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Bolts over bullets sidesteps bloodshed

The deputies' guns were drawn. The suspect also had a gun. But one deputy holstered his gun and drew his Taser.

By THOMAS LAKE
Published April 21, 2006


 

HOLIDAY - They cornered James Morecraft in the master bedroom, just after they found his battered wife. They told him to put up his hands.

Morecraft obeyed the deputies. Then he plunged a hand into his pants pocket, they said, and he began to pull out a black revolver.

They could have shot him right then.

But no one died in that room on Wednesday night. No one fired a shot. And law-enforcement experts say the story's bloodless conclusion would have been impossible without two ingredients: extraordinary self-restraint by the deputies, and a weapon designed to stun without killing.

That weapon came under scrutiny two weeks ago in Clearwater, when a suspect died after police shocked him with a Taser.

This time, the electric stun gun may have prevented another man's death.

Under Pasco County Sheriff's Office policy, the deputies could have shot to kill when Morecraft went for his .357-caliber Magnum.

"They would have been absolutely justified in shooting him," said Charles J. Key, a consultant in Virginia and former Baltimore police officer who has studied police-involved shootings. He added that domestic disturbances are among the most dangerous calls for police officers.

Two years ago, the Pasco Sheriff's Office became one of the first large agencies in the state to equip all patrol officers with Tasers. At the time, the department's training supervisor said he expected his officers to keep using guns against armed suspects.

"We're not going to take a Taser to a gunfight," Sgt. Brian Prescott told the St. Petersburg Times in 2004.

That is nearly what happened on Wednesday night, except the Taser stopped the gunfight before it could begin.

This is how it unfolded, according to written reports from patrol deputies John Baeza and Roger Brown:

Four deputies responded to a house on Grand Boulevard around 9:30 p.m. to check out a domestic disturbance. A woman there said Morecraft, her husband, had come home drunk, slammed a door on her foot, put his hands around her neck and struck her head against a kitchen cabinet. Watching this, their 11-year-old son ran outside with a portable phone and called 911.

Morecraft's wife told deputies he had a pistol in his pants pocket.

Three of the deputies found Morecraft, a stocky, tattooed 38-year-old, lying down with his hands behind a pillow.

Baeza and Brown aimed their revolvers at Morecraft and ordered him to put up his hands, which he did.

Then Brown had an idea. His report does not say why he did this, and he was not made available for interviews, but after Brown made sure Baeza had Morecraft covered, he put his own gun back in its holster.

Brown took out his Taser.

Morecraft rolled to his left and dipped his hand into his pocket. The deputies could see the butt of the .357 as Morecraft pulled it out. Before anyone else could fire, Brown deployed 50,000 volts of electricity.

The prongs hit Morecraft in the chest and groin. Baeza moved in with the handcuffs.

According to Baeza, Morecraft said this:

"I could have shot you all."

And they him.

But Baeza and Brown chose not to.

Morecraft was in jail on Thursday. He was alive.

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or 727 869-6245.

[Last modified April 21, 2006, 08:15:47]


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