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Violent offense ends in death

Terrence D. Alston's first violent act was also his last.

Up until he tried to run down a Tampa police officer in a stolen car before dawn Wednesday, Alston's criminal career had been a string of car thefts and break-ins interrupted by short prison stretches. Indeed, he prided himself on never resisting when caught.

Wednesday was different.

Alston, 26, was a habitual offender on probation from prison, and he had run out of favors with his family who had bailed him out for years.

So when Tampa police Officer A.J. Matthews, on his way to a 6:30 a.m. roll call, spotted Alston prowling through the parking lot of Matthews' south Tampa condominium complex, Alston did what he had never done before.

Matthews, in his uniform, asked Alston what he was doing, police said. But Alston jumped into a cream-colored Buick Skylark parked perpendicularly to the residents' vehicles.

Matthews, a 12-year veteran, reached into the open driver's side window to yank the keys, but there were none; it was stolen earlier that day, police said.

Then Alston "swerved left and pins Matthews between the driver's door and a parked car," police spokesman Steve Cole said.

Matthews told detectives: "My legs started to go numb. I pulled my weapon and he started to reach across the car as if he was trying to get something on the floorboard," Cole said.

Matthews fired once, hitting Alston in the back. Alston opened the passenger door and fell out of the car. Matthews was still trapped and a resident had to drive his car onto the curb to free him.

No gun was found in the car, Cole said. But if Alston had lived, he could have been charged with attempted murder of a police officer, he said.

While investigators determine whether the shooting was justified, Matthews will remain on administrative leave with pay. That's standard procedure.

For Matthews, who has never fired his weapon on duty, it was far from routine.

"It really hasn't set in yet," Matthews, 34, said. "I'll be okay."

Physically, he said, "I'm a little banged up in the legs, but that's about it."

During his career as an officer, Matthews has received consistent praise from the public for his professionalism and courtesy. More than once, he has helped stranded motorists, according to letters in his personnel file.

But he has had mixed reviews from his superiors, who have called him "hard-working and dedicated," as well as "arrogant and overbearing."

On occasion, his overzealousness has gotten him in trouble.

He once wrecked his cruiser when he ran it into a ditch trying to catch up with a traffic violator. On another occasion, he chased a battery suspect into Pinellas County against department policy. He was reprimanded for both.

In February 1989, he was suspended for three days for eavesdropping at a courtroom door after he and the other witnesses had been asked to leave. On the stand, he changed his testimony from an earlier deposition. But he said the change was not based on what the defense attorney said in the opening statement.

Alston's story is just as full of contradictions.

As a child in Denver, Alston was something of a prodigy, according to his half-brother Nathan Purdee, who is 18 years older.

"He was literally a genius kid," said Purdee, who lives in New York. "I bought him this guitar for Christmas and a George Benson album. He learned the whole thing in a day."

He was first in his junior high class and first flute in his music class.

But when his parents moved to Tampa in 1980, "that was his downfall," Purdee said.

"He got introduced to drugs and stealing cars," Purdee said. "It got to the point where he was stealing from his parents."

His regular trips through the prison system began in 1987 when he was 19.

Over the next five years, he was in prison four times. He served 15{ months out of 9{ years, according to the Department of Corrections.

In 1992, another charge for trafficking in stolen property earned him a habitual felon tag and he was sentenced to seven years. He was let out and placed on control release July 19 after less than two years.

Purdee sent him money to get started through another family member. Alston got a job and an apartment.

Then he got in trouble again.

He was arrested on a cocaine possession charge in August, placing his probation in jeopardy. The Florida Parole Commission was scheduled to vote on his case Nov. 15.

Alston's family, especially a cousin who adored him, would not give up, Purdee said. She was taking him to church, he said.

He tried to get away Wednesday because he knew the consequences, Purdee speculated.

"The last thing he wanted to do was disappoint another family member," Purdee said. "He knew if he got arrested, the family would just wash its hands."