Mostly Cloudy87° WeatherMostly Cloudy87° Weather

When officer is down, bonds between cops kick in

Law enforcement swarms the area near 3734 28th Ave. S in St. Petersburg, where Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger entered a house 
Jan. 24 after Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz was shot. Both men were killed there as they attempted to make an arrest.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Law enforcement swarms the area near 3734 28th Ave. S in St. Petersburg, where Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger entered a house Jan. 24 after Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz was shot. Both men were killed there as they attempted to make an arrest.

ST. PETERSBURG — St. Petersburg police sometimes trot out the "good cop/bad cop" routine when interrogating suspects, just like on TV. When Sgt. Tom J. Baitinger had a part to play, he naturally gravitated toward "good cop," his best friend says.

Baitinger was caring and easy to talk to, says Brian Youngblood, a former St. Petersburg officer who now works for the Martin County Sheriff's Office. Everybody liked him.

But warmth and affability took a backseat last week when Baitinger faced the choice that would end his life. A fugitive holed up in an attic had shot a fellow officer and a deputy U.S. marshal. They were somewhere inside that house, bleeding.

Baitinger, 48, and other cops donned ballistic shields and rushed to the rescue.

"There was no hesitation. There was no second-guessing," Youngblood says. "It's just 'We have a job to do, let's go.' That's Tom. That's the easiest way to explain it. You know it. It doesn't surprise you."

Baitinger's instincts also didn't surprise Vincent Skotko, a psychologist who has consulted with the Tampa Police Department for 25 years.

Investigators have yet to release full details of how the gun battle with Hydra Lacy Jr. unfolded, and how Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz came to die on Jan. 24.

But Baitinger's actions as rescuer have deep roots in what it means to be a cop, Skotko says.

Police must function as teams in dangerous situations, he says. "You can't do it alone. You have to have trust that somebody has your back. That becomes a very deep bond."

It's that very bond that often attracts people to police work in the first place, he says. Cops like intense, structured camaraderie. Prospective candidates use "common phrases like thin blue line or brotherhood of police officers."

Police academy training reinforces that ethic, just as with the military, Skotko says. "You are dealt with as a unit. If one person screws up, the whole squad gets punished."

Baitinger personified that bond.

A native of Wisconsin who became a deputy there, he moved to Florida's warmth 15 years ago, fell in love and worked his way up through St. Petersburg's ranks. In 2002, he married Paige Baitinger, a Pinellas County schools guidance counselor. Friends called him "Bait."

For several years, he trained young officers in the field, patiently imparting nuances of the job.

"Even if you didn't know one iota of what you were doing, he would help you through it," says St. Petersburg police Detective George Lofton, 42. "But he never gave you the feeling that he was talking down to you. He led by example."

"You wouldn't have known that he had stripes on his shoulder," says Detective Mark Marland, 43, who was Baitinger's zone partner for five years. "He was never the boss. He was one of the troops."

When Tampa police officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab were killed on duty last year, Baitinger manned a table at a Jannus Live benefit concert, collecting donations for the officers' families.

He stayed for eight hours.

"He was adamant about being there," Lofton says. "People came and tried to spell him and he was like, 'Nope. I got it. I'm good.' "

He loved playing golf with friends, including police Chief Chuck Harmon, though he never broke 100, Lofton says. "He just liked hanging out with a couple of the guys for a couple of hours."

In 2009, Baitinger suffered a stroke while on duty. He was out on rehabilitation for almost a year.

"The way he came back was through pure determination," Marland says. "He loved being a cop. He could have taken the easy road and taken disability, but that never even crossed his mind."

Roberto Batista, 52, a recently retired SWAT team hostage negotiator for the Tampa Police Department, has heard questions about why St. Petersburg's SWAT team wasn't summoned to make the initial foray into the Lacy house.

Authorities won't release more details until their investigation is complete weeks from now.

"Every situation is different," Batista says. Among other things, just because someone says a bad guy is hiding in the attic doesn't make it so. A SWAT team can come out and negotiate for hours only to find that attics or bedrooms are actually empty.

"Normally, if you know someone is barricaded in an attic and armed, that would be a SWAT team call," Batista says. "But it depends on how much information you have and how far into the call you are. Once you get to a certain point, sometimes you can't back out."

Wounded officers leave fewer options.

"When one of your own is down, you have to do something," Batista says. "You can't wait for a tank or the SWAT team. You have to get someone out in minutes or they will bleed to death."

The shoot-out began just after dawn, when Deputy U.S. Marshal Scott Ley, an undercover St. Petersburg detective and an undercover Pinellas sheriff's detective went to 3734 28th Ave. S to question Christine Lacy about her husband's whereabouts.

She told them he was hiding in the attic and might be armed, police say. Backup was called to help make the arrest. Baitinger and Yaslowitz were among the officers who responded.

Yaslowitz and Ley entered the house, climbed a stepladder to the attic and were shot, police say. The chief of police called it an "ambush."

That's when Baitinger and other officers went in for the rescue. Lacy started shooting through the attic floor, an angle that allowed a bullet to pierce Baitinger's body without hitting his bullet-resistant vest.

Baitinger knew what he was doing, friends say. He was a trainer when police practiced "active shooter" tactics, Lofton says.

"If you need to grab a group of guys and go, he's definitely one you want there."

Youngblood and Baitinger joined the force about the same time and became best friends, a relationship that continued after Youngblood left in 2001. Youngblood says he talked to several officers at the shooting scene and no one was surprised that Baitinger helped lead the rescue attempt.

"Just because you are in the military or law enforcement or a firefighter doesn't automatically make you a hero," Youngblood says.

"Actions define a hero, and what Tom and the other officers who went in with him did that day, to save a friend, was what I would define as a hero."

When officer is down, bonds between cops kick in 02/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 10:56pm]

© 2014 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...