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New Port Richey officer empathizes with colleagues involved in fatal shooting

NEW PORT RICHEY — Friday morning as he got ready for work, police Lt. Matt Berry thought about the man he killed. He doesn't think of him often and when he does, he feels nothing. That bothers him.

"You should feel something when you kill somebody," he said.

Until Thursday, Berry was the only current member of the New Port Richey Police Department who had shot and killed a suspect. In 2008, a crazed man with a 14-inch butcher knife charged him. Berry told him three times:

"Drop the knife."

"Drop the knife."

"Drop the knife."

Mark Brooks Lee, a 42-year-old who had been fighting with his girlfriend, refused.

Berry shot him twice in the torso.

"You always wonder how you will feel when something like that happens," said Berry, 40.

"But honestly, you never know how you're going to react until you do it."

Now there are two more officers and a Pasco sheriff's deputy who understand.

At 1:45 a.m. Thursday behind a Burger King at U.S. 19 and Main Street, Sgt. Erik Jay pulled over a black Honda Civic for a traffic violation. A man in the back seat refused to get out and Jay, a 33-year-old who just had his 12th anniversary at the department, sensed something was off and called for backup. Jay is the midnight shift supervisor, but he still patrols the roads.

He grew up in the area and began his career in law enforcement as a teen in the Pasco Sheriff's Explorers program. He went to the police academy after high school, then got a job with New Port Richey police, Berry said.

Responding to the call for backup was Officer Anthony Pedrero. He's 29, single, a former Marine, and has been on the force for nearly two years. Pedrero is a big guy, 6 feet 7 inches, 250 pounds, and is always hitting his knees in the cruisers, which are too small for him. He's happy-go-lucky and good at calming tense situations, as is Jay, Berry said.

The two officers leaned on the passenger's side door, trying to talk with the man in the back seat: Jason Wilson, 29, a felon arrested on a concealed weapon charge in September. The case was due in court next week.

Peering at Wilson through the driver's side window was Deputy Paul "Mike" Downey, a 31-year-old former Marine who has been with the Sheriff's Office for five years. Downey was patrolling in the area, heard the call for backup and stopped by to see if he could help. He saw Wilson had a gun.

"Gun!" he shouted.

Jay wheeled backward as Wilson fired, Berry said.

The bullet just missed Jay's head. Berry said Jay's hands had cuts on them from the window glass shattering. Jay, a husband and father of three and a pee wee football coach, was that close.

The officers and deputy returned fire, killing Wilson. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Pasco-Pinellas State Attorney's Office are investigating the shooting. Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco Sheriff's Office, said it will be some time before forensics tests will tell which bullet or bullets killed Wilson — and how many times he fired his gun.

Jay, Pedrero and Downey are on paid administrative leave until the investigation concludes, as is protocol.

At a banquet on Saturday, unrelated to this case, Downey will be given the law enforcement field training officer of the year award by the Sheriff's Office. Downey, whose personnel file is full of letters from thankful citizens he's helped, lauding his sensitivity and earnestness, is one of 70 officers who train new deputies. His supervisors voted for him because of his passion for the job, working tirelessly to mentor new recruits, Doll said.

The atmosphere at New Port Richey police is back to business but everyone is relieved, Berry said. If the deputy hadn't seen the gun and shouted, if Jay hadn't moved backward, the ending would have been much different.

"Luckily we're not all wearing black badges today," Berry said.

He said he talked with Jay and Pedrero, though not about the details of the shooting because of the pending investigation.

Jay is doing as well "as anybody who nearly got killed can be," Berry said.

It's too early to know how the three will react to what happened. Berry said he would talk with them, if they ever wanted. He said some officers have nightmares after a shooting. Some take an early retirement. He doesn't know why he is okay.

"Everybody reacts differently to that kind of stuff," he said. "After a while, you get a little hardened. You push stuff inside.

"You do what you've got to do."

Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

New Port Richey officer empathizes with colleagues involved in fatal shooting 02/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 7:38pm]
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