Thousands gather to honor fallen officers

January 31st, 2011 by Staff

ST. PETERSBURG — Law enforcement officials from across the state and nation joined city officials and Tampa Bay residents at the First Baptist Church on Gandy Boulevard today to mourn the loss of St. Petersburg police Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, both killed Monday in a gunfight with a fugitive.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi are among the thousands in attendance.

Here are some observations and quotes from the service:

12:50 p.m.: First Baptist Church senior Pastor Walter Draughon III is up, offering words of encouragement. He calls the officers peacemakers. “It’s a dangerous vocation and sometimes even fatal,” he says. “Peacemaking is dangerous.” At 12:59, he concludes. The color guard begins its procession.

12:31 p.m.: St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon, in a police uniform, stands to speak. He thanks people for coming; government officials, teachers, law enforcement officers from as far away as Wisconsin. For the first time the suspect’s name, Hydra Lacy Jr, is mentioned. “I’m still angry over this incident,” the chief says. “This violent felon, rapist and murderer, as far as I’m concerned, got off too easily.” Lacy was killed in the incident. “We appreciate expressions of grief from his family, but right now it doesn’t seem to help a whole lot.” He recalls stories of the slain officers, some poignant, some lighthearted.

12:24 p.m.: St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster addresses the room. He recites the oath the two slain officers and all other officers take. “Both officers understood that their roles were guardians of peace,” he says. “They knew there was evil among us. With full knowledge of the perils that faced them, they knew that at any moment they could be challenged with a situation in which they would be in harm’s way to protect me; to protect you, to protect our children. On Jan. 24, they held their promise to give their lives so that this community can be a little safer.” He speaks to the widows. “Thank you for loving them and supporting your husbands in doing what they loved to do. To the entire families: We love you. And know that this community will continue to lift you up in prayer and will stand up with you long after the sun sets on this day.”

12:05 p.m.: Senior Pastor William Rice, from the Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, takes the podium. “Today our community has been tragically reminded of the risk [police officers] all take for all of us,” he says, gazing over the crowd of officers in attendance. “On behalf of a grateful community, thank you for what you do,” he says. “You are grieving today; perhaps angry today and that is understandable. But anger will not save you. You may despair today and wonder if the sacrifice is worth it. It is.” He said police work is about making things right. “There is a sense of justice. Wrongs must be righted, evil must be contained and innocents must be protected. Is the fight worth fighting? It is.”

11:55 a.m. Yaslowitz’s nephew, Casey Harvey, talks about his uncle. “My Uncle Jeff,” he says, “is heralded as a hero and I guess there is some truth to that attribution. Uncle Jeff volunteered to help teach me to drive. He never yelled or grabbed the wheel or slammed his foot on the imaginary brake pedal, he just said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ve seen worse.’ ” He says Yaslowitz always, “kept our family gatherings lighthearted. We are all better for having known him. We will never be the same.” He says his uncle did not shy away from danger. “My uncle’s life matters because he gave it freely in service to others,” Harvey says. “He was a man worthy of our admiration and adoration. A lot of people say I look and act like him and I sincerely hope that is true.”

11:40 a.m.: St. Petersburg police Lt. David Gatlin addresses the mourners. He was friends with both slain officers, though he talked primarily about Yaslowitz. “We were on SWAT together,” he says. “Jeff was always a leader on that squad. He was that quiet stability that draws people to him.” Yaslowitz served as a mentor for many officers, Gatlin says. Gatlin looked at Yaslowitz’s widow, Lorraine, seated in the front row with her three young children. “He talked about you constantly.” Gatlin says.

11:25 a.m.: Parrish United Methodist Church Rev. Christopher Schmidt takes the podium. “On Monday, they (Baitinger and Yaslowitz) gave the ultimate gift when they laid their lives down for one another and for the protection of our community,” Schmidt says. “We celebrate today. We celebrate their lives. We celebrate their legacy. These were men of love; love for their spouses, their wives, Paige and Lorraine, for their families and for you, their brother and sister officers.”

