid to late 20s, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing 150 to 170 pounds. He had a short afro and was last seen wearing brown shorts and a white T-shirt and a black vest.

Morris was wanted on an outstanding warrant from Jacksonville, police said. He shot both officers as they attempted to arrest him. He ran away while Brantley drove away, witnesses said.

By late morning, the manhunt focused on the Bristol Bay Apartments, about a mile from the shooting scene. Two long lines of police vehicles made their way from the crime scene to the apartment complex.

Tampa police officers, Hillsborough sheriff's deputies and SWAT team members armed with semiautomatic rifles cordoned off nearby Palm River Road at 50th Street.

Dozens of law enforcement members, including a half-dozen FBI agents, descended on the apartment complex and helicopters hovered overhead. Two armored vehicles moved in, along with fire rescue ambulances. Residents were turned away.

Police and deputies from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office established a command center at 3225 N 50th St. "We are searching for these killers as one unit,'' Castor said. A flag flew at half-staff at the command station.

The incident began about 2:15 a.m. when Curtis pulled over a red 1994 Toyota Camry at 50th Street and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard because it did not have a visible tag. The car stopped at 50th Street and E 23rd Avenue.

Curtis asked for identification of both occupants and soon discovered that the passenger was wanted on an arrest warrant for a worthless check in Jacksonville.

Kocab responded as backup, standard procedure when someone is found to be wanted, police said.

Neighbors said they heard shots fired and the driver took off in the Camry. The shooting suspect ran away through an apartment complex at 3212 N 50th St., said Rose Dodson, 32, a resident there.

Police were combing that area, too, looking for evidence.

Another witness said she heard four or five gunshots. Chris Arline, 49, said she was buying a Kit Kat bar at a nearby Shell gas station when she heard gunfire. Her son thought it was a truck.

"That's not a truck," she said. "That's bullets."

Arline left the store and saw paramedics giving CPR to someone on the ground.

The shooting happened so quickly the officers did not have a chance to return fire or radio for help, Castor said. Both were wearing bullet-proof vests, but they did little good. They were shot at close range.

Castor said she did not know the type of gun that was used.

A passerby's 911 call, made six minutes after the car was stopped, was the first notice that the officers were down, police said.

Detectives issued an urgent plea for witnesses to come forward. They asked that anyone who was near N 50th Street and E 23rd Avenue about 2:15 a.m. to call (813) 231-6130.

By late Tuesday afternoon, reward money for information leading to Morris' arrest was up to $75,000: $50,000 from the FBI; $10,000 from the U.S. Marshals Office; $10,000 from the Police Defense Fund; and $5,000 from Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay.

Anyone who knows anything about the murders or the whereabouts of Morris is asked to call 1-800-873-TIPS(8477), report anonymously online at www.crimestopperstb.com or text "CSTB plus your tip" to C-R-I-M-E-S (274637).

Castor estimated 200 people were actively searching for Morris from Tampa police, the sheriff's office, FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

CBS Outdoor donated 10 digital billboards that displayed the suspects. Six were in Tampa and the others were in Orlando and south Florida.

Soon after the shooting, dozens of police and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies descended on the scene.

They set up a perimeter that stretched from MLK to Interstate 4 and 40th to 50th streets. Traffic was blocked in both directions for hours. The northbound lanes were reopened by 7:30 a.m.

Several hours after the shooting, about 100 cadets from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office dressed in grey formed a line and searched the crime scene for evidence.

At a second news conference, Castor said the suspected shooter's "best bet" is to give himself up.

"We'll take the search nationwide if we need to," Castor said. "We're going to find him."

Kocab and Curtis both died at Tampa General Hospital. Curtis's family kept his body on life support for several hours so his organs could be donated, police said.

Kocab left behind a wife who was nine months pregnant. She went into labor just a few hours after her husband died, said Mayor Iorio.

Curtis has a wife and four young children, Iorio said. A former Hillsborough County jail deputy, he became a Tampa police officer 2006.

After the early-morning news conference, Iorio burst into tears when recounting the call she received at 3 a.m. from Police Chief Castor. As soon as she saw it was the chief calling she knew it wasn't good, Iorio said.

"She said 'Mayor, I've got really bad news. We've had two officers shot and one is dead.'"

