Family of man slain by Largo police officer speaks out

Published March 28, 2018

LARGO — The family of a man who was fatally shot by a Largo police officer late last week pleaded Wednesday for officials to release video of the incident.

Linus F. Phillip, 30, of Clearwater was being questioned by officers at a Wawa gas station at 1215 Missouri Ave. N on Friday when the shooting took place. Phillip tried to drive off and was dragging an officer with the vehicle, police said. The officer opened fire, striking and killing Phillip.

Phillip's family gathered at the office of attorney John Trevena on Wednesday and said they don't trust the police investigation into his death.

"I want to see what happened," said Victoria Armstrong, 28, the mother of Phillip's two children. "If they're saying he tried to kill police, then I want to see that."

Largo police said they are investigating the officer-involved shooting along with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

"There is no coverup," said Largo police Lt. Randall Chaney.

The confrontation started just before 6 p.m. Friday, according to police, who gave this more detailed account of the incident: Largo Officer Matthew Steiner noticed Phillip's Nissan Altima had illegally tinted windows. A license plate check showed it was a rental, police said. But instead of conducting a routine traffic stop, police said Steiner and Officer Prentice Ables followed Phillip and approached him when he stopped for gas.

While standing near Phillip's car, officers said they smelled the scent of marijuana from the vehicle. As they tried to detain him, Phillip jumped back in the driver's seat in an attempt to get away, police said. Steiner, who was half in the vehicle, was dragged as the Nissan drove in reverse.

That's when Steiner fired his weapon. He fell from the car and the open driver's door "brushed" over him, police said. The Nissan continued in reverse and hit another car before striking the gas station's protective bollards.

Afterward, officers said they found a "significant amount" of crack cocaine, powdered cocaine, marijuana and $1,500 in cash in the car. Phillip had served two short stints in prison in 2009 and 2014 for drug charges, records show, and had been freed from prison in October 2014 on early release.

The police account doesn't make sense to Phillip's mother, Martha Hicks, who came to the news conference from her home in Tennessee.

"My son is the most docile person," she said. "He's a big teddy bear. He would never try to flee from the police."

Largo officers do not wear body cameras. Their vehicles have dashboard cameras that are activated by lights and sirens. Chaney said they were not activated in this case. However, the gas station's surveillance system did capture video of the incident, and that's what the family wants to see.

But Trevena said police told the family it would be months before they release that video, though he pointed out that the agency was quick to release Phillip's jail mug shot and his criminal history after the shooting.

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The lawyer accused Largo police of following a "playbook" law enforcement uses nationwide to diminish outrage over police shooting: "Do what you can to slander the victims … so the community doesn't care."

Trevena said he spoke to a witness at the Wawa who said Phillip didn't move the car, that the car started moving only after the officer shot him.

The lawyer said the witness — whom he did not identify to the Tampa Bay Times — did not speak to investigators. "What we believe happened is the officer overreacted, for whatever reason, and illegally fired," Trevena said.

Chaney said the Wawa video did not capture the shooting.

The attorney also accused Largo police of trying to use Phillip's fingerprint to gain access to his smartphone inside the funeral home, after the medical examiner had released his body.

"They were trying to open up that cellphone using a dead man's finger," Trevena said. "That's disgusting beyond words."

It would also be illegal without a search warrant, the attorney added.

Chaney said he could not comment on the investigation, which includes the lawyer's account of what happened at the funeral home.

Phillip's death came on a difficult anniversary for his family. A year ago, his 18-month-old daughter, Gianna, died of leukemia. He leaves behind his 16-month-old son, Isaac. Said Armstrong: "He never would have done something to jeopardize being out of Isaac's life."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or Follow @ByJoshSolomon.