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Jury blames police for house fire

A jury awarded $61,500 this week to a woman who said police officers started a fire in her home after they raided it and left cigarettes burning in a garbage can. Five dogs and a cat were killed in the blaze.

Monna "Tobie" Bradshaw sued the St. Petersburg Police Department for negligence after the June 14, 2001, fire started in her garage and spread to the living quarters. The home was condemned and had to be demolished.

Bradshaw's four Labrador retrievers, a border collie and a cat perished in the fire. She said she plans to donate $1,600 of her winnings to a rescue fund for blind Labrador retrievers.

"I brought this case more for the dogs than for the money," Bradshaw said Thursday. "They were my life. My household was focused around our dogs."

After a three-day trial, jurors took about 90 minutes to return the verdict Wednesday. The reward included about $26,000 for personal belongings destroyed in the fire.

Assistant City Attorney Pamela Cichon said the city plans to seek a new trial as well as ask a judge to order a lesser reward. If the motions are denied, the city will appeal, she said.

"There is absolutely no proof that we did it," Cichon said of the fire.

Coincidentally, police raided Bradshaw's home just one day after another house caught fire during a drug raid. In that case, a "distraction device" tossed in the house by police caught a wall on fire. Damage to the home, which also was used as a music studio, was initially estimated at more than $100,000.

Though police said they had developed evidence of drug-dealing in that home, no drugs were found in the house. While that case received media attention, Bradshaw's fire was not covered in the press.

Police sought a warrant to search Bradshaw's home at 2400 Second Ave. N after developing evidence that she was selling marijuana. They found drugs inside and arrested Bradshaw and her sons, who were 19 and 21 at the time.

Within 90 minutes after police left, the house caught on fire. A neighbor tried to get to the dogs, but could not reach them in time.

Bradshaw spent a few days in jail before she posted bail. She lived at a friend's house for a few months, then moved into an apartment.

"We lost everything in the fire," she said.

But the loss of her dogs was the most troubling, Bradshaw said. The oldest, Sara, was 7; the youngest, Lizzie, was 16 months old. One dog, Honeybun, was blind. Bradshaw had arranged the house so the dog could get around, including building steps up to her bed, where the pet liked to sleep.

St. Petersburg Fire Department investigators determined the fire most likely stemmed from an electrical problem.

But Bradshaw said she had lived in the home for 20 years and only called an electrician once, so she hired her own fire investigator. "I thought it was awfully strange that the house burned down," she said.

The investigator testified that the fire had started in a trash can in the garage. Several neighbors told Bradshaw they had seen officers smoking in the garage area during the raid.

Though Bradshaw had been in the garage that day, neither she nor her sons smoke cigarettes.

But the city stood by the officers.

Cichon said Bradshaw's investigator did not find any cigarette butts in the garbage can. The neighbors who said they saw police smoking were friends of Bradshaw, Cichon said.

Though some of the officers are smokers, none said they smoked in the garage or put any butts in the trash can, Cichon said.

"I don't think the jury believed the police officers," said Tom Wadley, Bradshaw's attorney.

Bradshaw acknowledged police found drugs in her home, but wouldn't discuss it further. She pleaded guilty to charges of possessing and selling marijuana, along with a charge of possessing the diet drug phentermine.

She was sentenced to a year in jail and got out after about five months. One of her sons was charged with possession and sale of marijuana, possession of LSD and illegally possessing a weapon. He pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to about 18 months in prison.

Her other son successfully completed a pretrial intervention program.

Bradshaw now lives in Holiday and works as a proofreader for a printing company. She took in two dogs that are half sisters to one of the dogs that perished.

"No matter what a person does, you don't have a right to burn their house down," Bradshaw said. "I asked that people come forward and be held responsible for their actions like I was held responsible for mine."