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Campus threat was cry for help; ex-officer felt 'thrown away'

By Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2002


Before Sept. 11, before Columbine, there was Damian Hospital.

Before Sept. 11, before Columbine, there was Damian Hospital.

In 1996, Hospital, then a 19-year-old freshman at the University of South Florida, mailed an anonymous letter to USF's student newspaper claiming he would blow up a building and publicly kill a female professor.

The letter, which claimed ties to militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, vexed authorities and created a panic on campus. The school held exams a week early and kept almost everyone away on the day the bomb was to explode.

All the while, Hospital sat quietly as his classmates discussed the threats on campus.

"I was scared," he said. "I don't really think I thought rationally back then at all. I was like two different people."

Hospital was arrested later that year and pleaded guilty to mailing the letter. In 1997, he was placed on probation and ordered to pay the university more than $41,000 and undergo psychiatric treatment.

Hospital was diagnosed with bipolar manic depression, and he said the letter was a "manic episode."

"It wasn't a prank, it wasn't lashing out, it was just some crazy incident that happened, unfortunately," he said.

Hospital views incidents like his letter or the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School as evidence that adults should reach out to teenagers troubled as he was.

"It's easy to feel like an outcast, away from society," he said. "I think people should reach out to those kids, even if they put up a fight."

As a result of the verdict, Hospital was unable to apply to other Florida universities, so he bounced around telemarketing jobs and battled his depression.

Hospital now works as a trainer and customer service representative for a computer graphics and imaging company, a job that allows him to make restitution payments to USF. He paid about half his fine, and pays about $500 each month.

He and two friends also run a small Web site on which they post their creative writing -- poetry, short stories, essays and other pieces.

"Any time I get a chance to write -- even technical manuals at work -- I jump at the opportunity," he said.

Though his employment options are limited, Hospital says he'll keep striving to get his work published. He is taking medication to treat his depression.

"The future's not so bright, but I'm hanging in there," he said. "I accept the cards I was dealt with, and try my best to be a productive citizen."

* * *

Wendy Savage-Barrow can't watch cop shows on TV. She won't let her husband, a Tampa police officer, come home wearing his uniform. Before a recent get-together with a group ofpolice friends, she suffered panic attacks in the shower.

"I would give anything to go back to police work again," she said. "It's something I absolutely loved, craved."

In 1993, Savage-Barrow lost her job as a Tampa police officer under a policy stating that officers injured on the job must be fired. Her dismissal was the first of its kind in the city.

Savage-Barrow's injury came in 1990, when a burglary suspect kicked her against a pole during a chase. Shortly thereafter, a doctor told her she had ruptured a disc in her back and torn her rotator cuff, and that her career as a police officer was over.

Savage-Barrow was crushed.

"I was a cop since I was 19 years old. That was basically all I ever knew."

When she was denied pension by the city, she and a few other officers who also felt they'd been wronged filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In 1993, Savage-Barrow was fired.

"I just felt like I was thrown away, with all my expertise and everything I had to offer," she said.

In 1996, Savage-Barrow and the other officers filed a lawsuit against the city, though in 1998 the suit was dismissed by a federal judge. The city wrote her a check for $10,000, and she recouped her pension payments, but she estimates she was owed about $55,000.

She still receives worker's compensation for her job injury -- $352 each week -- but believes city politics cost her her job.

"Everybody knew it was wrong," she said, "but nobody really could come forward and say, "This is wrong,' because the city will railroad you."

In the years since the suit, Savage-Barrow has been a self-described "soccer mom" to her four children at the family's home in Brooksville. She owns a fencing and land clearing business and a video store, and she is writing a memoir about her experiences as a police officer.

"I believe that you're put in certain places, and certain things happen for a reason," she said. "Maybe that was my time to stop being a cop."

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