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Undercover cases 'unpredictably unpredictable' as St. Petersburg case shows

ST. PETERSBURG — The detectives brought the cash. The men had the drugs. The deal was to be done in broad daylight, in a public place: a Wal-Mart Supercenter parking lot.

But the undercover drug buy Tuesday afternoon didn't go as planned, ending in gunfire, a high-speed chase and two car crashes involving police officers.

That it all went so wrong is an accepted risk in the dangerous world of undercover narcotics officers.

The public, though, may not know that drug deals go on all the time, day and night, often in parking lots and shopping centers, according to law enforcement.

No one was injured Tuesday, when police say two dealers robbed an undercover detective at the Wal-Mart, then came under police fire when they aimed a loaded 9mm semiautomatic at that detective.

The city was not so fortunate 29 years ago. Detective Herbert Ray Sullivan lost his life on Aug. 18, 1980, in nearly the same kind of undercover operation.

He was the money man in an afternoon drug buy that also ended in theft. He was killed by two .38-caliber hollow-point slugs to the chest, ambushed by a drug dealer who escaped with $65,000.

Sullivan, 30, was the last St. Petersburg police officer to die in the line of duty.

"To lose one of your officers, especially in the line of duty, is extremely difficult not just for their family but for yours, for the entire law enforcement family," said the chief of police back then, Mack Vines. "It's one of those unpredictable situations.

"Vice and narcotics is where things become almost unpredictably unpredictable."

• • •

There are two kinds of undercover drug buys:

One is called a "buy-walk": Clandestine officers buy drugs from suspects, let them go and arrest them later.

The other is the far more dangerous "buy-bust": Undercover officers buy the drugs, then heavily armed officers in body armor swoop in to make the arrest.

Robert Sullivan, 47, teaches vice commanders across the country how to run these kinds of operations. He ran them for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office before he retired.

He said a parking lot is a typical place to run a buy-walk operation. A buy-bust operation is better suited for a motel room, not a big-box store.

"But in buy-walks, unfortunately, bad guys being bad guys, sometimes they try to rob you," he said.

Sometimes something worse can happen.

In 2008 two suspects escaping Pinellas Park police after an undercover drug buy crashed into a South Carolina woman's car, killing her and injuring her three children.

• • •

The Wal-Mart shooting started with a buy-walk operation, according to police. Two undercover officers parked near the suspected dealers in a remote, empty corner of the crowded Wal-Mart lot at 3501 34th St. S.

One officer got into the backseat of a Suzuki Forenza. The men sold the cop counterfeit drugs, police said, then robbed him of cash at gunpoint.

"As he was exiting the vehicle, the suspect with the gun appeared to level the gun at him," said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

Both detectives reacted as the man pointed the gun, Proffitt said, and both opened fire on him from just a few feet away. The suspects weren't hit. They sped off, trailed by two undercover vehicles.

• • •

Officer Stephen Mathews was off-duty, driving his cruiser when he heard about the incident over his radio and joined the chase.

He rammed his marked cruiser into what he thought was the suspect's vehicle.

Instead, it turned out to be one of the undercover vehicles. The sport utility vehicle rolled over with two officers inside. All three suffered minor injuries.

Officer Barry Books tracked down the blue Suzuki a few blocks away and rear-ended it, disabling the vehicle, then arrested the two suspects inside.

Antwan Marquis Britt, 21, and Christopher Jerome Toliver, 20, were arrested on drug, armed robbery and firearms charges. Britt is a felon, and police say he was the driver who aimed a gun at the detective.

Investigations are under way into the officers involved in the shooting and the crashes.

• • •

Two drug dealers are now serving life sentences for the 1980 murder of Sullivan, the St. Petersburg officer.

The Herbert Sullivan Award is now awarded every year to the agency's outstanding vice and narcotics investigator.

Retired Maj. Ron Hartz worked narcotics with Sullivan, and was a pallbearer at his friend's funeral.

"It just unfortunately showed the true danger of being an undercover narcotics officer," he said. "But it has to be done."

Undercover cases 'unpredictably unpredictable' as St. Petersburg case shows 03/04/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 9:02am]
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