ST. Petersburg Times, Hillsborough

1 killed in car crash after police pursuit
Police and bystanders give different accounts of how a car followed by undercover officers ended up in a fatal wreck.
By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 17, 2003

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TAMPA - The dark blue Honda Accord was cruising slowly through the Central Park housing complex off Nebraska Avenue on Monday afternoon.

Undercover Tampa police officers thought it looked a little suspicious. They followed it, but not for long - the three people in the Accord recognized the officers in plainclothes.

Police said the Accord turned north onto Nebraska Avenue, ran a red light at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and careened out of control, smashing into a concrete and brick pillar about 4:15 p.m.

One person in the Accord's back seat was killed. The driver and passenger were injured and were taken to Tampa General Hospital, but not before police found a rock of crack cocaine and marijuana in the driver's pocket, authorities said.

Police didn't release the names of the three in the Accord because their relatives had not been notified of the crash. Police spokesman Joe Durkin said officers were not chasing the Accord when it smashed into the 6-foot-high pillar.

"Police weren't even near them," Durkin said.

Those in the surrounding neighborhood, however, said otherwise.

Police Chief Bennie Holder was at the scene, as was Maj. Jane Siling, who is in charge of Tampa's undercover Anti-Street Crime Unit. Dozens of officers milled around, wearing black vests that said "POLICE." Several residents claimed to be able to recognize the undercover officers from previous encounters.

About 50 residents stood across the street from the wrecked car. Kids rode bikes slowly by as officers asked the crowd if anyone saw the crash.

Some speculated about what happened, and blamed it on the police. Others swore they saw the crash.

Jeffrey Colbert, 44, said a red Camaro forced the blue Accord off the street and into the pillar. He said he ran over to the Accord to try to help the people inside.

"Stand down," Colbert said the police told him. "Get out of the way."

Colbert, who said he recognized the people in the red Camaro as undercover officers, said the Camaro sped off after the crash.

However, police said a red Camaro was not involved, and that there was no chase.

Durkin said that bystanders in the neighborhood were closer to the victims in the car crash than the officers, who were a few blocks away.

At about 5 p.m., the wind picked up and a dark cloud unleashed rain on Nebraska Avenue. The officers donned yellow slickers, and the crowd ran for cover.