Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

Two St. Petersburg officers fired for using too much force

ST. PETERSBURG — Two police officers were fired Thursday after internal investigations determined they used excessive force in two separate encounters with young men last year.

Officer Brian Fernandez was still a rookie when he shot and injured a 17-year-old who drove away from him in a stolen truck two days before Christmas.

Detective Bartholomew Varacchi kicked a handcuffed man during an arrest last June.

Acting police Chief Dave DeKay determined both officers broke department rules and were not justified in their actions.

While both cases were serious, the shooting had the most lasting effects. The teen is still struggling with severe injuries.

Quade Everett, now 18, is currently at a long-term-care facility, according to a family lawyer.

"He's in a brain injury rehabilitation center," said Tampa lawyer James Wardell. "He still has horrific injuries. He is paralyzed on one side. He still has a tracheotomy. He still has a stomach tube. . . . With all that said, he's doing way better than anybody thought he would do."

DeKay said the shooting's circumstances and investigative interviews factored into his decision to fire Fernandez.

"His articulation of the incident didn't give me a lot of confidence in his decisions that day," DeKay said.

Everett was the 10th person shot by St. Petersburg police in 2013, a year that saw a record number of such incidents.

Fernandez encountered Everett, who'd had previous brushes with police, on Dec. 23 after he was sent to 20th Avenue S and 11th Street to find a stolen truck.

As he walked up to a crowded house at 2011 11th St. S, people scattered.

Everett ran past Fernandez and got into a stolen silver Ford F-150 and began to drive off.

Fernandez said the truck came head-on at him and he had no escape path. Firing his weapon was his only recourse, he told investigators, because he feared for his life. Yet all of his shots were along the truck's passenger side and back window.

"Officer Fernandez stated he started shooting at the truck when it was in front of him as he also stepped to the side," a report states. "Officer Fernandez could not explain why there were no shots to the front of the truck if he fired at the truck while standing in front of it."

Moments after the shooting, another officer arrived and helped Fernandez break out the driver's side window. As they opened the driver's door, the teen began to slump over.

They did not render aid. They thought he was dead.

Witnesses told police they never saw Everett drive toward the officer. All but one said they never heard the officer make any commands until after he started shooting.

For several weeks it was not clear if the teen would survive.

Wardell said the family is considering a lawsuit.

"We're relieved that they recognized the wrongdoing in this case," Wardell said. "The people of St. Petersburg should be happy that they are holding officers accountable."

Fernandez, 31, was sworn onto the force last summer. He was called "friendly and courteous" in his first evaluation, and the only discipline in his record is a reprimand for being tardy or absent for training.

Because he was still a probationary officer, he cannot appeal his firing.

"He has no recourse," said union attorney Debra Gell, who represented both officers.

The same is not true in Varacchi's case.

Varacchi, 45, spent five years in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s and became a officer here in 2009. He had a blemish-free personnel file. In nearly all his evaluations, supervisors praised him as a professional who knows how to de-escalate heated situations.

But DeKay decided that was not the case during the June 3 arrest of 25-year-old Kalonji Lester, an admitted drug dealer who led police on a vehicle and foot chase before being cornered near 38th Avenue N and 19th Street.

Two other officers had Lester in handcuffs on the ground when Varacchi ran up, yelling, according to a report.

Varacchi, who is 5 foot 9 and 193 pounds, kicked and slapped him in the head, police said. Lester didn't complain, but two other officers there did.

Prosecutors quietly charged Varacchi with misdemeanor battery last fall. He was accepted into a 6-month pretrial intervention program in December. It requires him to pay fines. If he completes the program, his charge will be dropped.

Gell said the union will fight his firing.

"I feel the punishment was too much," she said. "We found a lot of discrepancies in statements. I think when we go to arbitration, that will come out. That's what we're here for, to make sure (officers) get a fair deal, too. We will do that for Varacchi. Unfortunately we can't for Fernandez."

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