Iorio said she remembered getting a similar call from now-retired Chief Steve Hogue when Cpl. Mike Roberts was shot and killed last year.

Roberts was shot to death in August 2009 in Sulphur Springs after he stopped to question a man pushing a shopping cart. Police later discovered that the cart was full of weapons.

Humberto Delgado, a former police officer from the Virgin Islands, was charged with first degree murder in that August 2009 shooting and is awaiting trial.

Iorio said it is "heart-wrenching" to watch relatives grieve the deaths of Kocab and Curtis. "It's just been overwhelming grief inside the hospital," she said.

"We are doing everything we can to help the wives and the family members," Iorio said. "It's just a very bleak day for us in Tampa."

The mood inside Tampa police headquarters downtown was especially somber as officers and employees arrived for work.

Televisions in the main lobby and staff offices were tuned to news stations live from the scene. Flowers and candles were left at the fallen officer memorial just outside the building.

In the personnel department, a stack of extra programs from Cpl. Mike Roberts' funeral in August lay on a table.

Employees hugged each other as they boarded elevators. They dabbed their eyes with tissues as they answered their phones.

Former police Chief Steve Hogue said he spoke to Castor by phone Tuesday morning.

"It's these kind of things that put the rest of the job in perspective," he said he told her. "The rest of the things that happen that frustrate you as police chief are nothing. These are the most difficult of times."

Hogue, who retired last September, had two officers die in the line of duty in separate instances during his tenure as police chief.

"It rips you apart, and it brings you together," he said of the deaths' effect on the police department.

Police said donations to the officers' families can be made at the Tampa Bay Federal Credit Union or mailed to the Tampa Police Department, ATTN: The Fallen Officers' Memorial Fund.

Several people who reside in Highland Pines, the neighborhood where the shooting occurred, said it is known for drug activity and kids fighting in the street.

Gunshots are rare, they say, but not surprising.

Shaquita Washington, 24, who lives in a duplex just a block from the scene, was watching TV when she heard gunshots. She immediately covered her 1-year-old daughter with her body and stayed inside all night.

Washington learned what happened when she went outside about 8 a.m. She watched as deputies combed a nearby apartment complex armed with rifles.

A middle-aged man who answered the door an a Tampa address listed for Morris in a 2004 jail booking said "He's a grown man. We have no control over what he does."

He declined to explain his relation to Morris or to comment further.

Residents of the Bristol Bay Apartments said they had seen Morris and Brantley there often.

"They would just be sitting on the stairwell," said Lady Wilson, who has lived at the complex for two years. "They never did anything that would draw attention to them."

Wilson said she was shocked to hear of the incident. "I just had to get on my knees and pray for the boy," she said of Morris. "Troubled world, is all you can say."

Since 2002, Morris's path has crossed those of countless police officers, who have pulled him over for traffic violations and arrested him 17 times in Florida on charges ranging from cocaine possession and sales to attempted murder.

His first arrest came at age 16 on charges of disturbing the peace on a school campus. He was also charged as a juvenile with vehicle theft, battery on a school employee, drug possession and the possession of a weapon at school.

Court files state that he completed school to the 11th grade. He was in a juvenile detention center in Oct. 2003 when a fight broke out. He and another juvenile were watching the fight when, for no apparent reason, Morris punched the juvenile, records show. He pleaded guilty to the battery and was sentenced to time served.

According to Steve Hegarty, spokesman for the Hillsborough County School district, Morris bounced around several different schools between time behind bars.

He began at King High School in 1999, but also spent time at Chamberlain, Armwood and the Richard Milburn Academy, a charter school that closed in 2006. Morris left the charter school about two months before it closed.

While at King, Morris played for the football team, said then-coach Joe Severino, who now coaches for Chamberlain. A 2000 roster lists Morris as a 5-foot-11, 155-pound wide receiver.

Severino said he doesn't remember Morris but said his then-assistant coach Orlando Goodes did. Goode had called Severino on Tuesday when he recognized Morris' photo on the news.

Goodes, who is also a Tampa police officer, said he doesn't remember many details about Morris other than he "was just a kid going to high school, playing football."

It's shocking to hear Dontae was involved in this," Goodes said. He said he didn't know either Kocab or Curtis.

