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They had hoods, guns and were just kidding

Mayor Thomas "Thom" Feaster, City Manager Steven Stanton and five police officers, including Chief Richard Kistner, took unmarked police cars, guns and other city equipment to St. Petersburg on Dec. 8 to play a gag on a Paragon Cable executive.

All but Kistner and Stanton were dressed in TAC team gear, black jump suits and black hoods and masks. The police officers carried shoulder rifles.

Kistner, Feaster and Stanton called the excursion a practical joke they devised to raise money for a charity: Largo Central Park.

Some joke.

This excursion took place on a regular work day.

All police employees involved were on duty at the time and being paid by the city. It required the police chief, the commander of the city's TAC team and three of its members to be out of the city for a portion of the afternoon.

What if there had been an emergency and they had been needed in Largo?

And although many Paragon employees were aware of the stunt, there had to be some who were startled to see armed men in attack gear entering their building.

Members of the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city's police officers, didn't view the joke as very clever.

In a letter to the city, PBA director James H. Lau Bach called the excursion a violation of the Police Department's standard operating procedures and a misuse of city personnel and equipment.

"The officers we represent are continually held to a standard which tolerates little or no deviation from work rules," Lau Bach said in his letter. "It will be very difficult if not impossible for me to (explain) why senior management can break and/or violate rules for a practical joke."

The target of the gag was Bob Barlow, general manager of Paragon Cable Co., which holds the Largo franchise for cable television.

According to Feaster, Barlow had staged a "robbery" of the mayor's office a few months back. The bounty from the mayor's office: a trophy Feaster had won in a wheelchair race for charity that Paragon Cable had sponsored.

The "robber" gave Feaster's trophy to Barlow, who placed it on a shelf in his office at 11500 M. L. King (Ninth) St. in St. Petersburg.

Then, a few weeks later, Feaster said he got a video of the robbery in the mail.

There, on the video, was his trophy, Feaster said, on Barlow's shelf.

"I have to get it back," Feaster said he told Stanton.

Feaster said he and Stanton decided "well, maybe we can get a couple of guys, and the mayor could wear a hood over his head, and we could get this trophy back."

They set a date and a time.

On the day of the "Paragon invasion," the seven men, some armed with shoulder rifles and a video camera from the Police Department, met in what Feaster called "a strategy room" to plan the activity. The guns were not loaded, according to police Capt. Jerry Bloechle, who participated in the raid.

Bloechle, commander of the TAC team, was in charge of instructions. Kistner captured the whole thing on videotape.

The video shows Bloechle drawing on a board a diagram of the Paragon office building. He then indicates which of the rooms is Barlow's office and assigns various members of the TAC team to different positions in the room.

While the video was rolling Tuesday afternoon, Stanton came in to check it out.

"Am I in it at all?" Stanton asked.

Stanton was told he appeared only briefly in the video.

"Thank God," Stanton said and left the viewing room.

As the video rolls on and Barlow's office is invaded, Feaster is seen impersonating a police officer in a black hood and suit.

Barlow said he had a brief moment of fear when the officers entered.

"Then I saw the word "Largo' on somebody's uniform, and I recognized the mayor's face behind the mask," Barlow said.

After placing Barlow under arrest, one member of the TAC team handcuffed him. Feaster retrieved his trophy from Barlow's shelf.

"Revenge is sweet," Feaster said mugging with the trophy for the video camera.

Next Feaster searched Barlow's office for bounty of his own. After consulting with Barlow's secretary, they seized a photo of Barlow with golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Chi Chi Rodriguez.

Bloechle escorted Barlow back to the Largo police station were he was placed in a holding cell. Later, the mayor used a Police Department tape recorder to record Barlow's "confession."

At one point on the video, Barlow notices Kistner videotaping him.

"If it doesn't work out as chief, we can always use another guy on the cameras," Barlow tells Kistner.

Finally, Barlow was released on a bond: a promise to buy a brick for Largo Central Park that costs $45.

After viewing the video, Feaster defended his actions and those of the city manager, police chief and the other officers.

"I wasn't doing it for my personal gain," Feaster said. "In the long run, it was done for the benefit of the park."

He said Paragon Cable has been a major supporter of plans and programs for Largo Central Park, scheduled to be completed within 10 years. The video could become part of a fund-raising packet, he suggested.

Kistner said he didn't think the stunt was "inappropriate at all. We use personnel for charity," Kistner said. He mentioned that officers always collect toys at Christmas for poor children.

But Stanton said he had some reservations after it was over.

"Looking at it real strictly, we probably didn't use the best of judgment," Stanton said. "I presume if you're going to make a big story out of this, we're going to look kind of silly."

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