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Man, 37, dead in deputy-involved shooting in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — A Pinellas County deputy fatally shot a man armed with an assault rifle during an auto theft investigation overnight in St. Petersburg, the Sheriff's Office said Saturday.

Alton Fitzgerald Witchard, 37, was identified at an afternoon news conference by Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri as the man who was killed. A second man, the driver, was identified as Cory Williams, 31, who was arrested.

Witchard and Williams were first spotted around 3:10 a.m. around 22nd Avenue S and 16th Street by the joint Pinellas and St. Petersburg auto theft task force, Gualtieri said, driving a 1998 Ford Windstar van recklessly at high speed, "even going up on two wheels." Law enforcement officials thought the van may have been stolen.

The van stopped at the Obama Food Market on 18th Avenue S, but officials did not approach the men because of heavy foot traffic.

When police did try to stop them later, the driver, Williams, accelerated and reversed, ramming an unmarked St. Petersburg police vehicle. One officer was slightly injured. The van soon crashed into another St. Petersburg police cruiser.

Meanwhile, a Pinellas Sheriff's Office helicopter flew overhead.

Witchard, the passenger, got out near 22nd Street and 21st Avenue S with an AR-15 assault rifle and was chased by Deputy Yariel Mata, Gualtieri said. Mata yelled at Witchard to drop his gun several times.

At some point Witchard turned and threatened the deputy with his rifle, Gualtieri said, which made the deputy fear for his life. Gualtieri said the assault weapon was loaded with 17, .223-caliber rounds and that the switch was in the fire position.

Mata fired five times, Gualtieri said, hitting Witchard twice in the torso and grazing his hand. Deputies performed CPR on Witchard, who was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg by St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue and was pronounced dead.

Both men had extensive arrest records. Gualtieri said Witchard had 18 prior arrests on 33 different charges dating back to 1996. His crimes included being a felon in possession of a firearm, carrying a concealed firearm, fleeing and eluding, cocaine possession and violation of probation. He had $4,000 on him and marijuana in his pocket, Gualtieri said. Williams' criminal history includes disorderly intoxication in Florida and failure to appear for driving on a suspended driver's license. In Virginia, his record includes drug conspiracy and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.

Williams was arrested and charged with aggravated battery, felony fleeing and eluding and driving with a suspended or revoked license.

Mata has been a deputy for four years. He has no prior shootings in his record, Gualtieri said. He has been put on administrative leave with pay.

The semiautomatic assault rifle was found under Witchard, who fell on it after he was shot, Gualtieri said. The AR-15 is powerful enough to pierce body armor, the sheriff said.

The vehicle driven by the men has been impounded.

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said the two agencies will continue to work together to stop what Gualtieri referred to as an auto theft epidemic.

An investigation continued Saturday morning on the scene at 21st Avenue S and 23rd Street, and protesters showed up around 9 a.m.

Roughly 10 protesters from the Uhuru Movement crowded outside the crime scene. They screamed through a megaphone that the man killed was unarmed.

They chanted that the police were pigs. And they recalled the death of three teenage girls last month after their car veered off a narrow road into a pond with Pinellas sheriff's deputies close behind. Deputies said they waded into the mucky water but turned back.

Protesters on Saturday held up a banner with the girls' faces.

They yelled, "Not one more black life."

It was the helicopters and a bright light that woke up 51-year-old Tammy Bollers. She said she could tell deputies were searching for someone.

Then she heard the pops.

On the opposite end of the street, it was those six to seven gunshots that first caught 18-year-old Andre McGirt's attention. It was around 4 a.m. and he was sitting in his back yard.

"At first I thought they were playing shooting," he said.

He's heard shots in the neighborhood, but never so close. Then he heard tires racing on pavement.

Two houses down from her own, Bollers saw deputies. Then she heard more sirens and saw more cars, some racing by. She focused her eyes and saw something on the ground with deputies crowded around. She realized it was a body and that someone was shot.

When McGirt looked out his front door, lights flashed everywhere, he said. Dozens of deputy cruisers lined the street.

Usually he feels safe, he said. "I know everybody around and everybody knows me," he said. "But this is crazy. It wasn't a good situation."

Bollers heard a loud voice yell to her neighbors to stay in their house. She was glad the two 14-year-olds and a 16-year-old in her home were safe.

It could have happened in front of her house, she said. A shot could have been fired through her window.

"A bullet doesn't know anybody," she said.

She said she'll be praying and she thinks people should talk to and teach children not to put themselves in dangerous situations or on the wrong side of the law.

"With it being so close and someone just driving into the neighborhood, it's very frightening," she said. "It could have easily been right in front of our door."

She's lived in her home for two years.

"Gunshots are a normal thing in our neighborhoods," she said. "We've got to teach our kids to put those guns down."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.