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He looks, but does he see out on the streets?

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000

Knowing when to shoot is hardly the half of why it's tough to be a cop.

The job is mostly a cross between being a psychiatrist and a politician. You've got to know the people on your beat and help them when they need it. Still, you can't get too close. You can't do too much. You're a cop, first and last.

But what's too close, and what's too much, when you grew up on these streets, and you've got to eat and shop and socialize as much as the next guy?

Say you're St. Petersburg police Lt. Donnie Williams. Your career will never be the same, you think, just because you used to go to a particular bar. How were you supposed to know that the bad guys also go there, maybe even sell cocaine out of there? You never saw a thing.

Or you're Sgt. Horace L. Nero. Now and then, during your daily patrols, you even eat lunch at this very bar. It's on your beat. So when the wife of the owner comes to you with a problem, and she seems like a nice lady, you do what you do. You help her out.

Her name was Pamela Williams. Last May, Nero testified on behalf of the 40-year-old woman at a state hearing on her liquor license.

Nero called himself a "good judge of character." He described Mrs. Williams and her husband, Leroy, as "well-meaning people, churchgoers" who had helped turn around the neighborhood after the 1996 riots.

They'd made a significant investment. Leroy Williams Jr. borrowed $300,000 from a local company to buy the strip mall where the bar is located. (The Williamses are apparently no relation to police Lt. Donnie Williams.)

Eventually, the state revoked the liquor license, because Mrs. Williams had lied about her past on her application. Nero says now he didn't know the full extent of her criminal background. She had a felony conviction for shoplifting in Georgia in the 1980s and, depending on the Florida government source, as many as nine arrests and five aliases.

Nero also says he didn't know about her husband's record, which includes decade-old arrests on allegations of cocaine trafficking, carrying a concealed weapon and aggravated assault.

If he had known, Nero says, he would not have spoken up for the Williamses. Which is nice. But it begs the question of why he didn't check them out first.

The Times is not identifying the bar because it is one of the locations under scrutiny by federal and local authorities investigating drug trafficking in the city. Last month, 20 people were indicted on trafficking and other charges. The investigation continues.

It may have been coincidence, but state officials began investigating Pamela Williams' liquor license at virtually the same time in August 1998 that DEA agents and St. Petersburg detectives were debriefing the confidential informer whose statements helped launch the investigation. Among other things, he said he had seen Sgt. Donnie Williams receive baggies of a white powder that could have been cocaine at the bar.

It may have been coincidence, but Sgt. Nero testified for Mrs. Williams in May 1999, just as word of Donnie Williams' alleged misconduct got out. Williams has denied wrongdoing and never has been charged with a crime. Last fall, Chief Goliath Davis made him a lieutenant.

Sgt. Nero said this week he knows Lt. Williams only as a colleague and that they have no association beyond the halls of the police station. Nero also said he didn't know the name of the bar where the informer had supposedly seen Williams, didn't know it was the same bar where he'd been asked to help save the liquor license.

The bar remains open. Although it has been without a liquor license since last fall, a sign out front last week was still promising weekend drink specials.

Sgt. Nero's record with the Police Department is remarkable mainly for its durability. At 63, he is the oldest cop on the beat in St. Petersburg, daily cruising the streets he thinks he knows so well.

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