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State attorney: St. Petersburg officer justified in killing ax-wielding man

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer who shot and killed an ax-wielding man two weeks ago was justified in his use of force, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe said his investigators found nothing criminal in the actions of Officer Damien Schmidt, who killed 27-year-old Kenneth Robert Sprankle on Sept. 23 after Sprankle chased a group of people around a downtown block while waving a large ax.

Sprankle had a long history of mental illness and was said to have smoked "spice" — the street name for synthetic marijuana — at Williams Park in the hour before the confrontation.

Sprankle had been arrested eight times since January and held under the Baker Act seven times — including three times in the days leading up to his death.

His family said he suffered from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. They were concerned he wasn't getting the long-term help he needed.

It's a theme McCabe echoed in his memo to St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon on Tuesday.

"While I find that Officer Damien Schmidt was justified in the use of deadly force in this situation, I am concerned that the mental health community that Kenneth Sprankle was in contact with the week preceding this incident failed to recognize the extent to which Kenneth Sprankle was mentally ill, and a danger to himself and others," McCabe wrote.

According to police reports, Sprankle was taken to the Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services facility most times when he was held under the Baker Act.

Yet twice in the week before the shooting, officials there discharged Sprankle less than 24 hours after police checked him in.

Tom Wedekind, the center's executive director, said he could not comment on Sprankle's case because of privacy laws — even though Sprankle is dead.

He said in general, any recidivism is because of "those involved in taking illegal substances or not following through with their prescribed medications."

Sprankle's family said he moved to Florida several months ago from Pennsylvania. He lived with an aunt for a couple of months before coming to the Tampa Bay area.

He became homeless and quickly started appearing in police reports.

Once, he jumped in front of a moving car. Another time he wrestled with health workers. He frequently called 911 and warned he was suicidal and might hurt himself and others.

Nine days before his fatal encounter with Schmidt, Sprankle was taken to PEMHS when he went to the police department and became belligerent when he was told he could not retrieve a bike. Two days later, he called to say he was off his medicine and was suicidal. He went to PEMHS once again.

On Sept. 20, after serving a night in jail for disorderly conduct, officials again took him to the facility because jail personnel felt he met Baker Act criteria.

He was out again less than 24 hours later and dead 72 hours after that.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

State attorney: St. Petersburg officer justified in killing ax-wielding man 10/08/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 8, 2013 11:41pm]
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