Man is shot after torching himself, deputy
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
OZONA -- Neil Swisher's rage began with such a small thing. A pizza delivery came with an undercooked crust.
By dawn Friday, however, he had beaten his cousin until she could barely see, officials said.
When deputies came to arrest him, Swisher, smoking a cigarette, splashed gasoline around her house, on himself and on a deputy. When the gas exploded into flames, he rushed at deputies, who shot him five times.
Deputy Robert Frist suffered minor burns and Swisher will survive, officials said, but he will face charges of attempted murder, arson and aggravated battery.
It was a bizarre crime that could have been much worse.
Swisher, 39, had stayed at the home of his cousin, Dala Zinober, for about two months. Zinober, 43, provided him a room on the first floor of her rustic, cedar-sided home at 413 Mississippi Ave.
Swisher had become angry and reclusive, she said. Family members from whom he had disassociated himself thought Zinober might be the only person who could rehabilitate him, she said. He had always admired her.
Zinober said she hoped by taking in her troubled cousin she could "make him come around a bit."
Zinober said her cousin's rage was sparked Thursday night by the undercooked pizza. The pizza company offered him a $3 coupon. He wanted to send the pizza back, she said, but "every time he wanted to use the phone, I was on the phone."
He drank a few beers, she said, which gave him "a different attitude, less tolerance." He began talking of a connection to the almighty, she said, and about having to rid the world of evil.
His anger escalated and turned toward her, she said. He blamed her, she said, for opening her home to him.
"I was happy being left alone," he told her. "You intruded in my life and now you're going to pay for it."
Then Swisher, a roofer and "strong as an ox," began to hit her, she said. He punched her in the face, pulled out clumps of her hair and dragged her around the house. The attack lasted for two hours, she said.
He finally wore himself out, she said, and then he told her, "I don't want to live."
Earlier in the evening, when Zinober had sensed he was "starting to get crazy," she took a gun she keeps for self-protection, stashed it in a makeup bag and put it in the back of her van. Now Swisher wanted the gun.
"Would you like to get it or would you like me to?" Zinober asked.
He said she should get it. What he didn't know, she said, is that she had the keys to the van in her pocket. She jumped in, dizzy and exhausted, barely able to see out of two swollen eyes. After driving a couple of miles south, pulled the car over and used a pay phone to call a friend, who took her to the emergency room at Mease Dunedin Hospital.
Sheriff's deputies interviewed Zinober in the emergency room. Then they went to the home in Ozona to talk to Swisher. But there was no answer when they knocked on the door. So deputies returned to the hospital and, after Zinober was discharged, returned to the house around 6 a.m. with her. They intended to arrest Swisher for aggravated battery.
Zinober let the deputies in the house, and went to the street for safety.
When deputies Robert Frist and Kenneth Garris entered the house, Swisher tried to barricade himself in his bedroom, said Pinellas County sheriff's Lt. Steve Shipman. Apparently in anticipation of deputies returning to the house, Shipman said, Swisher had splashed gasoline all around him.
Frist went into the room and tried to establish a rapport with Swisher, who was smoking a cigarette and holding a cigarette lighter and a container of gasoline. Frist believed at one point he had calmed Swisher down, said Sheriff's Office spokesman Cal Dennie. But suddenly, Swisher began to pour gasoline on himself, Frist and the floor of his room, Dennie said.
Frist sprayed Swisher with pepper spray, Shipman said.
At about that time, Shipman said, the gasoline ignited, either from the cigarette or the lighter. Smoke and fire "boiled up," Shipman said, and Frist, whose pants caught fire, struggled to leave the room. With the help of Garris, he got out.
Thick black smoke quickly filled the house, clouding visibility above the waist, Shipman said. When Swisher, on fire, came running out of the room toward them, deputies worried he was still carrying the container of gasoline and intended to burn down the house and them with it. Frist and Garris fired, hitting Swisher with five bullets: One in the upper chest. One in the foot. One in the left leg. One in the buttocks. And one in the groin.
Outside, Zinober said she sensed things were not going well.
She said she heard one of the deputies over a radio, "What? He's dousing you with gasoline?"
"Then I heard the shots," she said.
One deputy sprayed the fire with water from a garden hose, while another ran to his car and got a fire extinguisher. By then the fire had gained momentum. Swisher began to crawl on his own toward the back of the house, Shipman said. Palm Harbor Fire Rescue firefighters said they pulled Swisher from the house.
They attended to his gunshot wounds next to a backyard pool. A helicopter was dispatched, but had to turn around due to a severe storm. Swisher was transported by ambulance to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
After surgery Friday, Swisher was listed in critical but stable condition.
Before he is discharged from the hospital, he will be charged with attempted first-degree murder and arson, Dennie said.
Frist suffered minor burns to his lower leg, Dennie said. He was treated by paramedics at the scene. Both Frist and Garris have been placed on administrative leave, standard procedure after a shooting, Dennie said. Garris has been a deputy since October 1995; Frist since January 1990.
Zinober's cat, named Whiskers, died in the fire, though deputies and firefighters rescued two dogs, a rabbit and a cockatiel.
With two black eyes, Zinober returned to her house Friday afternoon to survey the damage.
The back of the first floor was completely blackened. The open living room and kitchen at the front of the house seemed unscathed, but drooping candles hanging on the walls attested to the heat in the house that morning.
"This used to look very pretty before," Zinober said of the house. "Now it looks like I'll have to start from scratch."
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