On Feb. 15, 2004, a Tampa Police Officer saw Morris getting out of an SUV that had been reported stolen three days prior, the arrest report says. As the officer approached Morris in a marked patrol car and ordered him to stop, Morris ran. The officer caught him five blocks away.

Morris said he gave a Puerto Rican $200 worth of crack cocaine for the car three days earlier. Once taken into custody, police said they found a small baggie with four white rocks in his possession.

In 2006, a jury acquitted him on charges of attempted first-degree murder, aggravated battery with a firearm, attempted robbery and possession of a short-barreled shotgun. Police said Morris tried to rob 50-year-old James Harvey Wright. When Wright said he didn't have any money, a man shot him in the left arm.

On Tuesday, Wright said he still bears the physical and mental scars of that night. He now has three video cameras keeping watch at his home, he said.

"I wanted to see that guy behind bars five years ago," he said. "I'm lucky to be alive."

On March 18, 2008, Tampa Police were searching for an auto theft suspect when they observed a group of 10 men, including one that matched the description of the suspect.

When police approached him, Morris immediately fled through backyards, records show. He was caught after a brief foot chase and officers learned he had five outstanding warrants. He pleaded guilty to obstructing or opposing an officer without violence.

Morris was released from prison April 4 after serving two years on cocaine charges.

Cortnee Brantley's record includes a charge of giving a false name to a law enforcement officer in Temple Terrace. She pleaded no contest to that charge in July 2006 and adjudication was withheld.

As a juvenile, she was charged in Tampa with resisting an officer and petty theft. Records indicate that she received probation for the theft but are unclear as to the outcome of the charge related to the officer.

Her most recent arrest was in January on a charge of driving with a suspended license.

At one point Brantley lived at 907 N. Parsons Ave. in Seffner. It's not clear when or how long she lived at the address.

Later in the morning police were posted outside Brantley's house. Officers said no one had been there all morning. They chased a reporter away saying it "wasn't safe."

At another previous address — a small trailer park — a woman answered the door and, in Spanish, said that she had moved into the trailer about two weeks ago and that she didn't know the people who had lived there previously. Neighbors said they didn't know anything about the former or current resident in the trailer.

Times staff writers Colleen Jenkins, Kim Wilmath, Katie Sanders, Nandini Jayakrishna and Sarah Hutchins contributed.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Reader comments have been disabled on this original version of Tuesday's coverage of this story. A version filed late Wednesday, with comments still enabled, is available here.

Two Tampa Police officers shot during traffic stop


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Killed in the line of duty

Tampa Police officers killed since 1895:

Officer John "Jack" McCormick, Sept. 26, 1895

Capt. Samuel J. Carter, June 2, 1905

Marshal Joseph Walker, Sept. 15, 1915

Officer James Ronco, May 27, 1916

Patrolman Juan Nales, July 18, 1920

Officer Henry R. Lett, Sept. 24, 1922

Det. Thomas M. Chevis, April 7, 1938

Officer Bryan A. Reese, Aug. 29, 1935

Det. Joe Nance, Oct. 1, 1939

Vice Chief Arthur L. Berry, Jan. 31, 1941

Det. Lester H. Henley, April 11, 1941

Officer Richard S. Booth, Nov. 28, 1943

Officer Morris D. Lopez, July 9, 1949

Officer Carl F. Chastain, Feb. 12, 1958

Officer Rolla L. Standau, Nov. 29, 1963

Officer William D. Krikava, Jan. 1, 1965

Cpl. John R. Collier, Dec. 5, 1970

Det. Kenneth D. Berlin Jr., Sept. 27, 1975

Sergeant Richard Lee Cloud, Oct. 23, 1975

Officer Anthony W. Williams, Nov. 3, 1975

Det. Gerald A. Rauft, July 24, 1981

Sgt. Gary S. Pricher, Nov. 4, 1983

Officer Porfirio Soto Jr., Dec. 30, 1988

Officer Norris Epps Jr., Jan. 18, 1995

Det. Randy Bell, May 19, 1998

Det. Ricky Childers, May 19, 1998

Master police officer Lois Marrero, July 6, 2001

Det. Juan Serrano, Feb. 25, 2006

Cpl. Michael Roberts, Aug. 19, 2009

Source: Tampa Police Department

Two Tampa police officers shot, killed during traffic stop 06/29/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 30, 2010 9:16am]
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