TAMPA— After David Straz met Tuesday with the mother of a man shot and killed by Tampa police nearly five years ago, he said Jason Westcott's death was a grave tragedy and praised his mother for having the courage to speak about it publicly.
The retired banker then suggested the investigation of the shooting undertaken while his mayoral opponent Jane Castor was police chief might have been a cover-up.
"There's been an injustice here. And, who knows, perhaps even a cover-up," Straz,76, said to reporters after meeting with Patti Silliman, Westcott's mother.
When asked why he thought there was a cover-up, Straz replied: "Read the newspaper."
A Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2014 raised questions about the raid, and the police department's use of confidential informants. Castor defended her officers' actions, saying Westcott had pointed a gun at officers.
The Castor campaign issued a statement accusing Straz of exploiting the case for political gain.
"Mr. Straz has an unfortunate habit of casually accusing city leaders of graft or unethical behavior with zero evidence. We hope in this case Mr. Straz is not exploiting a grieving mother to create another TV ad or score political points," said Tim Wagner, Castor's campaign manager. "Jane cannot comment on this case specifically due to ongoing litigation. However, when someone points a gun at a police officer, the officer is forced to take action to protect themselves and others."
Earlier in the campaign, Straz said an unnamed city department was rife with graft and corruption, later downgrading the charges to fluff and waste in the city's budget. He also said he thought the influence of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik in the city should be investigated before later saying he only meant Vinik's clout and the allegations of local bloggers should be explored further.
The Hillsborough County State Attorney's office eventually cleared the officers involved in the May 2014 raid in which Westcott was killed in his Riverbend rental house.
Westcott's roommate, Israel Reyes, told the Tampa Bay Times later that year that police had told them to shoot intruders after they had reported a plot to rob them. Police denied telling the men that. They said an undercover investigation showed that marijuana was being sold in the house and the occupants had firearms.
Only a small amount of marijuana was found in the house the night of the raid. The Times investigation also raised questions about whether the police informant who targeted Wescott had been fully vetted.
Silliman, on behalf of her son's estate, filed a lawsuit alleging negligence and battery against the city of Tampa in 2016. The lawsuit is ongoing and Castor was deposed in October. A hearing is scheduled for March 28.
Silliman, 52, said she approached the Straz campaign to address her son's death. She also said her son's death had not been handled properly. She said Straz was the only person who took an interest in her story.
"He was the literally the first person — and this coming year will be five years — that would take the time to hear what I had to say about the murder of my son that was covered up by the Tampa Police Department and Jane Castor," Silliman said.
Silliman's attorney, TJ Grimaldi, said she was never contacted by the Tampa police, city officials or the Hillsborough County State's Attorney's office to explain what happened or to apologize.
When asked if Silliman wanted to sit down with Castor, 59, who was chief between 2009 and 2015, she declined to answer. When asked if holding a campaign press conference was politicizing the event, Grimaldi demurred.
"It's a black eye on the agency that she was in charge of," Grimaldi said of Castor. "Whether it looks bad for her politically or not, this is part of her past."
Silliman's meeting with Straz and his wife, Catherine Lowry Straz, took place in sight of the media who were kept too far away to hear what was being said. Straz media consultant Bill Fletcher, though, hovered around the table, filming, including when Silliman teared up at one point.
This is not the first time that Silliman has attempted to draw public attention to her son's death. She also led a protest outside Castor's campaign headquarters on West Cypress Street in late February.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago .