TAMPA — Early one morning three years ago, two police officers carrying an arrest warrant knocked at the door of a northwest Tampa apartment and told the man inside to step out. As the door opened then closed, gunfire exploded.
A bullet shattered the radio affixed to Officer Richard Lehr’s chest. Another tore through his arm and lodged in his body.
Lehr, his voice quaking, spoke from a witness stand Tuesday in a Tampa courtroom, remembering a ride to a hospital with a bullet lodged in his torso, wondering if he would survive. He spoke of six months of physical therapy, lost wages while out of work, psychological scars, and phantom pain in his arm and body.
Speaking to the man who shot him, he repeatedly used the same word: “selfish.”
“My life changed forever because of the selfish choice you made on that morning,” he said.
Walter Richard Jeziorski, 39, pleaded guilty to two counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer for shooting at Lehr and Officer Leigh Smith. In an agreement with prosecutors, he said the plea was in his best interest and accepted a 20-year prison sentence to be followed by 10 years of probation.
The sentence punctuated a long legal cycle. For more than a decade before the shooting, Jeziorski’s family repeatedly sought court-ordered protection from him, telling of violent outbursts, death threats and their fears that he would hurt them. They struggled to address what was an apparent mental illness and a fixation on weapons.
The shooting, which occurred weeks after a gunman killed 17 high school students and staff in Parkland, was one of a number of cases that stoked debate about how to keep guns out of the hands of mentally unstable people.
Florida lawmakers were quick to pass the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, whose provisions included the creation of risk protection orders, a legal process that allows police and courts to strip guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The process, now common in local courts, was not available before Jeziorski was accused of trying to shoot the officers. But the repeated injunctions that judges granted to his family members specified that he was not to possess firearms. Yet Jeziorski still managed to get guns repeatedly.
Officers Lehr and Smith, who were assigned to the Tampa police Street Anti-Crime Unit, went to his N Hubert Avenue residence with a warrant for charges that Jeziorski had once again made threats. They knocked a little before 2:30 a.m. They asked him to step outside. Jeziorski opened the door, then tried to shut it as he raised a Smith & Wesson. He fired seven shots.
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The officers stumbled back and returned fire. Locked in the apartment as police swarmed, Jeziorski phoned his mother.
“I just shot a cop,” he told her. Donna Jeziorski told her son to leave his guns, go outside and surrender.
Soon after his arrest, Jeziorski was deemed incompetent to proceed toward trial and was sent to a psychiatric hospital. After undergoing treatment, he returned to jail. A forensic psychologist would testify that Jeziorski had received diagnoses of bipolar or schizoaffective disorder.
“I pray that you get the help you so badly need,” Lehr told Jeziorski in court. “That one day when you’re finally released, you do not terrorize your family or others ever again.”
Jeziorski, clad in orange and donning a long beard with a long hair dangling in his eyes, offered a clumsy apology as he struggled to explain why he tried to shoot the officers.
With wrists shackled, he knocked softly on a wood lectern to recreate the knock he received that morning.
“They did not say police,” he said. “If they’d said police, I never would have come to the door with a gun. ... If they’d said police, he would not have to come up here and cry.”
“I aimed for his vest,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to kill him. I’m glad he’s okay.”
He spoke of being held in solitary confinement and thinking of the man he shot.
“I was thinking I’m glad I didn’t take him from his family,” he said.
“I’m glad you didn’t, either,” said Hillsborough Circuit Judge Samantha Ward.
The judge recommended that Jeziorski be sent to a prison facility equipped to treat his mental health needs. His probation sentence includes a provision that he undergo mental health treatment. He will be barred from owning weapons.
His mother, father and sister sat in the courtroom gallery. They chose not to speak in the hearing. But after he was led from the courtroom, Jeziorski’s family quietly approached both officers who sat nearby.
They each apologized, and thanked them for their work.
“You were there defending us,” his mother said. “We will never forget what you went through.”