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They wore hoods, held guns, and they were just kidding

Five police officers, including Chief Richard Kistner; Mayor Thomas "Thom" Feaster; and City Manager Steven Stanton took unmarked police cars 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, which occurred on a normal work day, a joke for charity: Largo Central Park.

But members of the Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the city's police officers, see it differently.

In a letter to the city, James H. Lau Bach, director of the PBA, called the excursion a violation of Police Department 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. The company holds a city 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 that Feaster had won in a wheelchair race for charity sponsored by Paragon Cable.

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

A few weeks later, Feaster said, he received a video 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 that "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.

Capt. Jerry Bloechle, commander of the TAC team, was in charge of instructions. Kistner captured the activity on video tape, which was played for a Times reporter and photographer, Feaster and City Attorney Gerald McClelland on Tuesday afternoon.

On the video, Bloechle has drawn 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 appears 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.

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.

Barlow was "released" on a bond _ his promise to pay $45 for a Largo Central Park brick.

The mayor suggested that the video could be used as a part of a fund-raising packet for the park.

"In the long run," Feaster said, "this was done for the benefit of the park." The city is raising money for Largo Central Park, scheduled to be completed within 10 years.

"If the police officers had been busy, if they had been scheduled, then" it would have been different, Feaster said.

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