Hurt deputy kills suspect in shootout
By MELANIE AVE and AMY HERDY
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001
TAMPA -- As their friend lay dying inside a McDonald's restaurant, the 16-year-old robbery suspects decided they had better tell his mother what had happened.
They drove their getaway car to the Central Park Village housing complex near downtown and searched frantically for 18-year-old Jason Underwood's mother, Brenda Milord. They told her Jason had been shot in a gun battle during a robbery Friday night.
She drove to the McDonald's at N Dale Mabry Highway near Spruce Street, but deputies told her they didn't know who was inside.
"I told them, "He's got on shiny Nikes,' " she said.
The body inside had on a ski mask and shiny Nikes. Underwood had died in a shootout with 41-year-old Charles Freeman, an off-duty sheriff's deputy working security at the restaurant. Freeman, shot in the upper leg, was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he was in stable condition Saturday. A dozen customers and employees had gotten out unharmed after the burst of gunfire.
Saturday, deputies identified the 16-year-old robbery suspects as Christopher Irvin, Benjamin Graddy and Edwin Beckham, and arrested them. All three face charges of attempted armed robbery and murder for taking part in a felony that resulted in a death. They were being held Saturday in a juvenile detention center.
The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said it plans to try them as adults.
Officials say they think the four robbed the nearby Circle K at 4019 W Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and the Super Stop at 4801 N Lois Ave. just minutes before driving into the McDonald's parking lot about 11:30 p.m. Friday. They also think they robbed a Burger King on Martin Luther King Boulevard and a McDonald's on Armenia Avenue last week. The masked gunmen in those robberies shot into the ceiling before driving away.
"I am so grateful to the Sheriff's Office for coming to a quick end with this," said Tampa Police Maj. K.C. Newcomb. "This was the start of something really big. These guys were going to hurt somebody."
Freeman, a warrants detective and member of the county's bomb squad, was filling in Friday for his partner. "He was not even supposed to be there," said his wife, Jacqueline Freeman.
Freeman parked his unmarked car in the lot just before 10 p.m., the start of his four-hour shift. He was in uniform and sitting in the dining room when three youths burst in with ski masks and shirts wrapped around their heads to conceal their identities.
Deputies said Underwood attempted to fire his 9mm handgun into the ceiling, but it misfired. He struck an employee on the head with the gun, then he pulled the slide on the gun to load a round from the clip. Freeman, who had been concealed behind a partition, ordered him to stop.
"We're not exactly sure who fired first," said Sheriff's Col. David Gee. "All we know is there was almost a simultaneous exchange of gunfire."
Underwood fired at least three shots at Freeman, who fired five shots from his .45-caliber handgun, striking Underwood in the torso. Freeman was hit in his leg.
The other two robbers ran, one of them dropping a .22-caliber handgun. One piled into a white Eagle Talon, and the second ran away, dropping his ski mask before getting into the car with the others.
Several customers bolted from the restaurant while employees hid in the kitchen, back rooms and restrooms. Freeman, bleeding profusely, was able to make it to his squad car, where he called for help on his radio.
Tampa police arrived, followed by sheriff's deputies and Florida Highway Patrol troopers. In all, 80 police units responded.
Swat team members, rifles in hand, surrounded the restaurant, unsure of whether a threat still existed. As the crowd waited anxiously, the bright lights and bold colors of the McDonald's gave a stark contrast to the bullet holes that riddled its front windows.
In the parking lot and on the street, officers remained behind their cars with weapons drawn for more than an hour. Shortly after 1 a.m., Tampa police began to bring out employees, and the tense atmosphere eased.
Detectives began searching for the suspects. By 11 a.m. Saturday, they had all three in custody.
Underwood, who attended King High School, has a criminal past that includes an arrest in January on charges of possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia and petty theft. Relatives said he served two years at a juvenile facility in Manatee County for car theft. He was released in 1998.
"He wasn't (a) bad child," said Milord, his mother. "It wasn't nothing but peer pressure."
Friends said the four met at Central Park Village. Most every day they could be found hanging around, listening to rap music. Earlier Friday they had played cards.
Underwood's friends said they don't know how or why the four ended up at McDonald's. But they wonder why he ended up dead.
"I think there was a better way to handle it," said 22-year-old Donna Davis, who said she is pregnant with Underwood's daughter.
Davis said Underwood came my her house Friday morning to make sure she was all right.
"He was talking about going shopping for the baby shower and what I needed," she said. "He was always taking care of me, giving me money."
Sheriff's officials said the shooting will be reviewed and Freeman, a deputy in Hillsborough for 11 years, will be on administrative leave until the review is completed.
Mrs. Freeman said her husband of 16 years is in stable condition and waiting to see if surgeons will remove the bullet or let it stay. He is expected to make a full recovery.
The couple have a 9-year-old son. Before becoming a warrants officer two years ago, he was a resource officer at King High, where Underwood attended.
He has said little about the shooting, his wife said.
"He's basically my hero," said Mrs. Freeman, a Florida Highway Patrol trooper. "That's all I've been telling him."
-- Staff writer Linda Gibson contributed to this report.
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