Officials: Phone mistaken for gun
By DEBORAH O'NEIL
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000
CLEARWATER -- In the moments before sheriff's Deputy Kris Lutz shot at 19-year-old Dennis Casanova before dawn Saturday, their two cars collided and stopped with their driver's side doors nearly touching.
The two were face-to-face, barely 3 feet apart. The teenager's window was open and the deputy's was partially open, authorities say.
"Show your hands! Show your hands!" Lutz demanded.
The teen glared back with an enraged expression, officials said. Then, Casanova's right arm came up over the steering wheel with an object the deputy thought was a gun.
In a split second, the deputy fired five shots at the teenager who had led him on a 2-mile chase at more than 85 mph and rammed the deputy's cruiser repeatedly, authorities say.
The object turned out to be a mobile phone. This is the account that emerged Monday after sheriff's authorities interviewed Lutz, 40, about the shooting for the first time. "The deputy fired when he saw that object coming up over the steering wheel," said sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Greg Tita. "He was in fear for his life."
Authorities cannot interview Casanova because his mouth is wired shut. Three bullets struck him in the mouth, neck and shoulder. He was in guarded condition Monday at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Tita said. Authorities have allowed no visitors.
The policy at the Sheriff's Office is that deputies can fire their weapons when they fear for their own life, that of another deputy or a citizen. No weapons were found in Casanova's vehicle.
Lutz is a 14-year veteran of the Sheriff's Office.
In an April complaint, Clearwater resident John Salmieri accused Lutz of striking him eight to 15 times in the back and ribs with a flashlight. Lutz pulled him over March 30 at about 2:15 a.m. in Safety Harbor.
But Salmieri was uncooperative with investigators, the report said, and refused to let them see or photograph the bruises, saying they were all internal. The allegations were deemed unfounded.
In July 1999, a man with no known address named Gregory Adamson said he was injured by Lutz. The deputy was questioning Adamson in February at a woman's home in Safety Harbor.
According to the report, Adamson demanded that Lutz and another officer leave and tried to slam the door. So Lutz pushed Adamson to keep him from striking them with the door. Investigators determined Lutz's actions were appropriate and correct, and he was exonerated.
In February 1999, Kelly Lamar Jones of Tampa filed a written complaint against Lutz from the Pinellas County Jail. It said, "I was severely beaten by D. Lutz and assisting officers." Lutz was exonerated after investigators reviewed the circumstances of the arrest.
Saturday's incident began at about 3 a.m. when Lutz spotted a red 1992 Mazda with its lights off parked outside a closed florist's shop near Belcher Road and State Road 580. As the deputy approached with a spotlight, the car sped off in reverse, Tita said. The Mazda drove in reverse westbound in the eastbound lane of SR 580. At County Road 1, the Mazda crossed the median and rammed the deputy's cruiser, Tita said, then headed east on SR 580.
Going more than 85 mph, Casanova's car went through red lights at Belcher Road and U.S. 19, Tita said. Casanova rammed Lutz's cruiser, Tita said, sending both into a spin. Deputies and emergency officers who responded to the scene told officials that Lutz asked, "Did you find the gun?"
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