ST. PETERSBURG -- The largest manhunt in city history ended Tuesday night when police arrested a 16-year-old who they say shot and killed a veteran officer the night before.
Nicholas Lemmon Lindsey was taken into custody about 6 p.m. after a number of tips from the community led investigators to him. The arrest was announced about 24 hours after Officer David Crawford was shot and killed downtown after responding to a call of a prowler in the area.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said Lindsey at first gave inconsistent stories about his encounter with Crawford, then after two hours of questioning, admitted shooting the officer. The boy was remorseful and cried, Harmon said.
The chief said the teen's parents encouraged him to cooperate with police.
"I feel for the juvenile's family, but at the same time he needs to be accountable for his actions," Harmon said. "He's going to be paying for this for the rest of his life, however long that is."
Harmon said Lindsey will be charged with first-degree murder. He said he expected prosecutors to charge him as an adult. If convicted, Lindsey would face a sentence of life in prison, as juveniles cannot be sentenced to death.
Lindsey, a student at Gibbs High School, was taken to the Juvenile Detention Center. Police had not recovered a murder weapon by late Tuesday, but were continuing to search. Several officers and a forensics team were at Citrus Grove Apartments, 817 15th St. S, which is where Lindsey lived with his mother.
Since the shooting Monday night, police had descended by the hundreds into the area with dogs, helicopters and high-powered rifles as they searched for Crawford's killer. The desperate search led them to a skinny, baby-faced kid — something that wasn't lost on Harmon.
"It breaks my heart," Harmon said. "We have a lot of good kids in our community. . . . You don't expect this confrontation between a 16-year-old kid and a police officer to end like this."
Lindsey has a record that shows two arrests in 2009, both on charges of grand theft auto.
Earlier Tuesday, city officials acknowledged the challenges of finding the gunman.
It's unclear if anyone witnessed the shooting, and there was little evidence left behind. Nearby residents could offer only a vague description of a figure they saw running from the scene in the moments after gunshots cracked the night air.
City officials predicted it would take tips from the community to find the gunman. Some had feared an "anti-snitching" culture in some neighborhoods could result in a lack of cooperation from residents. The NAACP was so concerned it called a meeting of pastors and neighborhood leaders Tuesday night to encourage people with information to step forward.
City leaders were relieved when the community responded.
"I'm very proud of the city of St. Petersburg and the tips that came in," Mayor Bill Foster said.
• • •
The call that led to the officer's killing came in at 10:30 p.m. Monday. The caller said a man holding a brick was in his back yard along the 700 block of Third Avenue S. The caller saw the man jump a wall or fence and disappear and thought he might be a burglar.
Officer Donald J. Ziglar, 41, was first on the scene at 10:34 p.m. Crawford was a few seconds behind and took his search in a different direction.
Crawford saw someone matching the prowler's description at the southwest corner of Second Avenue S and Eighth Street S. He parked his cruiser at an angle near the intersection and approached.
Police have yet to release details of what happened next, but the outcome was tragic.
The gunman shot Crawford several times, police said. The longtime officer, who was not wearing his bullet-resistant vest, returned fire but did not hit his assailant, police said.
The gunbattle took place at close range, police said. Shell casings were found within a 15-by-20-foot area on the sidewalk near the driver's side of the police cruiser.
Michael Ponce de Leon and Steve Buck were the first to reach the wounded officer.
The brothers were driving around downtown when they saw the officer slump to the ground. They hit the brakes.
Ponce de Leon ran to the bleeding officer.
"Officer down!" Ponce de Leon said he yelled into the officer's radio.
The response seemed immediate, he said, as dozens of police units quickly appeared.
"No, not again … not again …" the officers kept saying, Ponce de Leon said, as they started chest compressions on their comrade.
Police would not comment on Ponce de Leon's account. According to their time line, Ziglar found his fellow officer wounded at 10:37 p.m. and made the "officer down" call.
Police believe the gunman ran toward the southwest, leaving behind a black Nike flip-flop. Officers later found the other shoe at a shopping plaza a few blocks away. They are testing the Size 10 sandals for DNA.
With little evidence, police urged the community to come forward.
At a news conference at 11 p.m. Tuesday, Harmon said three tips were instrumental in Lindsey's arrest.
Foster thanked the community and law enforcement, for stepping up and running down all the tips that came in.
"What a difference 24 hours makes," he said. "This one was hard because we had this gaping wound in our hearts but yet the job had to be performed. We had a bad guy out there that we needed to apprehend."
• • •
More than 200 officers from different agencies across Tampa Bay poured into the city to take part in the massive manhunt.
The police presence was reminiscent of the thousands of officers who came to attend the memorial for St. Petersburg police Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, who were killed in a Jan. 24 standoff with a doomed fugitive.
But Tuesday was not a day for honor and reflection. Not yet.
It was a day to hunt a killer.
A perimeter was set up around the scene within minutes, strengthened by a steady flow of reinforcements. A staging area was set up at Tropicana Field, where tactical teams and armored vehicles gathered.
Police stopped people entering or leaving an area roughly bounded by Fourth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. streets and Fourth and 15th avenues south. They asked for identification and looked in trunks.
Police helicopters searched overhead as officers went door-to-door, asking people if they had seen anyone or anything suspicious.
They knocked on Don Enge's door at 1 a.m. Tuesday.
"This is too much. Not again," he said of the fallen officer. "I can't stand to see this. It's just not fair."
Inside the perimeter, some residents could look from their front porches to see scenes that could have been clipped from war movies. Officers dressed in black fatigues or camouflage, carrying semiautomatic rifles, stormed into vacant homes and other locations where tips had led them.
The drone of helicopters became a familiar sound.
At one point late Tuesday morning, children from Bayfront's Child Development Center were escorted away so officers could search inside. Police gripped their rifles and set up positions on Eighth Street, just outside a fenced-in playground.
Jay Behish, 37, worked the register at Suncoast Groceries at 900 16th St. S while officers blocked the street outside. The Arab immigrant kept flipping his TV back and forth from the local news to the satellite television channel al-Jazeera to watch as protesters battled their own government in Libya.
"This is more like what you see in the Middle East," he said, looking at the officers outside, "not the United States."
• • •
A stunned city carried on as best as it could despite the closed schools and businesses, the blocked streets and altered bus routes, officers at every intersection.
The two St. Petersburg officers who were killed last month lost their lives after an attempt to arrest a fugitive hiding in an attic went terribly wrong. But what happened to Crawford on Monday is more reminiscent of the recent deaths of three Tampa police officers — Cpl. Mike Roberts and Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab — all killed in a 10-month span between August 2009 to June 2010. They all died while approaching an unknown suspect who turned out to be armed and dangerous.
Tuesday's manhunt was much like the search for the suspect in the deaths of Curtis and Kocab: Dontae Morris. It too involved helicopters, SWAT teams and squads of officers scouring a targeted perimeter. Tampa's manhunt ended after nearly four days, when an informer turned in the suspect.
St. Petersburg's manhunt ended Tuesday evening.
Arrangements for Crawford's funeral have not been made yet. Foster, who spoke at the two St. Petersburg officers' memorial last month, will need to prepare another eulogy.
"We're in uncharted territory," Foster said. "But we're a resilient community. We're a loving community.
"Together we will get through this."