11:16 a.m.: Longtime friend and Martin County sheriff’s Deputy Brian Youngblood, takes the podium, his family flanking him. “More than anything else, I am Tom’s friend,” Youngblood says. “I’m here as a friend. I’m not in uniform, I’m here as a friend. He says the two began their careers in law enforcement together “We went through field training together; we went through patrol together. We built a friendship.” He said when he moved his family to Martin County six years, the two stayed friends.

11:14 a.m.: St. Petersburg police detective Mark Marland, a close friend of Baitinger, takes the podium. “We were able to build a strong and unbreakable bond,” he says. “Even though Tom was my sergeant, he never gave the impression he was better than me or anyone else.” He talked about when Baitinger lost his life. “His actions on this date were nothing short of heroic,” he says. His voice cracks.

11 a.m.: The service begins with a welcome from First Baptist Church senior Pastor Walter Draughon III. He thanks everyone who came. “You are valuable,” he says.

10:52 a.m.: Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi arrive and pause outside the church, heads bowed, to observe a moment of silence. They turn, walk into the church.

10:35 a.m.: The city releases the program for the service on its website, It lists the slate of speakers, photos and biographies of the slain officers. “The loss of our two officers is tragic and overwhelming to all of us,” the program says. “This devastating event will forever change the lives of the families, friends and colleagues of our two fallen comrades. It is in times such as these that we reflect upon the importance of community, family and friends, and we are grateful for the incredible outpouring of support the people of St. Petersburg, the state, and the nation have shown us.”

10:10 a.m.: Officers stand at attention in the parking lot under a bright sun as the motorcade carrying the families arrives. The officers – some on foot and some on horses – all salute as the white limousines pull up to the church.

9:58 a.m.: St. Petersburg police Maj. Michael Kovacsev was a close friend of the officer he calls “Yaz.” “Jeff was tenacious. He was a phenomenal individual. He was always first,” Kovacsev says. The major is worried about the effects on the officer’s family. “They mean the world to me,” he says of Yaslowitz’s widow and the couple’s three children. “I think I am out of tears, to be honest. “It’s been rough. It’s heart-wrenching.”

9:49 a.m.: St. Petersburg police Sgt. Patrice Hubbard worked closely with Baitinger. “It’s a very difficult day,” she says. “It’s going to be very difficult to deal with the loss of someone you spend 10 hours a day with.” K-9 officers, she says, are heartbroken about the death of Yaslowitz. They are an extremely close group, she says. “Just looking in their eyes you can see the hurt and the pain.” Hubbard feels especially sad for the families of the two officers. “My heart goes out to Paige [Baitinger] and Lorraine [Yaslowitz],” she says.

9:33 a.m.: Members of the Blue Knights motorcycle club from Tampa, made up of retired and active law enforcement officers, pull into the off-site parking lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

9:32 a.m.: Mike Garfalo is a police officer who works with the Pinellas County school district. He is retired from the St. Petersburg department. He says Baitinger was his field training officer. “It breaks my heart,” he says of the two deaths.

9:22 a.m.: Various law enforcement groups are gathering in the parking lot, where some will stand at attention for the whole funeral. “Don’t lock your knees,” one group from Polk County is told.

9:21: a.m. A mounted patrol of more than a dozen horses arrives. Two riderless horses stand to the side near the entrance to the church.

9:15 a.m.: Hundreds of St. Petersburg police officers arrive, walking solemnly into the church, their badges covered with a strip of black. The sound of police dogs barking fills the air.

9:10 a.m.: A few hours before the funeral was set to begin, another man accused of killing two police officers appeared in Hillsborough County Circuit Court. Dontae Rashawn Morris appeared before Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet on a procedural matter. Morris is accused of killing Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on June 29. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor, who left the hearing to attend the funeral in St. Petersburg, says that when she learned of the deaths of Baitinger and Yazlowitz, she felt “the same sick feeling” she felt when Curtis and Kocab died. “It’s indescribable,” she says. “It’s something that no one will ever get over. It leaves that void that can never be filled.”

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