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Deputy suspended after inquiry

The 15-day unpaid suspension and a departmental transfer come after a review of a fatal shooting in October.

By ROBERT KING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003

BROOKSVILLE -- Sheriff Richard Nugent decided Thursday to suspend Deputy Scott Lamia for 15 days and pull him from road duty after an internal investigation into a fatal shooting the sheriff described as "tragic."

He based the suspension on Lamia's violation last October of three department policies. Two of them came during an incident that ended when Lamia fired 11 shots into a car driven by John Thomas Tenison of Spring Hill. Tenison, 45, died a day later.

The third violation came a week later when Lamia -- on paid leave during the shooting investigation -- became involved in a high speed chase on the Suncoast Parkway while returning from a psychological evaluation.

Regarding the shooting, the investigation found that Lamia broke no policy by shooting when he felt his life was endangered. Instead, it faulted him for putting himself in harm's way to begin with.

Specifically, Lamia was found to have "bumped" Tenison's car during the traffic stop. What's more, his decision to pull his patrol car in front of Tenison's car was deemed a roadblock that he wasn't authorized to create.

Nugent said Lamia should not have put himself in danger by stepping in front of Tenison's car after pulling around in front of the man.

Deputies are trained to stay behind cars pulled over during traffic stops where they can keep suspects in view and where they can easily use a patrol car as a safety barrier during a violent confrontation.

Even so, that procedure wasn't written into department policy back in October, Nugent said. It has been added since. And if a deputy violates it now, it will be grounds for termination, he said.

Overall, Nugent agreed with the recent finding of a grand jury that was asked to evaluate the case for potential criminal wrongdoing. That grand jury called the shooting "justified" -- and thus Lamia wasn't criminally charged -- but deemed it avoidable and unnecessary.

"This is tragic," Nugent said. "This is not what we are in the business to do."

Lamia is scheduled to undergo another psychological evaluation today, then begin his 15-day suspension on Monday. The suspension will be unpaid, and he may not appeal it.

Once he returns, Lamia will still have a gun and all the rights of a deputy. But his duties will be in the department's communications center. He will answer phones. Nugent called it a transfer, not a demotion. It will not mean a cut in pay.

Nugent said Lamia will stay in his new position "indefinitely."

The violation on the Suncoast Parkway centered on the high-speed nature of the chase, which was deemed unsafe, particularly with a civilian -- Lamia's wife -- in the car. While he was under orders to have "tunnel vision" to and from his appointment, Lamia's action was not deemed to be insubordinate because he was acting to stop an erratic driver.

Lamia was not available for comment. His attorney, George Angeliadis, said Lamia was disappointed with the transfer but that he respected the sheriff's decision.

Both Angeliadis and the sheriff pointed to Tenison's violent history and desperate action as a factor that shouldn't be forgotten in the case.

Hours before the shooting, deputies had been called to the home of Tenison's ex-wife, Sarah, because Tenison was violating a restraining order by being there.

Months earlier, he had violated the injunction, even to the point of making threats against her.

Deputies were looking for Tenison that day because they knew he had come back to the scene to retrieve his car, which he drove off despite having a suspended license.

When Lamia found him driving in the neighborhood, Tenison refused to stop, forcing a chase. When he finally stopped, Tenison began to pull away as Lamia approached his car. And, finally, he refused to follow Lamia's commands to stop driving toward Lamia.

Sheriff's Lt. Joe Paez said lab reports showed that Tenison had a blood alcohol level of .189 -- more than twice the legal limit. And the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found a note in Tenison's car that Nugent characterized as a "suicide" note.

In it, he wrote to his father: "I will never recover from losing my family. Never. I can't live in my car anymore. I will never write or call you again. I simply can't go on. I'm too hot too hungry & too tired to go on. . . . Have a good & nice life. I lose. Good bye I love you. Your ex-son Tom."

The Sheriff's Office raised the suggestion that Tenison was trying to commit "suicide by cop."

Still, two eyewitnesses said it appeared that Tenison wasn't trying to run over Lamia so much as to drive around him. They noted his car was moving toward Lamia merely at the pace of a "fast walk."

Witness Shayne Thompson rated the deputy's endangerment level -- on a scale of one to 10 -- as a three.

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