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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Friends, family and co-workers of slain Sgt. Ronald Harrison gathered at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in Ybor City to witness his name etched onto a granite memorial in front of the Sheriff's Operations Center.
[Daniel Wallace | Times]
Ronald Harrison was a 27-year veteran of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. He was killed early Wednesday morning in Brandon.
BRANDON -- Michael Allen Phillips lived in trouble.
He strutted through the suburbs shirtless, a tattoo of a skull on his arm and a pistol on his belly. The man whose first arrest came at age 12 smoked his tires on Tradewinds Drive, fired gunshots into the sky and talked about his disdain for cops.
"You knew," said Lynn D'Ovidio, 62, who lives down the street, "that the kid was destined for a bad end."
It came at 3:46 a.m. Wednesday, with two shots from snipers through the upstairs window of the home he shared with his mother, who stood wailing outside in her pajamas.
He had killed an upstanding Hillsborough County sheriff's sergeant named Ronald Harrison two hours before, barricaded himself inside the home and fired volleys at the officers surrounding his house, officials said.
He paid in blood, leaving behind few cryptic clues to what brought together two very different men on a dark stretch of suburban asphalt.
* * *
Tuesday night was typical for Sgt. Harrison.
The 27-year veteran was spearheading an operation on State Road 60 to take drunks off the streets. It kept Harrison, 55, out late, but that was him. Practice what you preach.
The deputy who taught DUI enforcement classes across the state was in a good mood, joking around with Ellen Snelling from the Tampa Alcohol Coalition.
"He just seemed happy," she said.
And why not? The former youth football coach had climbed the ranks of the Sheriff's Office and was nearing retirement. He was a proud family man, with three daughters, one a detention deputy, and a son. He drove a black Corvette and lived in a new townhouse where he made easy friends with the neighbors.
He was proud to be teaching a weeklong DUI training camp which finally came to Hillsborough County.
As the hour grew late, he walked a friend with Mothers Against Drunk Driving to her car.
"Be careful," she told him.
He drove his unmarked Crown Victoria to a 7-Eleven on Kings Avenue. The surveillance cameras recorded him going inside then heading back to his car.
At 12:38 a.m., he radioed to say he had secured the DUI checkpoint.
That was last anyone heard from Sgt. Harrison.
* * *
A sheriff's official detailed what happened next: A woman called emergency dispatch at 1:08 a.m. She wouldn't say her name.
She told a dispatcher someone was shooting up the neighborhood.
A few minutes after 1 a.m., dispatchers got a call of an automobile crash on S Kings Avenue. Deputies sped to the scene and found a squad car smashed into a tree, glass and plastic covering the ground.
Inside was Sgt. Harrison, bleeding from bullet wounds in his torso. They tried to talk to him. They radioed for an ambulance. They couldn't make him respond.
He was rushed to Brandon Regional Hospital, but it was too late.
They called the anonymous tipster back. She admitted she was Rosa Bradley, Phillips' ex-girlfriend and the mother of his 3-year-old child.
She said her boyfriend told her he had just killed a cop and was coming after her family.
Across town, at 1:12 a.m., patrol units arrived at 1707 Village Court.
* * *
Michael Phillips wouldn't come outside.
The 24-year-old with at least 23 arrests on his record -- things like aggravated assault, armed burglary and resisting arrest -- was holed up in a second-floor room as officers encircled his house and climbed onto surrounding roofs. They told neighbors to put out their porch lights.
Two masked SWAT members warned Jo Ann Marshall to move away from the windows. She knew it had something to do with the neighbor, the man kids called "Crazy Mike," who smoked marijuana in strawberry-flavored Philly Blunts and played rap music that rattled the windows.
Marshall said Phillips would shoot live rounds in his backyard. He berated her family and made passes at her 16-year-old daughter. She said Phillips recently told her police "would never catch him" on his motorcycle.
"He made the statement many times that 'I don't like cops,'" she said.
Phillips had terrorized Rosa Bradley for years. She had pursued two court injunctions against him, and records show she had called the police on him several times. He had wrecked her car, threatened her family. She wrote in court papers that he claimed he was going to break her neck.
Deputies contacted Phillips' mother, Regina Van Amburg, who said she was "in fear of him," Sheriff David Gee would say later. Officers removed her from the house, along with Phillips' younger brother.
Negotiators tried to communicate with Phillips by telephone, but he wasn't cooperative.
He asked if they knew what 88-14 meant. Eighty-eight is a reference to "Heil Hitler," officials said, and 14 a reference to the number of words in a white supremacist creed: "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children."
No neighbor interviewed had any indication he was a white supremacist.
"The conversations were very short," Gee said. "His answer after he would speak was gunfire." Shell casings from a .45-caliber pistol bounced off the roof.
The next time Phillips fired from the window, the SWAT team had orders to fire back.
Two snipers' bullets ended the ordeal.
* * *
The few clues to Phillips' motivation are cryptic.
"He wasn't an overall bad guy," said Phyllis Edwards, who once called the police when she suspected Phillips shot out the streetlight near her home. "He was just a young man who was striving for attention."
"He wanted to have respect," said Allan Pore, who lives near Phillips. "He wanted to force you to respect him."
At the center of the storm stands Rosa Bradley.
She came to the door at her home Wednesday, her green eyes swollen, her hair a tangled mess. She told a toddler on the other side of the door to stand back as she stepped outside. She said she didn't know what to say. She was frustrated that it ended this way, frustrated that police didn't take her "ongoing ordeal" with Phillips seriously, until now, when it got a sergeant killed and could have wiped out her family.
"They didn't want to do anything about it until something happened to one of their own," she said.
She said she and her family called the Sheriff's Office numerous times in the past two years, including once when Phillips shot at the home.
"They were here when he peeled out of here," she said. "Mike was mentally unstable, but he was a good person, too."
She couldn't keep talking about it, she said, and as a news television truck pulled up, she let out a cry, and her mom sprang out the door, pulled her inside and walked out onto the lawn, telling reporters to go away. The family had been through enough.
Bradley's father, Carey Bradley, said that his daughter woke him and his wife up shortly after midnight with a phone call. She said Phillips told her he had just killed a cop.
His wife looked out the window and saw Phillips in his car, but then Phillips sped off.
"It's just a tragedy, you have a brilliant police officer dead," he said.
Bradley, an Air Force master aergeant at MacDill Air Force Base, said that Phillips was mentally disturbed, but that he didn't know more about his problems. Once, he said, Phillips showed up at the house looking for Rosa, and Bradley confronted him with a gun, but Phillips still wouldn't back down. Bradley said he had called the sheriff's Office several times on Phillips in the past few years.
Now it was over.
* * *
The last sheriff's deputy to be shot in Hillsborough was Lemon Harvey in 1981. Sgt. Harrison got a letter in 1983 from Sheriff Walter Heinrich and Assistant State Attorney Mark Ober complimenting his work in the homicide investigation.
"Your long hours of investigation have paid off by the sentencing of Hill Andrew Williams," Heinrich wrote. "I want to thank you for your tireless efforts on behalf of this department and the community."
Wednesday night, as the sun fell, a man sandblasted words on a slate of granite in front of the Sheriff's Operations Center, alongside Lemon Harvey and 12 others, all fallen deputies.
SGT. RONALD HARRISON
AUG. 25, 1951 - AUG. 15, 2007
27 YEARS OF SERVICE
Staff writers Saundra Amrhein, Michael Mohammed and Andrew Meacham contributed to this report.