Internal report helped lead to officer's arrest
By LEANORA MINAI
© St. Petersburg Times, published March 14, 2001
ST. PETERSBURG -- For six weeks, prosecutors worked to build an attempted armed robbery case against St. Petersburg police Officer Antonio Garner.
They had a witness, who provided the license tag number from Garner's personal car. They had casts of tire tracks.
But it wasn't until recently that a St. Petersburg police sergeant provided more information that helped lead to Garner's arrest Monday night.
Sgt. Matthew McKinney told authorities that Garner told him he was at the scene of the alleged robbery in Gulfport but was there over a road rage encounter with another driver -- not because he wanted to rob him.
That information, given to Gulfport detectives a month after the alleged robbery, placed Garner at the crime scene on Jan. 6. Prosecutors partly relied upon it in deciding Monday to charge Garner with attempted armed robbery, a second-degree felony.
"We had a police report regarding some things that were said by the defendant that came to light some time after the incident occurred," said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, who declined to go into detail.
St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis said McKinney didn't initially report his conversation with Garner to detectives because he thought he was ordered to keep the information confidential until the completion of an internal affairs investigation. He got that impression from Maj. J.R. Thompson of the department's internal affairs division, who told McKinney not to discuss his knowledge of the case with anyone.
But Thompson only gave that order in relation to the internal affairs case. He assumed McKinney had already written a report documenting the Garner conversation and that the report would have been given to Gulfport officers investigating the attempted robbery. It wasn't until mid-February that all involved realized that had not been done, Davis said.
Garner, 32, remains in the Pinellas County Jail on $50,000 bail. He is on unpaid leave from the department, where he worked in patrol and vice and narcotics for nearly seven years.
Investigators charge that at 6:45 a.m. Jan. 6, Garner held a semi-automatic handgun on Christopher Croley outside an apartment complex at 711 58th St. S.
Croley told authorities he was walking to his car when a gunman got out of a Ford Bronco II and said, "It's a holdup. Give me everything you got!"
Croley ran away. The gunman chased him, then jumped in the Bronco to get away. Croley followed for 10 blocks, got the license tag number and called 911. Dispatchers traced the tag to Garner, who was off duty.
St. Petersburg police went to Garner's house in St. Petersburg. But Garner drove away on a motorcycle when a Gulfport police officer arrived to question him about the robbery attempt. Garner was charged with obstructing an officer.
On the way to the Pinellas County Jail on the obstruction charge Jan. 6, Garner told McKinney that the incident in Gulfport was actually a road rage incident, according to court documents.
"He further stated that he returned home after fleeing from the scene and called the St. Petersburg Police Department and told them that his wife had just been chased by a white male in a small car while she was going to get medication for their child," an arrest affidavit says.
"Garner further explained to McKinney that this story was untrue and that he made the false report because he was afraid of getting in trouble for his involvement in the road rage incident," the affidavit says.
Though McKinney immediately told internal affairs about that conversation, he didn't write a report about it until Feb. 14, after Thompson learned that McKinney had taken his order to keep quiet literally. McKinney's vacation schedule also contributed to the delay, Davis said.
Davis said McKinney was following orders and is not at fault in the misunderstanding.
"There's nothing nefarious," Davis said. "There's nothing that was being hidden."
St. Petersburg police internal affairs investigators have repeatedly asked Croley, Garner's alleged victim, whether the robbery attempt might have actually been a road rage incident. Croley says it wasn't.
"It was not road rage at all," Croley said Tuesday. "I never saw the guy until I got all the way in the parking lot. I just assumed it was somebody who lived there."
- Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report.
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