ST. PETERSBURG — When it was his turn on the podium, the detective told a story of what he asked God in a dark alley.
It was Jan. 26, 2009, just before 10 p.m. He lay on the ground, south of an Exxon station at 31st Street and First Avenue N. He was shot several times. His service weapon was empty of bullets, and the bad guys, who had just robbed the gas station, were running away. His partners from an elite anti-crime unit raced toward him.
"I said to God, 'If this is it, if this is my time, I'm okay with that,' " said the officer, whose name is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times because he works undercover. "I asked God if he would please take care of my wife and boys.
"Apparently, he felt my wife and five boys were too much work," said the officer, who is 42 and a 20-year veteran of the force. "I thank him so much for that."
On Monday, the auditorium at St. Petersburg College — just 4 miles south of that alley — was full during the St. Petersburg Police Department's annual awards program.
In the front row, the officer's wife, children, siblings, mother and grandmother snapped photos. To his left, his colleagues in his unit sat in their uniforms of anonymity: scraggly beards, faded khakis, polo shirts.
It was a day of rare kudos for a special type of officer who works in the shadows. Chief Chuck Harmon presented the soft-spoken detective with two medallions: the Purple Heart, the second issued in department history, and the Medal of Valor, the fifth. The heart is for an officer seriously wounded, the medal for bravery in the line of duty.
That January, the bay area was on edge after several convenience store robberies. Five store clerks had been shot in southern Pinellas County. All survived.
The officer's special operations unit intercepts crimes in progress. It was dispatched to find those responsible. They cruised the city and stumbled upon three teens abandoning bicycles in an alley. They watched. The teens headed toward the gas station. Aware of a robbery in progress, the officers closed in. The decorated officer tried to arrest a teen acting as a lookout. An armed robber ran from the store. Gunfire.
"He fired his weapon until it was empty in an attempt to stop the suspects," said Assistant Chief of Police David DeKay, who oversees the unit. That action, said DeKay, more than likely saved the wounded officer's life.
Two days later, three teenagers were arrested. They await trial on charges of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and armed robbery.
A year and a half later, other officers received standing ovations for their awards, but his was the longest and loudest.
Later, he was off to a family cookout. Then it was back to work in the same unit, minus a gall bladder and with the addition of occasional pain from bits of shrapnel still lodged in his body.