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For now, officer avoids charges

By MIKE BRASSFIELD

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 24, 2001


It has been seven weeks since St. Petersburg Police Officer Antonio Garner was fingered as a suspect in an attempted street robbery in Gulfport.

It has been six weeks since prosecutors interviewed at least two people who think Garner robbed them at gunpoint in the driveways of their St. Petersburg homes.

Authorities still haven't decided whether to charge Garner, 32, in any of these cases.

Some of the robbery victims, convinced that Garner is guilty, suspect that authorities are dragging their feet and are reluctant to charge a police officer with a violent crime.

Police and prosecutors say they're still working on the case, but it's taking time because it's turning out to be a complicated matter.

"Some new leads have come up. It's literally like a tree with 10 new branches," said Gulfport police Lt. Michael Quill. "We're looking at some other evidence and new information."

As for the St. Petersburg robberies, "we're still working on it," said Sgt. Al White, head of St. Petersburg's robbery squad. "It takes time to do a thorough investigation."

The morning of Jan. 6, Christopher Croley, 36, was confronted by a would-be robber in a white Ford Bronco outside a Gulfport apartment complex.

"Give me everything you got!" said the gunman, who wore a white jacket with the hood pulled tight around his face. Instead, Croley chased the Bronco for 10 blocks and got its tag number. It was registered to Garner, who was off-duty.

Garner soon called police and said his wife had just been chased through their neighborhood in the Bronco. Police outside Garner's house on First Avenue S saw the Bronco backed into the driveway.

Garner drove away on a motorcycle as Gulfport and St. Petersburg officers told him to stop, police said. He returned 15 minutes later. He and his wife wouldn't answer questions.

Garner was charged with obstruction. He quickly posted $150 bond and was released from jail. Police searched for a white hooded jacket in Garner's house, Bronco, police car and nearby garbage bins, but they didn't find one.

Croley's lawyer, John Trevena, says Garner's fellow officers shouldn't have let him drive away.

"Officer Garner has been afforded preferential treatment from the very beginning," Trevena said. "How many private citizens in this county who are about to be questioned in connection with a violent felony are permitted to drive off? They gave him the opportunity to dispose of incriminating evidence."

Garner remains on paid leave.

Police also are investigating five cases in late December where people were robbed in their own driveways in west St. Petersburg.

Two women who were robbed separately on Dec. 28, Angela Osgood and Kathleen Nalbach, picked Garner out of a lineup of photographs.

The case doesn't seem complicated to them.

"I'm positive it was him, unless he's got a twin brother," Osgood said Friday. "They haven't done anything. This guy's been on paid leave this whole time, and it's coming out of our pockets to pay him. It's a crock."

On Jan. 12, prosecutors interviewed the two women and Nalbach's father, Robert Starke, who was pistol-whipped by the robber.

"They're sandbagging, the whole bunch of them," Starke said Friday. "I'm disgusted with what's going on."

Prosecutors say they're waiting for police to finish their investigations.

"This is a somewhat complex situation with a lot of different aspects to it," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett. "What are being represented as positive IDs are not panning out to be positive IDs for our purposes."

Garner, a six-year police veteran, has been a patrol officer and narcotics investigator. In performance evaluations, supervisors have typically described him as motivated and highly professional.

Neither Garner nor his lawyer is commenting.

Recent coverage

Detectives search officer's home for evidence (January 23, 2001)

Another cop inquiry, another PR disaster (January 18, 2001)

Prosecutors questioning robbery victims (January 13, 2001)

2 women link officer to robberies (January 11, 2001)

Officer called suspect in robbery on paid leave(brief) (January 10, 2001)

Investigation of robbery attempt leads to officer (January 7, 2001)

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