January 26, 2011
ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said Tuesday that he ordered the demolition of the house where two St. Petersburg police officers were fatally shot out of concern for the safety of the neighborhood and a desire to avoid civil unrest.
“I gave the order,” Foster said. “Not only was it a health-safety issue, it was in a neighborhood with a lot of kids. I did not want this nuisance for kids to be in the middle of the neighborhood. And I didn’t want my community to have this constant reminder of extreme loss.”
Asked if he was concerned the house could attract the type of chaos that led to disturbances after police shot TyRon Lewis in 1996, Foster said: “I think we appreciated that.”
Lewis, who was driving a stolen car, was shot three times during a traffic stop. Afterward, crowds gathered around the car and crime scene. As tensions in the city’s African-American neighborhoods grew, the scene became a rallying point.
Fast forward to Monday, where residents of the Perry Bayview neighborhood gathered to cheer and jeer as police exchanged fire with Hydra Lacy Jr., who was wedged in a 3-foot-tall attic at a home on 28th Avenue S owned by his estranged wife, Christine Lacy. After he shot and killed officers Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz and Thomas J. Baitinger, it took hours for police to apprehend him. They began tearing holes in the home at 1:30 p.m., and found him dead 45 minutes later.
“The house was completely destroyed in the fight,” said Foster, an attorney who said he believes the law gives the mayor power to order demolition for safety reasons. “There was no way I saw a successful restoration could take place.”
Foster announced that Christine Lacy, who disclosed to a visiting fugitive task force Monday that her armed husband was hiding in the attic, will be compensated for her loss.
“The city will make sure she is made whole,” Foster said. “There was never a moment where she tried to conceal Lacy’s identity or whereabouts. I am treating her as a victim and reaching out to express my loss to her. She lost everything she owns. Everything.”
But city attorneys said St. Petersburg wasn’t responsible for the damage, making the decision to reimburse, at least from a legal standpoint, generous.
“It seems to me that the fault in the destruction of the house lies with the murderer,” said Joe Patner, an assistant city attorney. “The reason the house was damaged is because you had a murderer there shooting police officers. To say it’s the fault of the city would be inappropriate and wrong.”
The city has prevailed in recent claims for property damage caused during apprehension of suspects.
Since January 2010, four claims had been filed against the city for forced entry. The city paid one, about $100 for a broken door frame. It won the other cases and paid nothing, said Gary Cornwell, the city’s human resources director.
It was a St. Petersburg case that established the legal precedent that favors cities in property destruction cases.
In 2001, police forced their way into a rental home owned by Myria Major. Police lobbed “flash-bang” grenades meant to distract suspects inside, but they ignited insulating foam in the walls, botching the drug raid.
Major sued the city, claiming her house was destroyed by negligence. But an appeals court in 2003 ruled that police acted legally and were not negligent. It cited a 1947 Florida Supreme Court case saying that when there was no negligence during a government action, “certain damage to private property owners simply has no remedy at law.”
Lacy had a mortgage on the property, so she was required to have insurance. Typically, the insurer would compensate Lacy for any loss, said Chief Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn. But insurance industry experts contacted by the Times said most homeowner policies exclude damage by government action.
By Tuesday morning, mounds of dirt and debris covered the lot where the house once stood. Yellow crime tape surrounded the property and the street. Police said the demolished house was not a safe place to analyze the evidence. Police spokesman Mike Puetz said the rubble would be spread out at an off-site location and examined.
For forensic experts like David Klinger, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, authorities lost an opportunity when they cleared the house and between 150 and 200 shell casings from the shootout.
“If it’s not safe to put people inside, it makes no sense to have anybody in there to process the evidence,” Klinger said. “But if they demolished the home, essentially taking a crime scene and destroying it, because they were concerned about social unrest, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”
Even though the suspect was dead, Klinger said, clues that could help the public and the department understand what happened were lost.
“Now you can’t establish a variety of things,” Klinger said. “All sorts of things, such as the nature of the gunbattle and how the guns were discharged.”