Man convicted in 1980 St. Petersburg police slaying dies in prison

Sammie Lee Mathis, shown in 2005, died Saturday at South Florida Reception Center in Doral.
Sammie Lee Mathis, shown in 2005, died Saturday at South Florida Reception Center in Doral.
Published Jan. 7, 2015

Sammie Lee Mathis, convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing a St. Petersburg narcotics detective in 1980, died over the weekend, authorities said.

Mathis, 57, was serving his term at the South Florida Reception Center in Doral, according to a news release from the St. Petersburg Police Department. He died at 12:01 a.m. on Jan. 4. The Department of Corrections has not released a cause of death pending an autopsy.

Mathis was convicted in November 1980 for shooting narcotics detective Herbert Sullivan twice in the chest during an undercover drug deal. Sullivan, 30, and his partner Harry Herbst had arranged a $65,000 drug buy with Bill Haake, a drug dealer who recruited Mathis as help. Haake led the detectives to a motel. When Herbst went inside to inspect the drugs, Mathis shot Sullivan, who was sitting in a pickup with the money.

Mathis was arrested the next day and confessed. Haake disappeared with most of the money and wasn't found until years later. He is serving a life sentence at the Cross City Correctional Institution in northern Florida.

Mathis was scheduled for a parole hearing this week, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. With each of Mathis' hearings, the department has sent representatives to speak on behalf of their slain colleague and his family.

In 1997, the department created the Herbert R. Sullivan Distinguished Performance Award, and each year since has given it to an undercover detective in recognition of their achievements.

Sullivan joined the force in 1974, wrote retired officer William Proffitt in a 2007 tribute to his friend in the Times. Proffitt described him as energetic and fun, with an "offbeat style and gift of gab." Sullivan married his wife June in 1975. Two years later, he transferred to the vice and narcotics unit.

Sullivan was the 12th St. Petersburg police officer killed in the line of duty, and the last for 30 years, until Jeff Yaslowitz and Tom Baitinger were killed in a shootout in 2011.

That year, Sullivan's widow June, who had since moved to Pennsylvania and remarried, told the Times she still isn't "comfortable talking about Herb, or what happened. It's too much to bring up again. Too much to go through."

She could not be reached Tuesday.