St. Petersburg police say chase that ended in suspect's death and injured six people was justified

Published Jan. 12, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — Lying in his hospital bed Wednesday night with a fractured neck and injured shoulder, Nelson Guzman said he had mixed feelings about the incident that had put him there the night before.

Guzman, 46, was one of six people hospitalized Tuesday after a multi-vehicle crash at 5th Avenue N and 49th Street capped a brief police pursuit of a robbery suspect. That suspect, Kenneth Gordon Davis Jr., 29, was partially ejected during the crash and died at the scene.

Guzman understands police must occasionally pursue suspects, but he wonders if they should have called it off Tuesday night. "I think they should have backed off a little bit," said Guzman. "There's other ways to catch people."

St. Petersburg police officials said they are reviewing the pursuit, as they do in all such cases, but preliminarily defended the decision to chase.

"It appears this was a justified pursuit under the current policy," police spokesman Bill Proffitt said.

St. Petersburg police had one of the area's most restrictive chase policies up until about two years ago, when the guidelines were loosened. But even under the old rules, the pursuit Tuesday would have been allowed, Proffitt said.

Davis, a convicted felon, was not an armed robbery suspect as police originally reported Tuesday night. But he was wanted for a purse-snatching from a few days earlier.

Proffitt said both the old and new policies allow for pursuits of suspects in violent felonies; an unarmed purse-snatching would qualify, he said.

But another potential factor: The pursuit policy suggests that officers consider calling off a pursuit if they know the identity of the suspect and there is a likelihood that person can be tracked down later under safer circumstances. The officers on Tuesday knew Davis was the person they were chasing.

Police said Davis became a wanted man Friday when he snatched a purse belonging to his cousin's friend.

That day, Helen Mae Tierney, 37, of St. Petersburg was helping Davis' cousin, also his roommate, move out because of ongoing problems between the two. At some point during the move, Davis appeared at the home, 4525 1/2 20th St. N, and ripped Tierney's purse off her arm and fled, police said.

Tierney had her wallet, cash, a cell phone and jewelry in the purse.

Burglary detectives said Davis also was a suspect in a recent case and was involved in several suspicious pawn transactions.

Police said Davis' cousin, Laura Ferguson, 29, told investigators that he was a drug addict who had stolen from family and friends and had been involved in numerous burglaries to support his habit. Officers also were told that Davis had possessed guns in the past and vowed not to return to prison.

Officers with the department's Crime Analysis, Surveillance and Enforcement Unit started looking for him. They found him Tuesday evening at an apartment complex in the 5900 block of 30th Avenue S. He was sitting in the passenger seat of a Kia when they spotted him.

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Detectives tried to stop the car at 22nd Avenue S and 46th Street S, but it sped away. The detectives alerted patrol units and a supervisor authorized a pursuit.

A few minutes later, K-9 officer Dennis Porter found the Kia, driven by 40-year-old Frank William Roberto of St. Petersburg, traveling north on 49th Street S near 15th Avenue S.

At 5:22 p.m., Porter switched on his emergency equipment and started a pursuit, following the Kia north on 49th Street S.

About a minute later, the Kia swerved into oncoming traffic at Fifth Avenue N, first hitting Guzman's 2000 Ford pickup head-on, injuring him and his girlfriend, Wendy Taravella, 43, of St. Petersburg.

The Kia spun out, ejecting Roberto and partially ejecting Davis, police said.

As the car spun, Davis' body hit the side of a 1997 Ford F-150. He was struck again when the Kia went into the path of a 1995 Mercedes-Benz, officials said.

Davis was killed upon impact. Roberto was taken to Bayfront Medical Center with life-threatening injuries and was in critical condition Wednesday.

The Ford F-150 driver, Octavio Perez, 34, and passenger, Carlos Aravjo-Orteso, 26, and the Mercedes driver, Hans Werner, 56, were also hospitalized. Werner was treated and released. The conditions of Aravjo-Orteso and Perez were unknown, but police said their injuries were minor.

Guzman, who was driving the pickup, said he had just picked Taravella up from work before the crash. He said he remembers seeing police lights in the distance as he approached the intersection. He and his girlfriend figured someone was getting pulled over.

"She was like, oh — and boom!" Guzman said. "I didn't see him coming . . . The next thing I know she was waking me up, asking if I was okay. I was bleeding from my head and shoulder."

Times reporter Marissa Lang and researchers Carolyn Edds and Natalie Watson contributed to this report.