By Abbie Vansickle
When a suspect fires point-blank, a bulletproof vest and an alert passerby help save his life. The suspect is killed by other officers.
TAMPA — Brittany Boone’s mother told her not to stay out late because bad things happen at night.
Luckily for Officer James A. Wilkinson, Boone didn’t listen.
It was nearly 1:30 a.m. Friday when Boone, 20, glanced in her rear-view mirror as she passed a driver stopped for a traffic violation on 42nd Street. The man leaned out of a truck, pointed a .357-Magnum pistol at a police officer and fired into his chest, Boone said.
She started praying. Then she stopped her car and ran to the officer.
“I’ve been shot,” Wilkinson told her. “Just please stay with me, stay with me.”
Wilkinson’s bulletproof vest and a pocket note pad slowed the bullet and saved his life, police say.
Boone, who is working her way through college and said she hopes to become a police officer, called 911 and comforted him until help arrived.
Police say they found the suspect, Tomas Montesdeoca, in a pickup at a gas station on Hillsborough Avenue. As the officers walked toward him, he aimed a gun at them, police say. The officers opened fire, killing him.
Wilkinson was taken to Tampa General Hospital, where he required minor surgery, police say. He was released about 9 a.m. Friday.
Wilkinson stopped Montesdeoca’s pickup at 42nd Street and Powhatan Avenue. The officer checked the plate on Montesdeoca’s 1994 Ford F-150 pickup and thought he was driving with a suspended license. Actually, his license was revoked in 2005, according to state driving records.
Montesdeoca had an extensive criminal record and was on probation, police say. A domestic violence injunction prohibited him from having a firearm.
Boone was leaving her mother’s home on Lindell Avenue, headed for her sister’s apartment. She had the day off from Home Depot, where she started working after taking a semester off from Hillsborough Community College.
When she saw the shooting, she stopped without thinking, she said.
“I don’t even know why I turned around,” she said. “If it was me, I would want somebody to stop.”
After the shooting, Montesdeoca sped off in the truck, Boone said.
Boone turned to the officer. He looked young, almost as young as her, she thought as they waited for the ambulance. Wilkinson had radioed for help and was clutching his chest. He seemed awake and alert, she said.
“I saw in his eyes that he needed help,” she said.
When investigators arrived, she sat in her car inside the police tape. She called her mom, who had chided her earlier in the evening about staying out late.
Boone remained at the scene for a few hours. Her mom brought her a sandwich from McDonald’s. They went home but neither could sleep, so they talked for hours.
By late morning, Boone was still stunned. “I’ve just been shaking all morning,” she said.
She said she hopes to meet Wilkinson again to see how he’s doing. “It’s a blessing that he’s okay,” she said.
Wilkinson, 25, joined the department in November 2003. Before becoming a police officer, he worked in construction, said police spokesman Larry McKinnon.
Wilkinson declined to speak with reporters on Friday.
The three officers who shot Montesdeoca — Sgt. Debra Hutches, Cpl. Wayne Hutches and Officer Charles Hathcox — are on paid administrative leave, a standard procedure whenever there’s a police shooting. The Hutches, who are married, have each been with the department for more than 15 years. Hathcox, a former Florida Highway Patrol trooper, joined the department three-and-a-half years ago.
None have had disciplinary problems, personnel records show. The Tampa Police Department Shoot Team, the Internal Affairs Bureau and the
Hillsborough County State Attorney’s Office are investigating.
Police plan to examine Wilkinson’s bullet proof vest to figure out if it performed as it should have, said Vernon Schlechty, range master and armorer for the department.
The vest did its job, saving the officer’s life, he said. But it didn’t stop the bullet from hitting Wilkinson. Police want to know why.
Representatives from the vest manufacturer, Second Chance Body Armor, will meet with police next week to examine the vest, he said.
The Michigan company has faced problems in the past over the effectiveness of its vests. In January, officials in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs announced plans to join a federal class-action settlement with police agencies across the country over the vests.
But Wilkinson’s vest wasn’t the same model as the problem vests, Schlechty said.
“It worked. It’s obvious it worked,” he said. “Holy mackerel, it worked.”
Montesdeoca, 52, had a criminal record that included arrests for possession of cocaine and marijuana, battery on a law enforcement officer, grand theft of a motor vehicle, kidnapping and domestic violence, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
His family could not be reached for comment on Friday, but court records give a glimpse into his life.
In May 2005, his then-wife, Elsie, asked a judge to protect her against him. The couple has a daughter, Elsie Jr.,
Elsie Montesdeoca accused him of abusing drugs and alcohol. Once, he beat her so badly she called deputies for help, and they had to use a
Taser to arrest him, she wrote.
“I fear for my life,” she wrote, adding that he threatened to burn down the family’s house. “I also fear for other peoples’ lives.”
Times researchers John Martin and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 226-3373 or firstname.lastname@example.org.