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Trooper's widow revisits a memory

By PETER WALLSTEN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 20, 1998


TALLAHASSEE -- As James Brad Crooks took his Florida Highway Patrol oath last September and crossed the graduation stage to get his badge, his wife-to-be proudly snapped photos for their album.

On Friday, exactly one month after Crooks was shot and killed by a gunman on a murderous rampage, Nadine LaMonte returned to the site of her fiance's FHP induction.

This time, she sat quietly in the front row as 32 new recruits took their oaths to serve "fearlessly," just as Crooks had done last fall.

"I was in the seat then that the other people were in (on Friday), so proud of their recruits and taking pictures and crying because I was happy," said LaMonte, 25, in an interview with the Times.

But on Friday, she said, "I was crying because of the loss I had."

Crooks, 23, was shot May 19 while trying to apprehend Hank Earl Carr. Carr was fleeing up Interstate 75 after killing two Tampa police detectives who arrested him for fatally shooting his girlfriend's son.

Carr later took a gas station clerk hostage and killed himself. The hostage was not harmed. Much of the blame now is focusing on Carr's girlfriend, Bernice Bowen, who police say might have prevented the officers' deaths if she had told them Carr's true identity.

In her interview Friday, LaMonte declined to comment on Bowen's situation.

Instead, she talked of Crooks, her first and only love.

Crooks and LaMonte, a second-grade teacher at Deltona Elementary School in Spring Hill, met nearly five years ago in an undergraduate biology class at the University of South Florida.

He sat about 10 rows above her in a large lecture hall. "But he kept moving down," she said. They met Sept. 20, 1993; by Oct. 12, they were dating.

"He was always sweet," she said. "He could sleep and I knew how much he loved me. He proposed to me March 26, 1995, and that was the best day of my life."

After he told her that he wanted to attend the FHP academy, she thought of the dangers "all the time." But he insisted that he wanted to do it, so she supported him.

"He told me not to worry," she said. "I trusted him. Whatever Brad said, I trusted him."

Crooks wanted so much to join the FHP, he lost nearly 60 pounds during the training, from 270 down to 211.

"He never worked for anything harder than to get through that academy," she said.

LaMonte said Crooks immersed himself in the academy, but he drove the four hours from Tallahassee every weekend to see her. On his days off, he helped her in the classroom, earning the love of her students, who called him Trooper Brad.

One of the children now wants to become a trooper himself, LaMonte said.

Now LaMonte is left to remember her life with Crooks, and thumb through the photo albums that she always keeps nearby. In one photo, they are at the Wyndham Harbour Island Hotel in Tampa, where they had planned to hold their wedding reception.

"He was just a big teddy bear," she said, "the sweetest, most lovable, most incredible man who changed my life."

While in Tallahassee this week, LaMonte visited the FHP academy to see Crooks' photo on the memorial wall that honors the 37 Florida troopers who have died in the line of duty.

"When I saw the picture on the wall, it really became true," LaMonte said. "I had to see his picture."

LaMonte said things have not gotten easier for her in the weeks since the tragedy, but she is trying to move ahead with her life. She is taking a summer graduate course at Florida State University and plans to resume teaching in the fall.

"The last thing Brad and I said to each other was, "Honey, I love you,' " she said. "I know how much he loved me and he knew how much I loved him. That made all the difference."

Crooks, who worked out of the FHP's Land O'Lakes office, graduated with the 92nd recruiting class. Members of the 93rd class observed a moment of silence for him Friday after FHP Director Col. Charles C. Hall recognized LaMonte in the audience.

"It was scary to find out this happened to somebody who just graduated," said new Trooper Conrad Vassell of Miami, who will be stationed in Davie. "But it's part of the job."


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