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    A no-frills assignment

    By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 10, 2002

    The officers are bigger, and they sweat more than she does. They talk macho and flex biceps as wide as her skull.

    But that doesn't intimidate Carrie LeBlanc, 24.

    "Police! Search warrant!" she yells, her 5-foot-1, 120-pound frame buried in 50 pounds of bulky SWAT gear.

    Guns drawn, LeBlanc and the other officers storm single-file into the dark house. A staccato burst of paintball gunfire erupts. LeBlanc orders two officers to stay downstairs. She climbs the steps in search of the bad guy.

    After 80 hours of this kind of arduous training -- which included running, crawling and climbing and 40 hours of shooting paper targets -- LeBlanc has earned a place as the only woman on the St. Petersburg Police Department's 40-member SWAT team.

    "She's a warrior," said St. Petersburg police Sgt. Kevin Noonan, a SWAT instructor who encouraged LeBlanc to try out for the team.

    She is unusual in the Tampa Bay area, too. From St. Petersburg to Citrus County, only one other woman, an undercover deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, is on a law enforcement tactical team.

    "I was nervous," LeBlanc acknowledged. But "everybody treated me equally."

    Among her feats, she placed third among the men by running 11/2 miles in just over 11 minutes. Her 62 situps in a minute ranked first.

    * * *

    LeBlanc has evolved from Vermont farm girl to National Honor Society student to Army reservist. Now add SWAT officer, the most dangerous job in a police department.

    Members of SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, storm buildings during drug raids and defuse hostage situations.

    "She enjoys action," said her father, Roger LeBlanc, who owns a produce market in Brandon with his wife, Pat.

    Growing up, LeBlanc's parents knew she was different.

    "Her most precious gift was a BB gun," her mother said.

    LeBlanc remembers the gun fondly. It featured a scope, and "you had to pump it," she said.

    "I wasn't into any kind of animal cruelty or anything," she said. "I shot at targets in my back yard."

    In grade school, LeBlanc shielded her older sister, Hope, from bullies.

    "I always felt like I had to be her protector," LeBlanc said.

    By ninth grade, she knew she wanted to be a police officer.

    "I must have watched too many war movies when I was a kid or something," she joked.

    * * *

    LeBlanc attended Hillsborough High School, where she studied in the International Baccalaureate program.

    "That was pretty hard," LeBlanc said. "After I got done with that, it was like, 'Gee, I can do anything.' "

    After high school, she joined the Army Reserves and set off for basic training. After boot camp, she entered Eckerd College and worked the midnight shift as a campus security guard to help pay for school.

    Dan Barto, director of Eckerd campus safety and security, said he could count on LeBlanc. When fire damaged a dorm, LeBlanc made sure students didn't trespass.

    "Heck," said Barto, 40. "Half our kids find it difficult to go to class, and here she is doing the weekend once a month in the Reserves, going overseas for the Reserves and then working for me."

    At the beginning of her second year at Eckerd, her Reserve unit, 810 MP Company in Tampa, was activated. She withdrew from college and went to Bosnia for seven months.

    In Bosnia, she sat in a turret atop a Humvee; she was the eyes and ears of the driver. Her unit patrolled the rubble-strewn roads, making sure Serbians did not set up roadblocks. She slept in a tent with a kerosene heater and six other women.

    "I kind of grew up," LeBlanc said. "I became more responsible."

    Leigh Ayn Dichiara, 30, a reservist and Hillsborough sheriff's deputy, knew LeBlanc from Bosnia. She remembered how LeBlanc "always got in the turret and didn't complain about it."

    * * *

    She has been a police officer in St. Petersburg for only two years. She patrols neighborhoods west of 16th Street N after midnight.

    She's the other half of the "Midget Connection," a nickname given to her and her patrol partner, Luis Rivera-Rivera, who is 2 inches taller than she is.

    "She's a very tough woman, let me tell you," said Rivera-Rivera, 25, who also made the SWAT team. "Her stamina's incredible. She can go on and on and on. There's a lot of guys who are stronger than her, but they can't keep up."

    St. Petersburg's SWAT team started in 1977. Cindy Leedy, now a homicide detective, was the first female member. LeBlanc is the sixth woman.

    Her supervisor, Sgt. Noonan, encouraged LeBlanc to apply. With eight openings on the St. Petersburg SWAT team, LeBlanc and 16 male officers signed up for the tryout. It was held on a day in August. She ran 11/2 miles and did situps, pushups and chinups. She ran an obstacle course with a 30-yard sprint and a succession of crawls and wall and rope climbs. One man didn't finish.

    Then from Feb. 18 to March 1, with weekends off, she trained with 33 men during SWAT school. She outlasted three, including one who accidentally shot himself in the leg.

    St. Petersburg Sgt. Gary Robbins, a St. Petersburg SWAT commander, called her "top gun." Her handgun and submachine gun rounds rarely missed the paper bull's-eye or center of the silhouette.

    "She shot better than at least half the guys out there," Robbins said.

    Sometimes, though, her gender set her apart.

    When her sweat-drenched black hair hung in her face, she pulled it back and wrapped it in a hair band.

    "I don't have that problem," Officer Ron "Taz" Targaszewski, a St. Petersburg officer, joked after a drill.

    On jogs, the instructors barked, "Come on, ladies!"

    "I'm like, why is that a put-down?" LeBlanc said.

    One day recently, near the end of her training, LeBlanc and the other officers stand outside an old cement factory in Largo. The parking lot is overgrown with weeds. This is where they train, under the hot sun, for hours.

    LeBlanc wears all black, and her face is flushed and wet.

    The SWAT instructor, Sean Jowell, who works for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, blows his whistle. The officers have 30 seconds to dress in gear they would wear to execute a drug search warrant.

    The officers are taking too long to dress. LeBlanc can't find her radio. Neither can a few others. Jowell, growing more impatient, hollers through a bullhorn.

    "If this was a callup, I'd be ridiculous!" Jowell barked. "Run! Why are you walking? Get your cans over here!"

    LeBlanc and seven others stand in line. LeBlanc avoids eye contact with Jowell, who towers over her.

    "Tomorrow," Jowell screams, "every one of you will have communication gear. I don't care if it's a tin can and a piece of string!"

    LeBlanc and her colleagues change T-shirts for the next drill. She stands near her cruiser and peels off her T-shirt, revealing a black sports bra. Other officers dress nearby, but no one pays attention.

    She's one of the guys.

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