By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Larry Nelson pulled his turquise Mercury Sable to the foot of the driveway Friday morning. He left the motor running, the driver's side door open and his passenger in the front seat.
Some neighbors said Nelson argued with a group of men drinking in front of 808 Druid Road just after midnight. Nelson's family members say he was simply looking for a set of keys he believed were at a relative's apartment.
Someone called the police, saying a drunk man was causing a disturbance. Several minutes later, three Clearwater police officers arrived. Two of them talked to a witness of the disturbance.
The third officer, 11-year department veteran Michael Stonelake, approached Nelson. Nelsonfirst walked away, then turned toward Stonelake and walked quickly toward the officer.
Nelson had a foot-long screwdriver in his hand, a police spokesman said. Stonelake thought it was a knife.
The officer identified himself and twice told Nelson to stop, according to police officials and two witnesses interviewed by the Times.
A third witness told the Times that Nelson said: "I don't care if you are a police officer. I don't give a d--- who you are. You're fixin' to get stabbed."
Stonelake backed up, but Nelson followed. The officer fired at least one shot at Nelson. Though police would not say how many shots were fired, the three witnesses thought that there were at least five. They said Nelson was struck in the chest from a distance of 6 to 10 feet.
Nelson, 41, of 1000 Pine St. was taken to Morton Plant Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arrival.
Stonelake, 37, was placed on paid administrative leave, which is routine after officer-involved shootings. Police then began two parallel but independent investigations into the shooting. One will determine if department procedures were followed. The other will determine if the law was broken.
Stonelake has been investigated twice based on allegations of excessive force. One allegation was unsustained by investigators. Stonelake was exonerated in the other.
Stonelake has received 10 letters of commendation during his career from residents and supervisors. He was named the Fraternal Order of Police Officer of the Month in November 1993. His last two evaluations have rated above standard.
"He's a very good cop," police spokesman Wayne Shelor said.
Shelor said it doesn't matter if someone is thratening an officer with a knife or a screwdriver; both are dangerous.
"A screwdriver between the ribs will kill you just as readily as a Bowie knife," he said.
Two neighbors who said they saw the shooting told the Times that the officer was justified in pulling the trigger.
"He feels the cop had the right to shoot him because he (Nelson) wouldn't stop, and it was dark and he (the officer) couldn't see," said Olvida Gonzalez, who was interpreting for her Spanish-speaking boyfriend, Vincent Gonzalez.
Neighbor Benjamin Corona agreed: "The cop told him to stop. It was self-defense."
Corona said Nelson argued with friends before the shooting and appeared drunk and "kind of weird."
Nelson had come to the neighborhood to meet with a woman named Coco, whose son and daughter are Nelson's godchildren. He banged on her door, but she wouldn't answer. That is when Stonelake approached, witnesses said.
Coco, who refused to provide her full name to the Times, said she opened the door after the officer arrived. She said she saw the shooting but didn't hear the officer identify himself or tell Nelson to stop.
She acknowledged that Nelson stalked toward the officer. "I'm pretty sure the officer felt threatened," she said.
She was most upset that the officer fired multiple shots.
Family members said they didn't believe Nelson would threaten an officer.
"My son is not no type of person that would go at people," said his mother, Albertha McKinness. "I don't know him to do those things."
Nelson's sister, Maurice Mack, said her brother recently had turned his life around. He has a 19-year criminal record in Florida of 20 arrest that include charges of battery on a police officer, resisting arrest, disorderly intoxication, robbery with a firearm, strong-arm robbery, grand larceny, burglary and shoplifting.
But Mack said Nelson was going to church, working hard and planned to marry his fiance, Angela Jones, this summer.
"He was the type of person who could get along with anybody," she said.