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Fallen St. Petersburg officers remembered a year after their deaths

ST. PETERSBURG — Janice Yaslowitz remembers struggling with grief the morning her son died, trying to keep her van on the road on the way to the hospital and reaching out to a higher power.

"God, I know you gave us your only son," she told herself. "But I'm not willing to give up my only son."

By the time she reached the hospital on Jan. 24, 2011, St. Petersburg police Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz was gone. He and Sgt. Thomas Baitinger were killed that morning in a gunfight with a fugitive hiding in an attic.

The Police Department, which had not lost an officer in 30 years, marked the first anniversary of their deaths on Tuesday, one year from the moment the shooting started: 7:29 a.m.

That was the time the first frantic radio call — 10-24, shots fired, officer down — was made from the scene. A year later, Janice Yaslowitz watched as the city's police force honored the fallen.

"All units stand by to observe a moment of silence in honor of Sgt. Baitinger and K-9 Officer Yaslowitz," communication supervisor Brandie Ball announced over the police radio, "who lost their lives in the line of duty one year ago today."

"All uniformed personnel, present arms," said Sgt. Edward Borrelli. Then he ordered his fellow officers to raise their right hands in salute: "Ten-hut!"

• • •

More than 150 members of the police force and their families attended the ceremony in the department's breezeway.

"I say it all the time, 1/24 is my personal 9/11," said Mayor Bill Foster. "It is a day that we remember and reflect on … the lessons learned and really understand the perils that these men and women face.

"But today is a good day because the beauty of time is that it does heal. You don't forget. But it does heal."

Baitinger was 48. His widow, Paige Baitinger, did not attend Tuesday. Yaslowitz, 39, left behind his wife, Lorraine, and three children, all of whom attended. So did his mother, as well as his younger sister, Stephanie Barnes. Last year the family also lost their father, Harvey Yaslowitz, who died in August at the age of 72.

Law enforcement continually memorializes the fallen, and Tuesday's ceremony was just one of several that have been and will be held. In May, the three St. Petersburg officers who died last year — Officer David Crawford was shot and killed on Feb. 21, just 28 days after the first two deaths — will be honored in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

But Barnes, 38, said she's okay with the constant reminders.

"I honestly need these ceremonies," she said. "It honors my brother. He's alive in my heart every day. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of him.''

But she laughed when she thought about how her brother would react to having his photo everywhere: "He would be completely, completely embarrassed," she said. "He was a very … very humble man."

Janice Yaslowitz, 70, said the reminders are hard but helpful.

"You have to deal with reality," she said. "You can't just not remember. In fact, I think a lot of the healing comes from remembering."

She recently started writing a journal about her son, starting with his birth. The Yaslowitzes had three children. Jeffrey, their only son, was the middle child. But 21/2 years before he was born, Janice Yaslowitz gave birth to a stillborn child.

That's why she'll always remember Jeffrey's birth, and the sound his heart monitor made in the hospital.

"I was ecstatic," she said.

• • •

The day began when the hunt for a fugitive wanted for attacking his wife led officers to 3734 28th Ave. S. When they learned Hydra Lacy Jr. was armed and hiding in the attic, they called for backup. Yaslowitz responded to the call.

Lacy feigned surrender in the darkened attic, then opened fire with a hidden gun. Yaslowitz was shot trying to handcuff him. Deputy U.S. Marshal Scott Ley, who was also in the attic, fell wounded to the ground.

Sgt. Karl Lounge and Officer Doug Weaver joined Baitinger on the rescue team that went into the house to get Yaslowitz and the marshal. Baitinger was shot, but Weaver managed to get him and Ley out. Lounge fired into the ceiling, trading gunfire with a suspect he could not see.

Yaslowitz was likely dead by the time the SWAT team freed him two hours later. Police laid siege to the home, tearing it apart until Lacy, 39, was found dead, killed by police gunfire. Ley survived and later returned to duty.

Lounge was one of 16 officers, including Baitinger and Yaslowitz, to receive the city's Medal of Valor for their actions that day. Lounge still struggles with what happened. Why, he always asks himself, was he one of the officers who survived Jan. 24, 2011?

"My reaction today is sadness, but also anxiety," Lounge said. "It brings up mixed emotions. The question I always ask is:

"How the hell did I walk out of there?"

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8472.

Fallen St. Petersburg officers remembered a year after their deaths 01/24/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 24, 2012 10:14pm]
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