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Tampa cold case squad makes its first arrest

 A woman had been on the run since a fatal bar shooting in 1983.

Published May 26, 2006

TAMPA — Tampa police detectives walked to a duplex door Thursday, where a woman beleaguered by guilt surrendered willingly on suspicion that she killed a teenager almost 23 years ago.
At the police station, police Maj. George McNamara said, Rosemary Davis, 47, wept.

“I knew this day was going to come,” detectives recalled her saying, “I’m glad it’s over.”

Tampa police formed their cold case squad in February, staffed by two detectives and an officer charged with peeling back the past and looking for clues to unsolved crimes. Davis’ arrest was their first. She is being held in jail without bail on a charge of second-degree murder.

The arrest appears to have brought some peace to Davis, who has been haunted by guilt while living under the legal radar since the 1983 shooting, according to police and Davis’ sister. Her arrest, however, offered no solace to the victim’s mother.

“When you run for that long on a crime, I’m sure there’s no peace,” said Catherine Davis, 65, whose family is not related to the suspect.

“And I pray she does ask God to forgive her because I already have.

“I moved on. In ways, I had to. There’s not too much closure in losing a child. It’s the hardest thing ever. But you just move on. You just move on.”

But it was apparent Rosemary Davis could not, her sister said Thursday.

Before the shooting, Rosemary Davis had been arrested three times in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement: In 1978, Fort Myers police arrested her on a shoplifting charge. Tampa police arrested her in 1981 on a charge of prostitution and in 1982 on a charge of aggravated assault.

She hung out at the Rabbit’s Foot Bar on Lake Avenue and 29th Street, which had a rough reputation. Shootings were so common that locals knew the bar as the “Buckets of Blood Bar,’’ according to old Tampa Tribune stories.

Teenagers also hung around there. They called the bar “two-nine” because of its address. Catherine Davis frequently went there to shoo her youngest “baby girl,” Lisa Davis, away from there.

But Lisa, 15, would just run deeper into the smoky crowd and disappear.

“She was a good girl,” Catherine Davis said. “She wasn’t all the time obedient, but she was good.”

Weeks before the shooting, Lisa, a dropout, told her mother she wanted to go back to school. She had an 8-month-old daughter, and the baby’s father had given Lisa an engagement ring. Things were looking up.

On May 30, 1983, Catherine Davis said she told Lisa not to go to the Rabbit’s Foot.

“Momma, I don’t go to two-nine anymore,” she responded.

But around 11 p.m., Catherine Davis found out she had lied. Her daughter had been shot in the cheek and was pronounced dead six hours later.

“I was shocked,” Lisa’s friend Hilda Green said Thursday, who was there that day. “It happened so fast.”

Rosemary Davis had been in an argument at the bar with another woman, police said. Back then, police said the fight was over clothes. She pulled a .38 and fired into a group. The bullet struck the teenager, who was a bystander.

Kathy Fowler, 49, Rosemary Davis’ older sister, said her sister told a different story. She felt threatened by a group of women. A man handed her a gun. She was supposed to fire into the air to scare them away.

“She was scared,” Fowler said. “She was in her 20s. It wasn’t like she was gung-ho meaning to shoot anyone.”

Afterward, Rosemary Davis disappeared.

Police searched for years. They say she went to Fort Myers and then Georgia.

The Rabbit’s Foot closed in the early 1980s. The Audrey L. Spotford Center, a youth and family center run by the Corporation to Develop Communities of Tampa Inc., now stands at the address.

Lisa’s daughter grew to be Alicia Harris, 23, who has a son of her own.

Rosemary Davis was absent in the lives of two children she left. A 33-year-old daughter is in the Navy. A 26-year-old son drives a truck, Fowler said.

Their mother rarely surfaced, thinking detectives were still on her trail, Fowler said.

Police learned that Davis moved to St. Petersburg in 2002. She never applied for a driver’s license, police said.

On Wednesday, Fowler said, her sister showed up at her door in Tampa. She was debating whether to turn herself in. She had put on weight and the years had taken their toll, Fowler said. She looked like the older one.

“She told me she was tired of running,” Fowler said.

Fowler made fried chicken, potatoes, steak and gravy, collard greens and rice for her prodigal sister.

They stayed up until about 3 a.m., praying for forgiveness.

“Just that it’d be in God’s will whatever happened,” Fowler said. “She wished she could go to that mother and say how sorry she was.”

They slept together in her bed, the first time they’d done so since they were kids. But mostly she sat on its edge.

An informer told police they saw Davis at Fowler’s home and recognized her from the manhunt decades ago. The detectives showed up around 11 a.m.

Rosemary Davis had spent years wondering whom to trust, what to say, where to run, Fowler’s boyfriend Otis Britt, 58, said. She was guilt-ridden.

“It’s too much for the pope to carry around,” he said.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 28, 2006, 10:26:06]

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