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Widows of slain Tampa police officers could file another suit

TAMPA — The widows of two slain Tampa police officers might sue another person: Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford.

Before Dontae Morris was released from prison in April 2010, a Jacksonville Sheriff's Office employee noticed three outstanding warrants for Morris. But it was a case of mistaken identity, she realized, so she didn't place a detainer on him.

She also didn't remove the warrants.

So on June 29 that year, when Tampa police Officer David Curtis pulled Morris over in a traffic stop, he saw a warrant for writing bad checks.

Because Morris was a wanted man, Curtis called for backup, a standard procedure. Officer Jeffrey Kocab arrived.

That's when Morris shot both of them, Tampa police say.

In a public statement released about two weeks after the fatal shootings, Jacksonville Undersheriff Frank Mackesy said the agency investigated the issue. He conceded no wrongdoing and instead commended the clerk for noticing the warrants had no value.

However, Mackesy didn't broach the important question: If authorities determined the warrants were in error, why weren't they removed?

Widows Sara Kocab and Kelly Curtis want to make sure that doesn't happen again, so in December, one of their attorneys mailed a notice of intent to sue Sheriff Rutherford. It's an extra step required before anyone can file a lawsuit against a government agency.

The widows' goal, according to the letter, is to "ensure that no other law enforcement officers are killed in the line of duty due to the existence of invalid warrants."

The women hoped to meet with Sheriff Rutherford to discuss possible policy changes at the Sheriff's Office. They never heard back, said their attorney, Christopher Jayson.

In a letter dated June 7, Jayson explained that because he hadn't heard from the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, his firm drafted a proposed settlement agreement.

The message: Make policy changes within 60 days of signing this document, and we won't sue.

The widows want the Sheriff's Office to require all personnel who know a warrant is invalid to remove it from the database in a "timely manner," the proposed settlement states.

And they want the new procedures to be known as the "Curtis/Kocab Policies" in honor of their husbands.

Jayson declined to comment for this report.

A city of Jacksonville attorney representing the Sheriff's Office wouldn't discuss the letters or say whether the agency had made any policy changes.

That attorney, Howard Maltz, only said the "undeniably tragic event is not the fault of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office but the fault of a criminal who hopefully will face justice soon."

The Tampa Police Department's attorney looked into the warrant issue the summer of 2010. His conclusions weren't ever made public, and a police spokeswoman said Wednesday the city wouldn't discuss the findings because of the widows' legal actions.

"However, we would like to see the policy changed, so we are supportive of Sara (Kocab) and Kelly (Curtis) in their attempt to get the policy changed," said spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

Sara Kocab and Kelly Curtis also are being represented by another attorney in Jayson's firm in a separate legal matter.

This month, each woman filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Morris, who faces two counts of first-degree murder in the officers' deaths. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Curtis said Tuesday they don't want Morris' money. If they get any proceeds from the lawsuit, they say they'd donate it to the Gold Shield Foundation, a charity that gives college scholarships to children of fallen firefighters and police.

They just want to make sure Morris isn't buying treats in jail — such as soda, chips and a radio — using money donated to his jailhouse canteen account.

Because of the statute of limitations, they needed to file before the two-year anniversary of their husbands' deaths, which is next week.

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

Widows of slain Tampa police officers could file another suit 06/20/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 20, 2012 11:51pm]
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