The killing of Tampa Police Cpl. Mike Roberts: In 52 minutes, a struggle, shot fired, then officer down

TAMPA

He was armed as he ran through the park.

Don't tell police you saw me, the wild-haired stranger told two bystanders.

On a busy street not far away, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts lay on the pavement, a bullet in his chest draining his life from him. Fellow officers swarmed to find Roberts' shooter.

That's when police say the suspect made a call from the shadows.

"I shot a police officer," Humberto Delgado Jr. told his uncle. "I think I killed him."

Delgado was found hiding behind a house at 812 E Yukon in Sulfur Springs at 10:25 p.m. Wednesday, about 25 minutes after police believe Roberts went down.

Soon after officers handcuffed the suspect, they learned this deeply troubled man was a former police officer.

It was a stunning revelation Thursday that added insult to a city police department already reeling from killings.

"The loss of Cpl. Mike Roberts is a tremendous tragedy to us," Tampa police Chief Stephen Hogue said. "It makes it even more difficult to understand how somebody with a law enforcement background could do something like this."

Roberts' slaying marked Tampa's fourth homicide in five days, making this one of the most violent weeks in memory.

"This is a grieving community," Hogue said in a somber afternoon news conference at police headquarters. "It has been a terrible week."

• • •

Nelson Giddings, 54, was keeping watch on Nebraska Avenue from the New Beginnings of Tampa emergency shelter and mission Wednesday night.

The neighborhood was quiet. No cars passed by.

Across the street, he saw a man pushing a shopping cart. Giddings, a security guard at the shelter, didn't pay much attention. Just another homeless guy with a shopping cart, he thought.

He saw a police car go by about five or 10 minutes later.

Roberts, an 11-year veteran with the force, was always on the lookout for suspicious activity — and Tampa police policy encourages its officers to make self-initiated calls.

So, mindful of recent burglaries in the neighborhood, Roberts radioed in to let dispatchers know he was stopping. He wanted to question a man pushing a full shopping cart down N Nebraska Avenue, he said.

It was 9:58 p.m.

A couple driving by saw two men struggling. They made a U-turn and watched and called 911.

Delgado pistol-whipped Roberts, then fired a shot. The bullet, police say, traveled from Roberts' shoulder into his chest, through an opening in his bulletproof vest.

A dispatcher called for back-up when Roberts didn't respond.

At 10:03 p.m., Sgt. Paul Mumford was the first on scene at Nebraska and E Arctic Street. He saw a man walking away. And then he noticed Roberts.

"Halt!" the police command rang out through the streets. "Halt!"

Delgado pulled an AR-15 assault rifle from a canvas bag and pointed it at Mumford.

The sergeant took cover behind a Dumpster.

Delgado ran west.

Mumford rushed to Roberts' side and frantically tried to revive him.

Soon, helicopters filled the sky and police cars lined the streets.

Roberts died at 10:50 p.m. at Tampa General Hospital. He was 38, and left behind a wife and 3-year-old son.

• • •

Police still have many questions about what happened.

But they know Delgado was armed with an arsenal.

He had a .45-caliber pistol, a .22-caliber pistol, a 9mm semi-automatic weapon and an AR-15 assault rifle, they say.

When they cuffed him, officers found a gun in his pants.

"The truth," Hogue said Thursday, "is, as tragic as this situation is, we're probably lucky there weren't additional police officers shot and hurt."

Delgado, who served a little more than a year in the U.S. Army, had a receipt from a Fort Bragg, N.C., pawn shop for three weapons. Hogue said at least one of the guns matched the receipt.

It's not clear how long Delgado has been carrying the guns.

Hogue said there is evidence he took a trip to North Carolina about a month ago.

Family members say Delgado, who was honorably discharged from the Army, has been treated for mental illness.

According to federal and North Carolina law, gun buyers can't have been ruled mentally incompetent or have been committed to any mental institution. Armed servicemen and women do not have special purchasing rights.

• • •

News of Roberts' death rippled through an already violence-weary city Thursday.

"It's a tragic day in Tampa today," Hogue said before the sun even rose.

Throughout the day, flowers, candles and notes piled up at the Roll Call of Honor memorial in front of police headquarters at 411 N Franklin St.

A hockey stick and Tampa police jersey commemorated Roberts' time on the department recreational team.

For about 20 minutes leading up to a 2 p.m. news conference, the upper lobby of headquarters was unusually quiet. The usually chatty members of the media said little as the room filled with stern-faced officers, hugging and patting one another, black bands decorating their shiny badges.

All day, the department's staff and police went about the difficult work of planning a funeral, meeting with family, coordinating media availability.

But still officers patrolled.

"Every one of them is out there doing their job," Hogue said, "but they're grieving the loss of one of their officers."

• • •

If anything took people by surprise, it was the parallels between Roberts and the man police say shot him.

Both were police officers. Both U.S. Army veterans. Both fathers in their 30s.

Hogue said it was hard to understand.

But with Delgado behind bars on charges of first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, aggravated assault of a law enforcement officer and carrying a concealed firearm, police weren't spending any time analyzing his state of mind or personal history.

"It's really irrelevant to our investigation," Hogue said. "This suspect knew exactly what he was doing."

• • •

Residents of Sulfur Springs knew Roberts from his patrols.

He had been to the New Beginnings of Tampa shelter before, helping to restore peace when fights broke out or when there was trouble with drugs.

"He would be calm, subdued," said Jeanette Julian, who runs the shelter with her husband. "He would try to talk the situation out with people and calm them down."

Earlier Wednesday night, the shelter's residents had attended a church service. The preacher talked about evil lurking in the darkness. If people stayed in the light, he said, they would prosper and grow.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Dan Julian, the shelter's director, said Humberto Delgado must have had evil in his heart.

Amid the chaos Thursday, a group of people gathered in a prayer circle outside the shelter.

They prayed for the officer's life. They prayed for the suspect's soul.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writers Justin George, Colleen Jenkins, Jared Leone, Robbyn Mitchell and Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

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The killing of Tampa Police Cpl. Mike Roberts: In 52 minutes, a struggle, shot fired, then officer down 08/20/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 10:22am]

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