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Neighbors feared him. Then he was shot, killed while choking a St. Pete officer, sheriff says

An officer investigating a neighbor dispute was attacked by the man, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The two fought, then the man grabbed her neck.

ST. PETERSBURG — Those who shared a landing with Jeffrey Scott Haarsma were sure that he needed help.

Jeff, as neighbors called him, had removed the “pool closed” signs posted because of the pandemic and fought with a property manager who tried to stop him. He claimed neighbors had bugged his telephone and he refused to allow pest control in his home even though he had a bed-bug infestation that inflicted a bad rash, one neighbor said.

“I told my wife two days ago something is going to happen with him,” said Cedric Holston, who said he called police about two months ago after Haarsma harangued and cussed at his wife. “He was a walking time bomb.”

Neighbors’ fears were realized Friday night when a St. Petersburg police officer shot and killed Haarsma as he was choking her, authorities said.

“This was a response to somebody attacking her,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said at a news conference held afterward. “This was because her life was in danger, because she couldn’t breathe, because he decided he was going to choke her out.

“She did what she had to do under the circumstances and we are very thankful that she is okay.”

The police were called to the French Quarter North Condominiums at 4050 Fourth St. N that evening after a report that Haarsma threw his neighbors’ patio chairs off the second-floor landing and then put them in the dumpster.

Officer Alison Savarese, 32, was one of two officers sent to look into what was classified as a neighbor dispute. But she was alone when she approached Haarsma outside his condo at about 9 p.m. Investigators said the 55-year-old man fought with her, squeezed her neck and grabbed her duty belt, which holds her sidearm and her Taser. She drew her weapon and fired twice, the sheriff said.

Related: ‘It’s time to change:’ Police in Pinellas to partner on use-of-force investigations

The shooting will be examined by the new Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Task Force. The county’s law enforcement leaders announced the new initiative in July, where they agreed to no longer investigate their own officers in incidents that result in serious injury or death. Instead, the investigation will be conducted by other Pinellas law enforcement agencies. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office will conduct its own investigation.

The shooting comes just one month after city and police leaders announced that in the fall some nonviolent calls to police will be handled by social services workers rather than uniformed officers. That includes reports about people who are intoxicated or have overdosed and those in mental health crises.

Related: St. Pete firefighters question social services worker idea. The city looks for answers

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office declined to answer questions about the shooting because the investigation is ongoing. The Tampa Bay Times asked if Haarsma was suspected of any mental illness, if he appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or why the officer approached Haarsma alone.

The St. Petersburg Police Department plans to equip its officers with body-worn cameras but the pandemic delayed those plans. The agency had a small number of test cameras but the sheriff did not say if Savarese was wearing a bodycam during the shooting.

Related: After five years of indecision, St. Pete officers may finally get body cameras

The other officer returned to police headquarters to continue the investigation there, the sheriff said, while Savarese stayed at the complex. Haarsma was on the second floor landing, watering his plants, when Savarese called out to him and said she needed to talk to him, Gualtieri said. She climbed the stairs and he quickly approached her.

“He appeared to be somewhat aggressive toward her,” Gualtieri said.

She told Haarsma she was detaining him while she conducted an investigation. She told him to put his hands behind his back so she could handcuff him.

Haarsma refused. The sheriff detailed this sequence of events: Haarsma pushed the officer. They started fighting. She took him to the ground, where they continued struggling.

The man got up first. As the officer got up, Gualtieri demonstrated how she said the taller man reached down, grabbed her neck with one hand and squeezed it. She said he also reached for her duty belt and felt him tug on it.

Face-to-face with her attacker, the officer said she couldn’t breathe for 10 to 15 seconds, Gualtieri said. Then she drew her weapon.

“That is a very long time to have someone grabbing you around the neck squeezing ...,” he said. “She was in fear for her life, she couldn’t breathe, he was choking her out, she fired two rounds that struck him.”

Then the officer radioed for help. Haarsma was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead.

Haarsma was about 6-feet tall and 175 pounds, the sheriff said, calling him “much bigger” than Savarese, who has been a St. Petersburg officer for four years. She was placed on administrative leave, which is routine in shooting incidents.

“Obviously she was shaken up,” Gualtieri said. “I can tell you that she does have marks on her neck from where he was choking her. The collar brass on her uniform was ripped off. It looked like a pretty significant struggle that occurred.”

Haarsma grew up in Barrington, Ill., said Billy Rafferty, a friend for 25 years.

He said his friend was a piano prodigy as a child and, later, earned a business degree. Haarsma double majored in French, according to his Linked-in profile.

Rafferty said his friend was warm and compassionate. He had a gift for growing plants like succulents that died in the hands of others and took in and loved rescue cats.

Rafferty admitted his friend could be a stickler for enforcing condo association rules and that led to some disputes with his neighbors. But he didn’t recognize his friend in the account given by the sheriff of Haarsma attacking an officer.

“Jeff is not violent,” Rafferty said. “I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

Haarsma was formerly a licensed practical nurse, according to the Florida Department of Health, but his license expired last year. Neighbors said he could not hold onto jobs and had been on disability for several years. He bought his condo in 2000, records show. His family could not be reached for comment.

Police were called to the French Quarter North Condominiums at 4050 Fourth St. N on Friday evening to investigate a neighbor dispute. a St. Petersburg police officer ended up fatally shooting Jeffrey Scott Haarsma as he choked her, authorities said.
Police were called to the French Quarter North Condominiums at 4050 Fourth St. N on Friday evening to investigate a neighbor dispute. a St. Petersburg police officer ended up fatally shooting Jeffrey Scott Haarsma as he choked her, authorities said. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]

Robyn Crosa, who lives a few doors down from Haarsma, said she was in the community swimming pool when the two officers first arrived. She said no one answered the door so they went back and waited in their vehicles. When Haarsma later appeared on his landing, only one officer returned.

“All of a sudden there was a lady screaming, “Stand down, stand down; step back, step back,” Crosa said. “She sounded like she was in distress.”

Crosa said her sister’s boyfriend ran to help but before he got there, she heard two or three gunshots. A few minutes later, she said about 10 officers appeared and ran to the scene. She said the officers performed CPR on Haarsma.

Soon after moving in back in 2018, Crosa said she gave Haarsma a key to her home so he could feed her cat while she visited her mother for Thanksgiving. But Haarsma recently sent her abusive text messages, so a few days ago she decided to get her locks changed.

“I didn’t realize how dangerous he was,” she said. “It’s really sad. I never expected it to escalate to this level.”