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In a fight for his life, the officer fires once

With a man's hand clenched around his throat, Largo police Officer Jeffrey Rogers felt there was only one thing he could do to live.

Rogers had tried to slip away from the man's grasp Thursday morning. But the man, who was almost a foot taller and 40 pounds heavier than Rogers, kept coming. He wrapped his hand around Rogers' throat and squeezed. He slammed the officer's head against a wall, making it bleed.

"I'm not going back to jail," he said to the officer.

Rogers squirted pepper spray at the man's face. But he held up his hand and blocked the spray, spattering it back in Rogers' face.

The 28-year-old officer with a wife and son at home felt he was a moment from blacking out. He unholstered his .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol and fired once, into the center of the man's chest.

The man let go. But he continued to struggle, even when a back-up officer arrived. Largo fire crews from a station a few blocks away arrived minutes later and began treating him, but he died where he lay.

Police identified the man, who police said was a suspect in a burglary, as David E. Chrysler, 36, of Tampa.

Rogers was placed on routine administrative leave with pay while Largo police and the State Attorney's Office investigate the shooting. Largo police officials said it appears Rogers was justified in using lethal force.

"There's no doubt this was a life-and-death struggle," police Chief Lester Aradi said. "The suspect had several opportunities to disengage and flee the scene . . . so I think his intention was to kill the officer. It could have gone the other way."

Rogers, who has been with the department almost four years, has no internal affairs complaints in his personnel file, nor has he ever shot anyone before, police officials said.

Aradi, who rode midnights with Rogers after he was hired as chief two years ago, said Rogers is a good officer who was distressed that he had to use fatal force.

"He impressed me as a nice, young officer," Aradi said. "He's upset about this. I think he has high moral convictions and this upsets him. From all indications, Jeff is taking this very hard."

This is the first time a Largo police officer has shot and killed someone since 1994, when an officer fired on a man who had struck a police cruiser with a truck and was pushing it toward the officer. That shooting was ruled justifiable.

Chrysler's family members could not be reached Thursday. Police also could not locate them.

Chrysler was wanted on a probation violation warrant. The warrant warns officers who encounter him to be cautious because he has been violent with police before.

Records show Chrysler has been arrested 15 times since 1991. Most of those arrests were on drug possession charges, though he racked up burglary charges in Temple Terrace in April.

Police say Rogers apparently interrupted a burglary Chrysler was committing at the Largo Car Wash on Clearwater-Largo Road early Thursday morning.

Rogers was patrolling solo at the time. Most officers in the area were at a car crash on Ulmerton Road near the Largo Mall. A suspected drunk driver had rear-ended a Largo police officer's squad car at a red light. The officer was taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

Meanwhile, Rogers, who is a canine officer, was patrolling Clearwater-Largo Road about 2:35 a.m. when he saw a white 1997 Chevrolet parked at the car wash, which has been having troubles with burglaries recently, police said.

Rogers got on his radio, told dispatchers his location and asked them to run a records check on the Chevrolet's license plate. Police would later learn that it was stolen in Tampa the night before.

An officer at the accident scene on Ulmerton Road heard Rogers check in at the car wash and decided to go back him up.

Rogers walked up to the car and looked inside. Chrysler was crouched in the front passenger floorboard, apparently hiding. Police later would find three crowbars: one stuck in a machine in the car wash, one on the ground and another in the car.

At this point, Rogers did not know Chrysler's name, nor that he was a wanted violent man who was driving a stolen car. Rogers asked him what he was doing there. Chrysler said he had tried to use a phone at the car wash.

Then he bolted.

Rogers chased him. He tried to flick a remote switch to open his car door so his police dog could help with the chase. But the switch did not work.

While in pursuit, Rogers huffed a garbly transmission into his radio saying his dog was not with him.

Rogers, who is 5-foot-6 and weighs about 140 pounds, caught up with Chrysler a few blocks away in the courtyard of the Casa Bello Condominiums on Third Avenue SW. Rogers tackled him. Chrysler, who is 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, fought back.

The pair slammed into a bush, snapping branches the diameter of a quarter, said Lt. Glen Smith, who is leading the police investigation.

Chrysler, who was lean but muscled, overpowered Rogers and pinned him to the ground. "It was almost as if Jeff was a rag doll here," Aradi said.

Rogers slipped away from Chrysler and hoped he would flee, Aradi said.

But Chrysler came at him again, pinned him against the wall and choked him. He pounded the officer's head against the rough stucco wall of the condo while holding his throat in a "death grip," Aradi said.

After the pepper spray failed, Aradi said, Rogers had no choice but to fire his gun.

"He had attempted and exhausted all other avenues," Aradi said. "Jeff said he couldn't breathe. He felt he was going to black out at any second."

Smith said Rogers hit Chrysler dead-center in the chest. Police officers are not trained to shoot offenders in an extremity, such as a leg or arm, to wound them. They are trained to aim for a suspect's "center mass."

The back-up officer arrived and encountered Chrysler still struggling with Rogers. The officers handcuffed Chrysler, which is routine even after a shooting, and summoned the Fire Department.

The incident took about three minutes, said John Carroll, the Police Department's deputy chief.

Rogers was taken to Largo Medical Center and treated. Besides the cuts to the back of his head, he had red marks on his throat where Chrysler had choked him.

"I'm just thankful one of my officers isn't dead," Aradi said. "This kid was in a knock-down, drag-out fight for his life. This was right on the teeter-totter edge of going either way. He could be dead right now. It's scary how close this could have turned the other way."

_ Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tischsptimes.com.

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