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Deputy was forced to shoot man wielding knife after retreating some 150 feet, Chronister says

Lenny Blaine Griffin, 48, was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy while charging at the deputy with a knife, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Griffin’s sister said he struggled with mental health issues and alcoholism. [Courtesy Angie Griffin-Jackson]
Lenny Blaine Griffin, 48, was fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy while charging at the deputy with a knife, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. Griffin’s sister said he struggled with mental health issues and alcoholism. [Courtesy Angie Griffin-Jackson]
Published Aug. 2

TAMPA — Lenny B. Griffin turned 48 Thursday. But instead of celebrating, Griffin called his sister and told her he'd just downed a bottle of muscle relaxers.

"He just said he was tired," his sister Angie Griffin-Jackson recalled through tears.

Believing he was trying to die by suicide, Griffin-Jackson called 911. When a Hillsborough deputy responded to her brother's house on the 8600 block of Misty Court, authorities say, Griffin charged the deputy with a large knife and was fatally shot.

The deputy, 28-year-old Nguyen Tran, had no other choice, Sheriff Chad Chronister told reporters at the scene.

"We believe that he retreated over 150 feet before, at that point, he finally felt that he was in fear for his life, had nowhere to go and he had to deploy deadly force," Chronister said.

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Griffin-Jackson called 911 shortly after 6 p.m. She told the dispatcher that Griffin had a long history of mental illness and was despairing because his wife had recently died and he was having financial problems, Chronister said.

When Tran arrived, a female friend of Griffin's let the deputy inside. As Tran walked to a back bedroom where the sister had directed him, Griffin came out of the room holding a large kitchen knife over his head and charged Tran, Chronister said.

"The deputy immediately began de-escalation techniques, pleading with the individual to drop the knife," Chronister said. "He retreated out of the bedroom, down the hallway, through the family room, outside of the house, through the yard, down the sidewalk and into the neighbor's (yard), where he was finally forced to deploy deadly force to protect his own life."

Griffin died at a local hospital.

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Tran was placed on routine administrative leave while the shooting is investigated. He joined the Sheriff's Office in 2016 and his only disciplinary mark involves a traffic crash, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The shooting marks the third time this year that a Hillsborough deputy responding to a call for service has fatally shot someone reported to be wielding a knife. The Hillsborough State Attorney's office found the deputies in the previous two incidents were justified in using lethal force.

Chronister said deputies have been to Griffin's residence on previous occasions to take Griffin into custody after family members persuaded a judge to require him to undergo a mental health evaluation.

"If you know someone who is struggling, someone who has some type of mental deficiency, take the time and make sure that individual's getting the help so we can avoid incidents like this," Chronister said during the news briefing after the shooting "I'm begging you."

Griffin-Jackson said that's precisely what she and other family members have done for Griffin for years, including the efforts to secure orders to commit him.

She said Griffin, who worked as a public accountant, had been diagnosed with mental health conditions — she declined to provide specifics — and would take prescribed medication until he felt better. The he would stop taking them. He was also an alcoholic, she said. When he was taken to treatment centers, he would stay for a few days and be released, she said.

"For years, we have fought for my brother," Griffin-Jackson, who lives in Tampa not far from her brother's home, said Friday. "We tried to help him because he was a threat to himself. As a family member, as someone on the outside looking in, you're trying so hard to help them and you just can't get through to them."

In May 2017, Griffin was arrested and charged with driving under the influence for the third time and driving with a suspended license, records show. He pleaded guilty and was sentence to time served.

In May of last year, Griffin was arrested in Tampa and charged with driving with a permanently revoked license and filing a false report concerning firearms. According to a Sheriff's Office report, Griffin called someone he knew on the phone and said "he was going to drive to PricewaterhouseCoopers and shoot it up."

"The witness believes that Griffin (is) mentally unstable and is capable of violence," the report says. "The witness's spouse currently works at PricewaterhouseCoopers and she feared for the safety her spouse and his coworkers."

Griffin was sentenced to 270 days in jail, with credit for 75 days served.

Griffin-Jackson said that arrest happened shortly after Griffin's wife died unexpectedly, prompting him to go on "a really bad bender."

"Since his wife died, things went downhill," she said.

Griffin-Jackson, who arrived at her brother's house after the shooting, said she believes he wanted the deputy to shoot him but she still questions whether lethal force was necessary.

"This officer did not have to kill my brother," she said. "He could have gotten away from him. He could have Tazed him."

She described her brother as smart and caring, a good person and "a wonderful brother and son." He gave money to people in need and for years held a bicycle drive for children at a local elementary school. He was a devoted fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tampa Bay Rays and loved his pitbull Lily.

Among other family members now grieving are his mother and 25-year-old daughter, who has now lost both parents.

Chronister said "there's no doubt in my mind" that Tran was justified in shooting Griffin, but the deputy will nevertheless carry his own burden.

Tran, the sheriff said,"has to live with this, that he took somebody's life tonight."

Senior news researcher Caryn Barid contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

To get help

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273–8255 or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.

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