Mental illness dogged ax-wielding man shot by St. Petersburg police

Kenneth Robert Sprankle, 27, was shot and killed after charging at an officer with an ax.
Kenneth Robert Sprankle, 27, was shot and killed after charging at an officer with an ax.
Published Sept. 25, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — Kenneth Robert Sprankle was convinced he would find a cure in the Florida sun.

He moved here several months ago from Pennsylvania and loved the beaches. But, as he'd done for years, he struggled to manage his mental health.

The end came Monday, when the 27-year-old bipolar schizophrenic smoked some spice and began chasing people downtown with an ax before being shot and killed by police.

Sprankle's death — the sixth this year at the hand of a police officer — raises questions not just about the department's unusually high number of fatal shootings, but also about the intersection of mental health and public safety. At least three of the six people killed this year had a history of mental illness.

"I'm not saying he was a perfect person," said Sprankle's aunt, Leslie Amos, who lives in Destin. "But people like this . . . I think they're not getting the long-term help they need. It's just a very, very sad story."

Sprankle's death marked the third time this month that St. Petersburg police have shot and killed a person. Last year, there was one such incident.

"We wish it was zero. There are literally hundreds of cases each year when we have success dealing with the mentally ill," said police spokesman Mike Puetz. "I think anybody who looks at these cases individually will come to the same conclusion we have — that the officers did not have any other options."

On Sept. 7, officers shot and killed a man on his front porch after he leveled a gun at officers. Five days earlier, police shot and killed a different man on his front porch after they said he threatened his neighbor and pointed a gun at an officer.

The other shootings involved a man who ran at officers with scissors in March, a woman who pointed a gun at an officer through a window in April and a man who pointed a gun at officers after shooting his ex-girlfriend in the head in July.

Monday's killing, like the others, will be reviewed by criminal investigators, internal affairs and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. Half already have been ruled justified.

Sprankle's fatal confrontation with police began Monday about 6:45 p.m. when someone called 911 and said a man with an ax was chasing people.

Officer Damien Schmidt, 55, was one of the first on scene.

He parked his cruiser on Fourth Street N and almost immediately saw a group of people running around the corner toward him from Central Avenue. The pedestrians were panicked — and being chased by Sprankle.

Several witnesses said they heard Schmidt, who has been on the force for 30 years, tell Sprankle multiple times to drop the ax. Sprankle kept charging forward, police said, and Schmidt shot him.

The ax, it turned out, belonged to the city's fire department.

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Authorities believe the tool, which is about 3 to 4 feet long, was stolen Saturday afternoon while firefighters responded to a fire alarm at the Princess Martha Apartments at 411 First Ave. N, a block from Williams Park.

A firefighter propped the ax against the truck while changing and didn't realize it never made it back onto the truck until the next call, said fire spokesman Lt. Joel Granata.

On Tuesday, people penned letters to the editor and flooded with comments about the shooting. Many wondered why police encountering mentally ill people don't use nonlethal forces, like a Taser or pepper spray.

Police said the answer isn't that simple.

Officers are trained to use deadly force in only the most serious situations, police spokesman Bill Proffitt said. They also are given specific guidance when it comes to "edged" objects, such as knives, swords and axes.

The general rule is that an opponent 21 feet away who is coming at an officer would still be able to stab the officer before the officer could react and shoot.

Schmidt, police said, shot Sprankle from about 7 feet away.

"In this case, it appears the officer waited to the last possible second before firing," Puetz said.

Officers also are trained on techniques to handle the mentally ill.

Sprankle's aunt called the situation a tragedy and said she wanted people to know her nephew had a family and will be missed.

"He was a sweetheart," she said. "He wanted to make something of himself."

Sprankle had been held under the Baker Act seven times since March, officials said, and booked into the Pinellas County Jail eight times this year. His most recent arrest came Sept. 17 when he was charged with disorderly conduct in Pinellas Park. Days before that, he was taken into custody under the Baker Act. He also has previous arrests for theft, battery and alcohol violations.

At one point, Sprankle's family talked to him about moving back north. He was adamant about staying.

"This was his first big adventure," Amos said. "I guess he just couldn't handle it."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at or (727) 893-8643.