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2 deputies shot; gunman on run

Hundreds of law enforcement agents pour into Lakeland, searching for a driver who killed a deputy and his dog.

By TIMES STAFF WRITERS
Published September 29, 2006


LAKELAND - Hope seemed to drain with the daylight.

By the time the sun set Thursday on Lakeland, authorities involved in a manhunt that included at least 500 officers from at least 15 police agencies still had not found the man responsible for shooting to death a sheriff's deputy and a police dog and injuring another deputy on a back road, then disappearing into the woods.

At least three schools locked down. Traffic stopped. Crime scene tape draped the trees. Helicopters hung in the air.

SWAT teams chased bloodhounds through thick woods and down residential streets. People, hundreds of them, watched police from intersections around the search zones.

Those who know the area said the odds of a capture faded with time.

"There's not many streetlights back in there," said Tina Waters, whose workplace, the Lakeland Automall, was evacuated. "So if it gets night, he'll be hard to find."

Polk County sheriff's Deputy Douglas Speirs initially stopped the gunman for speeding shortly before noon Thursday in north Lakeland near Interstate 4.

Speirs became suspicious of the man's ID and the driver bolted into thick brush nearby, said Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

Vernon Matthew "Matt" Williams arrived with his German shepherd Diogi. With Speirs, they followed the driver into the woods.

Judd said he thinks Diogi went after the man. Then, there was a "burst of gunfire."

Speirs fired back, but bullets struck both deputies, killing Williams and his dog and wounding Speirs in the leg. He is expected to fully recover.

The driver later exchanged gunfire with other officers who tracked him to a shed in the woods, but no one was hit.

Williams had been with the Sheriff's Office since April 1994. In his free time, he and his wife volunteered at the Order of Rainbow for Girls, a Masonic organization to teach young women how to be leaders and good citizens, said family friend Linda Elizabeth Borosch. They chaperoned them at field trips, conventions and car washes.

"I'm sure he was called to a higher purpose," said Sam Wilson, a close family friend at Williams' house Thursday night. "He had a higher standard of morals. He was a very good man."

Williams leaves behind a wife and three teenage children. It was his wife Nancy's 40th birthday.

"Right now, they're very heartbroken," Wilson said.

Meanwhile, police searched everywhere - through semitrailer trucks and Dumpsters, on horseback and on foot across 3 square miles of commercial real estate, homes and thick, soggy forest.

They included agents from Lakeland, Polk County, Orlando, the Florida Highway Patrol, Hillsborough County, state Fish and Wildlife, Lake Wales, Mulberry, Haines City, Bartow, the Border Patrol, Orange County, U.S. Marshal's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI.

Carol Bass, who lives on N Wabash Avenue, was reading her mail when she heard gunshots.

Stepping outside, she saw a deputy holding a rifle and wearing a bullet-proof vest. "Get back in now!" he yelled. She locked all her doors and remained inside hours later. Police cordoned off her street. Her son and husband couldn't come home. She kept in touch via phone with Sandy McCann, who lives two doors down.

Eight neighbors from the block's three houses and two trailers had spent five hours crowded in McCann's house, watching the news and giving thirsty deputies glasses of water.

McCann didn't think much when she first heard the gunshots. Bass' son shoots his gun once in a while, way back in the field.

"We thought maybe it was him," McCann said. "But it wasn't."

SWAT teams gathered. Floodlights lit up the area. And Eris Sessions paced the floors in Norway, Maine, waiting for news of Kathleen High School students.

Sessions, 57, moved to Maine after years in Florida. But her daughter, 18-year-old Tiffany Saxton, stayed in Lakeland to finish her senior year.

Sessions' son, a commercial trucker, was rolling through Connecticut when he heard the news on the radio. He called his sister and mother.

Tiffany had a cell phone with her at school. She was anxious. She was locked in a classroom. Students saw their high school on television, surrounded by patrol cars.

"I told her to find a piece of paper and sit down and write," Sessions said. "That's the schoolteacher in me, you know. Read a book, write a book."

Tiffany's cell battery died.

"I can't settle down until I hear from her," the mother said.

After a several-hour lockdown at Kathleen High, nearly 1,600 students were shuttled to a local church at about 7 p.m., escorted by sheriff's deputies. There, students were released to parents and guardians.

They were the last to go home. Other schools had allowed their students to leave earlier, as law enforcement secured the area.

"I'm sure it was quite a disruption in learning today," said Polk County school district spokesman Martin Bahl. "There will probably be a disruption in learning for a while. As we talk right now, we'd like to get back to normal."

Across the street from Kathleen High, a command center was set up. Tactical officers dressed in camouflage carried night scopes and flares in preparation for nighttime hunting.

Around the corner in a Hardees parking lot, Judd addressed the public, holding up a photo of a suspect whom Speirs picked out of a photo pack.

Judd said authorities think the name and address on the identification card that the driver passed to the deputy were bogus, but he said it anyway: Eswardo O. Ramclaim, 32, of Miami.

"This is the face of the man who shot my deputies," Judd said. "We need your help. If you know him and you hide him, you'll go to jail, too. ... We're going to hunt him down. We're going to bring him to justice."

Late Thursday, the Polk County Sheriff's Office offered a $15,000 reward for the man's capture.

Neighbors crowded among the media trucks and officers at the Thursday night news conference. Each seemed to have an opinion. This was their tragedy, too.

"There's lots of places he could hide back there," said Mike Mayberry, who owns the 40-acre Kountry Kafe and thinks he once served the suspect liver and onions. "It's thick. There's a swamp. Everything's grown together."

But Juan Gonzalez, a tow truck driver, had faith the suspect would be captured.

"This boy ain't got a chance in hell of getting out of Lakeland," Gonzalez said. "This is Polk county. You don't shoot a cop and shoot a cop's dog in this town."

Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.