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Trooper from small town
gave life for job he loved


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 1998

Trooper James Crooks died with his life in front of him and his service pistol still in his holster.

When the ambitious 23-year-old trooper met Hank Earl Carr on an Interstate 75 exit ramp in Pasco County on Tuesday afternoon, it was a collision between two worlds. Carr was a felon who had just killed two Tampa detectives. Crooks was a small-town boy, a soon-to-be-married cop so enticed by a law enforcement career that he lost 75 pounds to meet the highway patrol's fitness standards.

It was a confrontation that Crooks was destined to lose.

"I don't believe he had any chance," said Trooper Jeffrey Johnson, a police academy classmate.

Crooks was the first law enforcement officer to see Carr's truck after he fled the Tampa shooting scene. Aware that he was following a cop killer, Crooks was waiting for backup officers to arrive. "He was by himself," said Ray Velboom, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent. "They were trying to get him some help."

• Carr stayed free by staying invisible
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Survivors are offered financial aid

• Trooper from small town gave life for job he loved
A grandmother grieves for the boy she raised
'Stress' teams offer comfort to officers

How could such a man have such a lethal arsenal?
• An evil beyond words robs us all
Phone calls to gunman raise concerns about media's role
Hometown mourns for trooper
Killing leaves student shaken

Standoff leaves Shell in disarray
Killer's shirt gives cafe unwelcome publicity
Police in Citrus reviewing guidelines after officers' deaths

But then Carr tried to get away, darting onto the State Road 54 interchange in Wesley Chapel. Crooks did the same. Both men became entangled in heavy traffic waiting for a light at the end of the exit ramp. Then Carr suddenly stopped, said Velboom.

"He jumped out and just started shooting," said Velboom.

Armed with an SKS assault-style rifle, Carr fired into the police cruiser. It happened so quickly that Crooks was unable to return fire, or even to pull his 9mm Beretta from his holster.

It's not clear how many times Crooks was hit, or where. But Carr was standing just steps away from the patrol car.

"He got real close. It was a real close shooting," said Velboom.

The colleagues racing to Crooks' side knew what they would find even before they got there. A passing trucker stopped and reached into Crooks' patrol car for the police radio, said witness Tim Bain.

"The guy in the rig ran up and grabbed the CB," Bain said. "He started screaming: "Officer down, officer down!' "

Crooks' life ended in a staccato burst of gunfire, but it began amid the quiet of a cattle farm near Lake Okeechobee. James Bradley Crooks grew up in Clewiston, a rural community of 20,000 that calls itself "America's Sweetest Town."

He was known as the boy who tried hard but never quite mastered the clarinet, whose good-natured face made it hard for some to believe that he now wore a trooper's hat and packed a pistol.

Lonzo Griffith, who taught Crooks at Clewiston High, said the trooper saw the world through a lens tinted by small-town innocence: "He wasn't the type that was rugged. He didn't distrust anybody."

Crooks left Clewiston because he wanted to become a police officer. He attended the University of South Florida, majoring in criminology.

When the state started an internship program allowing students to get both college credit and a trooper's job for completing the police academy, Crooks was the first to enroll.

"That says a lot," said William Blount, chairman of the criminology department. "He really wanted to be a trooper."

Crooks graduated from the academy with nearly perfect scores on his state certification tests. His first assignment was in the FHP's Land O'Lakes office. He moved to Carrollwood with his fiancee, Nadine LaMonte, a Hernando County schoolteacher. They were to be married in November.

At Deltona Elementary School in Spring Hill, he was known as "Trooper Brad" to his fiancee's second-grade class. He often helped out in the classroom, moving science projects and talking to the kids about life as a trooper.

The wedding was on Crooks' mind, too. When Johnson saw him for the last time last month, Crooks talked non-stop about his job and his fiancee.

Fellow troopers first knew Crooks was in danger Tuesday when they heard he was following Carr's white pickup on the interstate.

FHP Lt. Mike Guzman had spent the first part of the afternoon in Tampa, consoling officers who were investigating the slayings of the two city detectives.

But when Guzman heard Crooks on the radio, his grief changed to fear.

"I had a bad feeling," Guzman said. "The information came over the radio and I left immediately. I must have been going 110 mph."

But Guzman and the others couldn't arrive in time to put themselves between the innocent country boy and the hardened felon. Innocence lost, and Guzman wasn't ready to believe it.

"I had to take the sheet off of his face and look," Guzman said. "Just to make sure it really happened."
-- Times staff writers Amy Ellis, Kent Fischer and Robert King contributed to this report.

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