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Suicide by cop? Largo man's ruse brought police and death, friends say

Robert Hayes Roll, 56, was in pain and expecting his elderly mom to die soon, friends say.

Family photo

Robert Hayes Roll, 56, was in pain and expecting his elderly mom to die soon, friends say.

LARGO — Robert Hayes Roll armed himself with a BB gun and went to a drugstore Saturday night intent on robbing it, police say.

But his goal wasn't to get money or drugs, his friends said. Rather, it was just the first move of a bigger plan, a plan to die.

"This was a sick man. He was mentally sick and he wanted to commit suicide," said roommate Melissa Wachtler, 30. "He got what he wanted."

Roll, 56, was shot to death by Largo police late Saturday in the driveway of his home at 1636 Chateau Drive N. Roll had summoned officers there when he called 911 to say he was the man police were looking for in connection with the attempted robbery.

Wachtler said Roll had long dealt with depression, had often threatened suicide and was despondent when he learned just two days earlier that his elderly mother did not have long to live.

"I think that he would have committed suicide a long time ago had his mother not been around," said his ex-girlfriend, Debbie Sabedra of Mount Pleasant, Mich.

Though authorities have made no official determination, Roll's friends said they surmised his death was a case of suicide by cop.

• • •

According to authorities, Roll tried to rob a Largo Walgreens about 9 p.m., but an employee foiled the attempt and Roll fled. As Largo police investigated, Roll called 911, said he was the man they were looking for and told them to come to his home. Because the home is in unincorporated Pinellas, Largo police notified the Sheriff's Office.

When Largo officers arrived and contacted Roll by phone, he threatened them, said the Sheriff's Office, which is investigating the shooting because it happened within its jurisdiction.

Wachtler said sheriff's deputies told her Roll cursed at the officers and said, "I'm going to kill you. I'm locked and loaded."

When Roll emerged from the home, he pointed a black and metal object at the police officers, according to the Sheriff's Office. The three officers opened fire, and Roll died at the scene. The object turned out to be a wallet wrapped in a chain.

The officers — Amanda Gay, Jorge Almeda and Adam Compton — were placed on administrative leave in compliance with department policy until the investigation is completed, said Largo police Lt. Mike Loux.

• • •

Sabedra, who has known Roll since the early 1970s, said Roll was a carpenter who became disabled after a bad motorcycle accident in the early 1980s.

They dated "off and on" for several years, then lost touch for a while. They reconnected six years ago when Sabedra's mother died. Roll liked to scuba dive, had a passion for movies and "would do anything" for his friends, Sabedra said.

• • •

According to a 1998 New York Times article, the term "suicide by cop" — where a distraught person intentionally provokes police into using lethal force — was coined in 1983 by a former California police officer with a doctorate in psychology.

In a 2005 report, three FBI researchers concluded suicide by cop is a widely recognized, but poorly documented, phenomenon. That's in part because it is not a category under the nationwide Uniform Crime Reports, which are crime statistics compiled each year by the FBI.

One oft-cited study, conducted by emergency medicine physicians at Harvard Medical School, looked at all officer-involved shootings by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in the decade ending in 1997.

Suicide by cop, the doctors concluded, accounted for 11 percent of those shootings. In 54 percent of those cases, the suicidal individuals died. But all of the deaths were classified by the coroner as homicides, as opposed to suicides.

• • •

Wachtler said Roll suffered from a degenerative disc disease and had been in excruciating pain lately because he couldn't find a pain management clinic that would treat him.

But she and Sabedra both said they believe news of his mother's decline may have pushed Roll over the edge. Both women said they don't blame police.

"I think he was at the point in his life he was very depressed about his mom, knowing she wasn't going to last and he wasn't going to have anybody," Sabedra said.

"He'd always say, 'When momma goes, I'll go,' " Wachtler said.

Wachtler said Roll called her just a few hours before his death and asked her to come home. She was at her boyfriend's birthday dinner and couldn't leave yet, she told him. Roll asked where he could find the leash for her dog, a beagle-pug mix named Buddy.

"The last thing he did before all this was walk my dog. He put a bunch of food down for him," Wachtler said. "He knew he was going to commit suicide."

Sabedra broke down as she talked about Roll's tragic end.

"I am always going to think of him not in that bad place that he was at the end, but always as my friend, my best friend. I just wish he would have called me instead of doing it that way."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Michael A. Moscardini contributed to this report.

Other suicide by cop cases in the Tampa Bay area

October 2009: Kentin Deon Brooks, 26, was shot and killed by three Pinellas deputies and one Indian Shores police officer, after driving recklessly on Gulf Boulevard in Indian Shores, ramming an Indian Shores police car and then opening fire on the police officers.

October 2008: Shawn Cunningham, 42, was shot and injured at his New Port Richey home by Deputy Edward Tucker after Cunningham advanced toward him with a knife. His injuries were not believed to be life-threatening. Police officers were summoned to the home by his girlfriend who told them he might attempt "suicide by cop."

August 2007: Michael Phillips, 24, was shot and killed at his Brandon home after firing multiple shots at police officers. His ex-girlfriend had summoned police officers to the home after Phillips called and told her he "shot a cop three times." (Hillsborough sheriff's Sgt. Ronald "Ron" Harrison was shot and killed earlier that evening.) Phillips, awaiting trial on another charge, was distraught because he was facing 30 years in prison, about to lose custody of his son and the relationship with his girlfriend was ending.

August 2007: Steven A. Perrone, 42, was shot and injured at his St. Petersburg apartment by a St. Petersburg police officer after approaching officers with a knife in one hand and a gun in the other. Perrone had called the police earlier to tell them he was cut but provided few other details. When the police officers arrived, Perrone's wife told them he was suicidal and wanted to commit suicide by cop. Perrone was released from the hospital and booked into Pinellas County Jail on charges of aggravated assault to law enforcement officers and one count of domestic battery.

Source: St. Petersburg Times archives

Suicide by cop? Largo man's ruse brought police and death, friends say 09/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 11:18pm]
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