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Trial starts in St. Petersburg crash that occurred during police pursuit

Frank William Roberto is charged with vehicular homicide and fleeing from law enforcement officers.
Frank William Roberto is charged with vehicular homicide and fleeing from law enforcement officers.
Published Jun. 12, 2013

LARGO — The St. Petersburg Police Department's chase policy came under scrutiny last year after officers pursued a man named Frank William Roberto, who sped away from them and crashed his red Kia, killing his passenger, Kenneth Davis.

It's one of the cases that have become increasingly controversial in recent years as police balance the need to catch criminals with the recognized danger posed by high-speed pursuits.

But it wasn't the chase policy that went on trial Tuesday — it was Roberto.

Assistant State Attorney Walter Manning told jurors they should convict Roberto, 41, of vehicular homicide and of fleeing law enforcement officers. Prosecutors and defense lawyers agree Roberto was driving that day with a suspended license.

But Assistant Public Defender Robert Knauf added a new wrinkle to the case in his opening statement, when he declared that there was a very specific reason for Roberto's actions on that day: "He had a gun pointed at him."

Knauf said Davis was pointing a gun at Roberto and "that is the reason why the car sped up."

St. Petersburg police officers were called to testify on Tuesday and so was a witness to the crash. So far, none of the witnesses reported seeing a gun, though one officer said a knife was found in Davis' pocket.

However, after the crash last year police said they had received word that Davis was stealing to feed a drug habit and that he did not want to go back to prison and would "shoot it out with the police if he is cornered."

Although Roberto is on trial, the case really started with Davis. Police had him under surveillance, officers testified. He was considered a robbery suspect because of a recent purse-snatching.

Police watched as Roberto and Davis spent some time in a Gulfport condo. A sergeant testified that during that meeting, he peered into Roberto's Kia and didn't notice anything unusual and didn't see a gun.

After an hour or so, Roberto and Davis got into the Kia and turned west at the corner of 46th Street and 22nd Avenue S. Officers in unmarked cars tried to box the car in to get Roberto to stop, but he went around them, police testified.

He then turned north on 49th Street. Meanwhile, the undercover officers called for backup from officers in marked police vehicles. They quickly caught up to the Kia with lights flashing and sirens blaring.

Roberto pulled over and slowed down — for a moment. Then he sped up, Manning said, passing the other cars that were stopped at intersections and at one point zooming into the southbound lanes of 49th Street.

But at the intersection with Fifth Avenue N, Roberto lost control, Manning said, and smashed into a Ford F-250 truck. Roberto was tossed from the vehicle and survived, but Davis was killed.

The trial resumes today.