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Tarpon Springs officer's death lingers for night-shift colleagues

Published Mar. 1, 2015

TARPON SPRINGS

It was past midnight when Officer Christopher Lemmon responded to a noise complaint, everything dark and silent around him except for the glow of his laptop and the chatter on his radio.

He parked in front of the two-story house on Briland Street. Officer Tommy Nguyen, with the canine unit, was already there.

Together, they approached the front door.

More than two months ago, the officers lost one of their own, in a similar call: While checking on a report of a loud car stereo, Charles Kondek, a married father of six, was fatally shot by a convicted felon who police say didn't want to go back to prison.

As the department of nearly 50 officers moves forward while preserving Kondek's memory, they are reminded of one of the biggest lessons in law enforcement.

"You never know," Lemmon said, "what you're going to encounter."

• • •

Every night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., about six officers patrol the 16 square miles of Tarpon Springs. Unlike the department's morning and evening shifts, where officers are busy responding to calls, the midnight officers also focus on monitoring the streets for anything suspicious.

"It's pretty much proactive policing," Lemmon said.

Every night, an officer is assigned to each of the city's three zones while other officers travel throughout the area, assisting with calls, which typically include drug possession and drunken driving arrests, as well as domestic disputes triggered by alcohol consumption.

They also assist with the agency's Night Eyes program: officers visit closed businesses for any signs of a break-in and then leave a card on the door, letting owners know they were there.

Many car burglaries also occur at night. On a recent Sunday, Lemmon drove slowly through residential streets with his windows down.

Later that night, he pulled over a white Toyota near Grosse Avenue, known for crack cocaine sales. The driver of the vehicle was operating the car without headlights. Lemmon shined a light on the driver's side mirror and walked toward it with a flashlight while ordering the driver and passengers to lower their windows.

Lemmon started conducting traffic stops like this when, early on in his career, he discovered two guns, one of them stolen, in the back seat of another car.

"That's the most dangerous part of police work. You never know who you are interacting with," he said. "All that mantra that basically you never know what's going to happen is ingrained in us."

Two other officers arrived moments later. Before Kondek was killed, at least two typically responded to calls. Now, Lemmon said they feel more of an urgency to back up officers.

"We're careful for any and every call," Nguyen said.

• • •

Nguyen was working Dec. 21 when the noise complaint at Glen's Eureka apartments came in. He was among three officers, including Kondek, headed to that call when they received reports about a fight.

Kondek said he would handle the noise complaint and meet them later at the other call. But moments later, Nguyen heard Kondek on the police radio saying that he needed another officer. They would later find him on the ground, a fatal gunshot just above his bullet-resistant vest.

"All I wanted to do was go home," Nguyen said, "and give my wife and my kids a hug."

Traces of Kondek's death remain at the department. His photo is tacked onto a bulletin board in the lobby. Many of the officers, including Chief Robert Kochen, wear wristbands with his name. His mailbox sits intact, a stack of papers still tucked inside it. His name was inscribed on a memorial in front of the department.

Kochen said the agency is also in the process of adding Kondek's name to the public safety building.

"He's a hero," he said. "You can never forget the sacrifice that law enforcement officers make."

Several officers have also gotten tattoos in Kondek's memory. Inked on Nguyen's left arm is a sword-wielding warrior with his officer number, 285. Lemmon also had the number tattooed to his chest, along with a badge and Kondek's "end of watch" date, Dec. 21.

"We don't want this to happen again," Lemmon said. "I don't ever want to have to get another tattoo."

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com or (727)445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

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