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This is one shooting that the officer survived

A protective vest saved Richard Russano from a .357 round in 1990.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

A protective vest saved Richard Russano from a .357 round in 1990.

The young deputies, the ones who still thought they were invincible, made fun of Robert Russano.

He was an old man to them — in his mid 40s, married and with four kids at home. And even though no policy required him to wear a bulletproof vest, he did, every shift, and not the standard one issued by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office — a flimsy sheath of Kevlar that "didn't look like it could stop a BB," he said.

No, he went out and paid about $300 for a top-of-the-line model, with a steel breastplate and a reassuring and ultimately prophetic brand name: Point Blank.

In November of 1990, Russano was shot square in the chest by a man driving a sports car he had stopped on Shoal Line Boulevard, along the Hernando coastline.

The gun was a .357 Magnum. The distance from gun barrel to that 5-inch by 8-inch steel plate was less than 20 feet.

And though Russano suffered in other ways, his only physical wound, he said, was "a big black-and-blue and green-and-orange bruise about the size of a dinner plate."

I thought about Russano after David Crawford, a St. Petersburg police officer and former Hernando County resident, was shot and killed Monday night. Crawford wasn't wearing a vest at the time, and his death has set off a debate about whether these protective coverings should be mandatory for patrol officers.

They are in Hernando, for both sheriff's deputies and Brooksville police officers, which is a good thing. Because I remember when vests spared us what could have been a tragedy very much like the one in St. Petersburg, where three police officers have been shot and killed on duty since the first of the year.

In December of 1989, 21-year-old Hernando Deputy Scott Brockew tried to pull over a car in Spring Hill driven by John Ochoa, a man wanted on several criminal charges in California. Ochoa sped away, crashed his car and took off running. As Brockew chased him, Ochoa shot him in the hand and chest. Doctors said his vest saved his life. Brockew, now a corporal with the Tarpon Springs Police Department, didn't respond to a request for an interview.

Though Brockew was the first on-duty Hernando deputy shot in more than a decade, it happened again, to Russano, less than a year later.

His case is a perfect example of why officers should wear vests at all times. Because they can be shot at any time.

Russano, a former New Yorker who had worked in real estate and as a corrections officer, was late coming to his career as a patrol officer. Though the sturdy vests from Point Blank Body Armor would soon be standard — Brockew was wearing one just like it — they weren't when Russano joined the force at age 41 in 1987. And he didn't buy it only because he was a mature family man, said Russano, who is now 64 and lives in Ridge Manor West.

"I was aggressive in my police work," he said. "I grew up on the streets, and it was easy for me to find people who weren't doing things legal. I was kind of tuned in to the bad guys, and I got into more stuff than some other deputies."

He had been assigned to Hernando Beach, which was then developing a rough reputation — reports of organized gambling in one of its bars, a series of burglaries. By the time he went on duty late Nov. 27, 1990, he knew the area well enough, he said, "that I could drive down the street and see if something was out of place."

That was the case with the Chevrolet Camaro or Pontiac Firebird that passed him driving north on Shoal Line. In his rearview mirror, he could see the car was without one of its taillights, or a visible license plate, or, judging from its rumbling engine, a functioning muffler.

By the time Russano made a U-turn, the car was too far gone to give chase. That was about 11 p.m. More than four hours later, sitting in his car with the windows open near Rogers Park, also along Shoal Line, he heard the rumbling again, this time heading south.

"I thought, 'That's that same car.' I'm going to find out who that guy is," Russano said.

He pursued the car and pulled it over near what is now Linda Pedersen Park, but what then was "a long stretch of nothing . . . the middle of nowhere."

The missing plate worried him enough that he shined his spotlights on the car. Still, walking toward the car, he had no reason to expect violence until a man with a full, chest-length beard and long hair stood up through the T-top.

"That's when all my spidey senses started tingling," he said.

He stepped backward and started to draw his pistol when he saw the muzzle flash from the man's gun. Though he managed to return fire and, after an eight-minute delay, report in a groggy voice that he had been hit, he remembers nothing until he arrived at Oak Hill Hospital.

He was in shock, and a doctor later told him the blow from the bullet — like getting hit with a baseball bat, Russano said — had temporarily stopped his heart.

"It's not like the movies where you get right back up," Russano said.

He was treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, but even after four months off work still felt the effects of the shooting — bad dreams, insomnia, a racing heart every time he saw a passing Camaro.

"Even certain mannerisms, how somebody would look at you, how somebody would cock their head — it would kick off that anxiety," he said.

He worried that he was paranoid, too eager to shoot, and then developed stress-related heart problems. So, about a year after the shooting, he retired with a disability. He spent more time with his wife, Cyndie, and his children. After the kids grew up and left the house, he threw himself into volunteer work and is now the area coordinator for the SHINE program, which helps retirees navigate the bureaucracy of Medicare and Social Security.

Detectives got a good description of the man they think shot Russano — medium height and in his mid 40s, his beard and hair streaked with gray — but never caught him. On the off chance a suspect emerges after all these years, the vest and dented breastplate are stored in a Sheriff's Office evidence locker.

They've already proven one thing, though. Body armor saves lives.

Protective vests are cumbersome and uncomfortable, especially in the middle of a hot Florida summer, Russano said.

"But at the end of your shift, you get to go home."

This is one shooting that the officer survived 02/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 24, 2011 8:07pm]

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