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Couple say deputies overreacted to situation

Robert Fredrickson, right, is charged with attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest after an argument with his wife, Caroline McNeill, prompted a call to 911.
Robert Fredrickson, right, is charged with attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest after an argument with his wife, Caroline McNeill, prompted a call to 911.
Published May 11, 2013

NEW PORT RICHEY — Caroline McNeill called the cops when her husband put a gun to his head.

Moments before, they argued — about money, about how she left him and went to Australia for a month, about how he bought another gun.

"He's had a few drinks and we're having problems and I told him I wanted a divorce," she told the 911 operator. "I asked him to put it away and he wouldn't."

It was after midnight on April 2, 2012. The couple drank beer all day, and Robert Fredrickson had taken some of his wife's Valium. His blood-alcohol level would later be tested at 0.189, more than twice the level at which the state considers people intoxicated. He grabbed his newly bought .45-caliber pistol. He raised it and she screamed and ran. If he fired, she didn't want to see it.

"He's sitting in the living room?" the 911 operator asked.

Yes, she said, and he's coming back here.

The operator heard yelling and screaming, crying.

Fredrickson put the gun on the bed and shoes on his feet. McNeill grabbed the pistol and ran to the front yard.

Pasco deputies arrived, and in the dark, confusing moments that followed, shots were fired in the house and in a neighbor's yard. His mind muddied by panic and intoxication, Fredrickson said he was just trying to leave the home with his guns, so he could cool off and keep his prized firearms. He didn't want them seized by the law.

But deputies took Fredrickson's actions as threats to their lives. Now he could spend much of his life behind bars.

Fredrickson, 43, speaks softly. He's short and stocky. He doesn't smile a lot.

His wife keeps her blond hair in a ponytail and, these days, wears stress on her face instead of makeup. They've been together about two decades and have a pair of teenage sons. They say they both lost their jobs — Fredrickson on a casino boat and McNeill in insurance — from that night's blowback. The company she worked for heard about what happened, she said, and she was let go.

When deputies arrived, McNeill — frantic — told them her husband was probably at the gun safe in the house, that he had a rifle and a shotgun in there. She followed as Pasco sheriff's deputy Jeanie Spicuglia, 52, entered the dark house and found Fredrickson in a hallway.

"He brought the barrel of the rifle up and pointed it at me," Spicuglia later wrote in her report.

McNeill disputes that. She said she was right behind Spicuglia and didn't see her husband raise the gun.

Regardless, both ran out of the house.

Then, a gunshot.

Fredrickson said he doesn't remember much. It comes in flashes. He was trying to get the guns out when he fired one. He went deaf. A bullet lodged in a dresser where Spicuglia and his wife stood moments before. When he grabbed his shotgun, it went off and blew a hole in the ceiling, near his face. He said he didn't hear it.

In his haze, Fredrickson just wanted to cool off, let things blow over. He believes in the Second Amendment. He has a concealed weapons permit. He said he got up from the safe with his guns and tried to unload them in the living room, but he knew the cops were on the way. (In reality, they were already there.)

The rifle jammed.

"I couldn't get it," he said, "and I felt I had to move a little quicker." He had gunshot ear muffs around his neck and a black bag full of ammunition over his shoulder.

He went out the back door, and moments later deputies heard Fredrickson banging through a neighbor's fence. There was a screened-in patio to his left. It was dark.

He fell to his knees, facing away from the house, and tried again to unload the rifle. He was behind some chairs.

Spicuglia and Sgt. Troy Law, 49, entered the back yard. She yelled "gun" they started shooting. Law fired once, Spicuglia five times, according to Spicuglia's written report.

Fredrickson felt the bullets whiz by him but heard nothing. He looked back and saw a muzzle flash. He dropped everything, he said, and got up and ran. He was Tasered, tackled and apprehended. He said he did not exchange fire with the officers.

An internal investigation found the shooting justified, according to Sheriff's Office spokesman Doug Tobin. Deputies charged Fredrickson with attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.

"Mr. Fredrickson is very lucky to be alive," Tobin said. "I think our deputies showed great restraint despite being fired upon by Mr. Fredrickson and having a weapon pointed at them. All deputies were cleared by an internal review regarding the use of force needed to bring this situation to a safe resolution that put him, his family, his neighbors' and deputies' lives at risk."

• • •

Fredrickson has had brushes with the law in the past, mainly in the late '90s, for offenses ranging from disturbing the peace to misdemeanor battery. Most were dropped or a formal finding of guilt was withheld. He has no previous felony convictions.

"He's a simple guy," said Dr. Zena Lansky, a retired prominent surgeon who is a longtime friend of the family. "He's been a construction worker his whole life. His wife went away for a month and he went down a hole."

Lanksy said Fredrickson lost 50 pounds and got more and more depressed while his wife was gone. McNeill said she just wanted to go on a vacation and visit some family. While she was away though, they didn't communicate much, due to time differences and limited Internet access. She's always been like a caretaker to Fredrickson, she said. When she finally came back, they fought.

His attorney, public defender Willie Pura, said there's a tentative plea offer on the table for 10 years.

"Ten years may as well be a life sentence for me," said Fredrickson, "I'll be an old man when I get out."

Unless the two sides strike a deal, his case is slated for trial in June.

Fredrickson knows he shouldn't have drunk so much or taken the pills or threatened to kill himself. He shouldn't have gone for his guns and run to the street. But to take a life, he said, no matter how dire the circumstances, is something he'd never do.

"I was careless and I had drank and I'm sorry. I feel ashamed," he said. "I even assume if the police seen somebody with guns in the dark they would fear for their lives. I even understand that. But the fact remains I didn't want to kill anybody. Why would I try to kill a police officer? I just wanted to leave and defuse the situation."

Once Fredrickson was tackled that night, it took several deputies to subdue him. Still in the front of the house, his wife heard the gunshots and thought her husband was dead. She said they dragged him face down over rocks and dumped him in the street. They cut his clothes off and left him lying in his underwear.

"He never shot at them. He never attempted to shoot at them, so why did they shoot at his back? I called them for help, not to kill him," McNeill said. "They know he's not a killer. They have to justify shooting at him eight times. And in the meantime, they're going to destroy my entire family." (Sheriff's Office records indicate the deputies shot six times, not eight.)

They took Fredrickson to a hospital. McNeill said she didn't know where he was for a week, until a lawyer found out.

The incident report written by the Sheriff's Office said, "multiple gunshots were fired, by Robert, Sergeant Law and Deputy Spicuglia."

In the neighbor's backyard, there are bullet holes in the wooden fence facing away from the glass door in the back. There's one in a rain gutter as well.

"The deputies responding to the neighborhood acted heroically after his wife called 911 for help," Tobin said. "The case is pending trial and we will let the judicial process answer the questions raised in this case."

Jon Silman can be reached at Follow @Jonsilman1 on Twitter.