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10 years ago, two gunshots, two Tampa officers murdered

Monday marks the 10-year anniversary of the killings of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. The murders rattled a city, devastated the police department, and altered countless lives.

TAMPA — What happened one early morning on a darkened Tampa street took less than 15 minutes.

It started at 2:13 a.m. Tampa police Officer David Curtis pulled over a red Toyota Camry on N 50th Street, a little north of Interstate 4. He questioned a woman in the driver’s seat about the car’s missing tag. He asked the passenger for his name.

“Morris ... Dontae ... D-O-N-T-A-E ... M-O-R-R-I-S.”

Curtis returned to his car, ran the names through a computer, found Morris had an arrest warrant. He called for backup and Officer Jeffrey Kocab arrived.

The pair walked back to the car, told Morris to step out, to put his hands behind his back.

Then came a pair of gunshots.

Today marks 10 years since Curtis and Kocab, both 31, were killed. Their deaths and the events that followed remain a dreadful piece of Tampa history, one that is still vivid for many law enforcement officers and haunts those who knew them.

Memorials are planned. For a moment, police will pause to remember their fallen brothers. At sunset, blue light will illuminate City Hall.

• • •

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor hugs Sara Kocab, left, wife of slain Officer Jeffrey Kocab, after Dontae Morris was convicted. [Times (2013)]

Jane Castor is the Tampa mayor. But a decade ago, she was the new police chief.

She says she remembers an early-morning phone call from a dispatch supervisor, who told her two officers had been shot, one was dead, the other not expected to live. She remembers disbelieving, thinking it must be a terrible mistake. But as she fielded more phone calls, the reality of her first major crisis took hold.

“In instances like that, you don’t have the luxury of emotion,” Castor said. “Everybody is looking to you to lead and to provide answers. And that’s what you do.”

She remembers visiting Tampa General Hospital and having to deliver the news to the officers’ wives. She remembers going to the crime scene, holding a news conference, telling the city of the search for Morris. The manhunt would last four days.

Morris, then 24, had a criminal history and had recently gotten out of prison. His name would surface in three murders that occurred in previous weeks.

There were sightings all over town. Castor remembers TV news trucks were often there before the cops were. It was becoming unsafe, she said.

Late on a Friday night, there came reports that Morris was in custody. An informer turned him in at a South Tampa law office and collected a $90,000 reward.

• • •

The caskets of Tampa Police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and (top) David Curtis were flanked by honor guard during the funeral service for the Tampa police officers. [Tampa Police Department]

Jeffrey Kocab worked as an actor with a children’s theater troupe before he became a police officer. He practiced martial arts and was working toward a black belt. He met his wife, Sara, while working as a waiter. They were expecting a child.

“I know police work is not just about showing up when someone has broken a law,” he wrote in an employment application in 2005. “I look forward to helping the motorist whose car has broken down on a busy road.”

He started with the Plant City Police Department, where he was officer of the month four times and officer of the year in 2007.

He’d been with the Tampa Police about 14 months before he died. His squadmates called him “Taz,” because they said he was full of energy, like a Tasmanian devil.

Autumn Stradley is David Curtis’ twin sister. They grew up in Alabama, shared the same 1988 Dodge Ram pickup when they were learning to drive, graduated high school together.

He was sarcastic, his sister said, and could make anybody laugh. He’d been a personal trainer and a bouncer in a bar in Mobile, Ala. The latter was where he met his wife, Kelly. They married at her parents’ Catholic church. They had four sons.

When her brother and a friend decided to become police officers and moved to Florida, she came, too.

Curtis worked a few years as a deputy in the Hillsborough jail. In 2006, he got hired as a patrol officer with the Tampa Police Department.

“He loved, loved his job,” his sister said.

He worked midnights. Stradley remembers getting out of late-night classes at the University of South Florida and calling her brother to chat as he started his shift. Since he knew every part of town, she’d ask him for directions.

She woke at 5 a.m. June 29, 2010. A cell phone showed a barrage of missed calls from their mother in Alabama. She called back.

“David’s been shot,” she was told.

He’s a big boy, she thought. He’ll recover.

“He was shot in the head,” her mother said. “They’ve got him on life support.”

She rushed out, struggled to figure out where the hospital was. When she arrived, she saw legions of police officers. They were weeping.

She saw her brother in a hospital bed, his head wrapped in gauze. He died later that day.

She remembers the family making preparations to donate his organs. She remembers the funeral, a sea of uniforms, some fellow lawmen who’d traveled thousands of miles to honor her brother.

She had three decades with him. Now she’s had one without him. She thinks about him all the time.

Recently, she visited a gun range for the first time. She was haunted by the scent of gunpowder, the blasts of gunfire.

“Is that what it sounded like?” she wondered.

• • •

Dontae Morris appears in court during his 2015 trial for the murder of Derek Anderson. [Times (2015)]

The woman who was driving the car that Curtis pulled over, Cortnee Brantley, was convicted of an obscure federal charge for failing to tell the officers that Morris was an armed felon. She served a year in prison.

Morris, 34, remains on Florida’s death row. He faces two death sentences for killing Curtis and Kocab.

He received a third death sentence for the murder of Derek Anderson, a young man who was shot while toting a bag full of laundry to his mother’s east Tampa apartment. Morris also has a life sentence for the murder of Rodney Jones, who was robbed and shot outside a Tampa nightclub.

The Florida Supreme Court in 2017 upheld Morris’ convictions and death sentences for killing the officers.

But last year, he appeared again in a Tampa courtroom to hear lawyers argue for a new trial.

A judge in late December denied their claims. But the appeals continue.

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