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Vest saves officer's life

Time and 2 inches of bullet-proof protection saved a Crystal River police officer's life early Wednesday, authorities say. Officer Gregory Pender was scuffling with a handcuffed suspect who had escaped from a police cruiser when the man turned Pender's 9mm pistol around, held it against the officer's abdomen and fired a shot, authorities said.

Pender's bullet-proof vest blocked the slug, leaving the 32-year-old officer bruised but not seriously injured, reports said.

The suspect, Willie James Clark, ran away from the stunned officer and managed to elude a massive search. He surrendered to deputies in Homosassa about 9 a.m.

Three weeks ago, Pender had exchanged his personal bullet-proof vest for a department-issue vest that was two inches longer _ and covered the area where he was shot.

If Pender had worn the other vest during the scuffle, Police Chief Roger Krieger said, "He probably wouldn't be here to talk about it."

Pender will stay in Seven Rivers Community Hospital for five days for observation. He declined to comment.

Clark, 26, of Crystal River was booked into the Citrus County Jail on seven charges, including attempted murder.

Clark has a long criminal record that includes drug and theft related charges, state records showed. He has been sentenced to two prison terms within the past four years.

This shooting incident stemmed indirectly from one of Clark's drug charges, records showed. Krieger and Citrus sheriff's spokeswoman Gail Tierney provided this account:

Pender and Cpl. Kat Liotta went to a duplex at 615 NE 10th St. about 2:15 a.m. Wednesday to investigate a disturbance call.

The officers found several people drinking, shouting and being unruly. As is their custom, the officers checked computer records to see whether any of the people were wanted on other charges.

The computer showed that Clark was being sought on a charge of delivering cocaine. Authorities allege that Clark passed on drugs to a man who was working undercover for the Sheriff's Office, court records showed.

Pender arrested Clark, handcuffed his hands behind him and put him in the back of his cruiser. Liotta remained in the home trying to restore peace.

Pender became concerned that Liotta was inside by herself so long and he went to see if she needed help. Clark managed to move his handcuffed arms to the front, crawled into the car's front seat, unlocked the doors and fled.

Liotta got in her patrol car and sped after Clark, while Pender chased him on foot into some woods.

Clark apparently struck the officer's head from behind with a pipe or some other object. He and Pender struggled for the officer's pistol, which Pender was holding. Clark turned it on the officer and fired a shot. Pender then got the gun back, while Clark ran away.

Liotta called for help, and soon about 36 officers from the Crystal River Police Department and the Sheriff's Office _ using police dogs and a helicopter _ were looking for Clark, who surrendered hours later at the sheriff's substation in Homosassa.

Records show that Circuit Judge John Thurman sentenced Clark to 24 months' community control in November 1986 for selling marijuana, stealing a car and obstructing law officers, the record showed.

Less than a year later, he violated his community control by committing new crimes and being away from his home. Those offenses earned him a two-year stay in state prison, the record showed.

Clark completed a special "boot camp" regime for young offenders and had the remainder of his prison time converted into community control in January 1988. He violated that community control about three months later and was sent back to prison for 20 months.

The most recent charge against Clark started in February, when authorities said he delivered cocaine to an officer. The case was set for trial last month, but prosecutors dropped the charge because all the witnesses could not show up for trial and Thurman would not grant a continuance.

Assistant State Attorney Paul Norville filed a new charge immediately after that mishap; it was on that charge that Pender arrested Clark.