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Pushing forward

Hernando Today
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 05:55 PM

Deputy Scott Lamia knew the call wasn't going to be routine.

The Baker Act suspect Lamia was about to confront in late 2008 had been in a perpetual state of despair. The man was so far gone mentally he was guzzling pesticide. His wife had to call 911 for her and her son's safety.

Lamia slowly rolled down the street near Linden Drive. He intended to stop a couple houses down and wait for backup.

The man with a belly full of weed killer was sitting in his garage when he heard Lamia's cruiser, according to Hernando County Sheriff's Office reports.

The suspect was ready for him. He had duct-taped a chainsaw to his right hand, reports say.

The man came out of his garage and over the echoing roar yelled at Lamia. He beckoned the deputy to kill him, according to the reports.

Lamia, who was back on road patrol for only two weeks following a six-year hiatus, was equal parts frightened and exasperated. It was the last call he needed. All he had hoped for was to never use his gun while on duty again.

"That could have gone either way," Lamia said, recalling the limited options he had when he came face-to-face with the chainsaw-wielding man.

Lamia talked him into laying down the chainsaw. It didn't make the situation any easier. The man claimed he had a weapon in his pocket. Then he grabbed for it, reports say.

The Hernando County Sheriff's deputy desperately wanted to hear backup pulling up behind him, but the units were still minutes away.

He pulled his weapon — the one that zaps instead of goes bang. He pulled the trigger of his stun gun and the suspect dropped to the pavement.

Lamia had only been on the road for a couple weeks. He hadn't seen hardly any action in the six years he spent behind a desk. He was a little different upon his return. The man who emerged from his garage didn't rattle Lamia as much as he could have. It was Lamia's first on-the-field test. He aced it.

Lamia said he's made about 1,300 arrests during his career, but it was only during eight of those years that he was in a position to respond to calls and take people to jail at a prolific rate.

Lamia speaks softly and keeps his answers short, but he's incessantly polite. He responds to every question aimed at him. Information doesn't flow out of him. He often needs coaxing. Then again, it might depend on who is asking.

He has media anxiety. He didn't like the way stories were written about him 10 years ago. When the subject of the media comes up, he will remind people not to believe everything they read.

Lamia's friend and former supervisor, Sgt. Peter Ciucci, who was seated next to him during an interview at the sheriff's office's conference room, advised him to dodge a couple of the questions about the afternoon Oct. 21, 2002. Lamia didn't want to discuss too many details of that emotional day, but in typical fashion, he answered every question. Granted, some answers were more succinct than others.

A couple days after his conference room interview, he told the same reporter that talking to the media about what happened that afternoon might have been the last cathartic step he needed to take. He felt an unexpected urge to talk about it. He'd never had the chance.

He knows the incident is engrained in the minds of many and he knows it will follow him through the remainder of his career and possibly beyond, but he's done all he can during the past decade to diminish it.

"I give him a lot of credit for that," said Col. Mike Maurer, the patrol captain who relieved a stunned and shaken Lamia that day, drove him back to the sheriff's office and locked away his weapon. "Whatever he did, whatever job he took on, he excelled at it."

* * * * *

Lamia killed a man. His sheriff, his peers, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State Attorney's Office and a grand jury all agreed it was self-defense.

Witnesses, mourners, bloggers and others see it differently.

Their statements have stung him, but he's coped.

"It's been an upward climb," said the 36-year-old Lamia. "To overcome and persevere with the challenges I've faced … No, it hasn't been easy."

Police work never got easier after Lamia returned to patrol in 2008, but he learned how to handle stress better. Come to find out, he was exceptional under pressure. At least that's what his supervisors thought.

He joined the sheriff's office's crisis response team. In Hollywood movie terms, he became the agency's go-to hostage negotiator. He once talked a man down so effectively, the suspect went from pointing a rifle to his head to shaking Lamia's hand before he was hauled away.

For years, Lamia carried some heavy emotional baggage. He never considered taking another path.

"If I tell you I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it," Lamia said, explaining why he stayed. "Obviously, I wanted to support my family.

"This is my calling," he continued. "I never wanted to do anything else … This is my home."

When the sheriff's office's media liaison, Denise Moloney, was told Hernando Today wished to look at Lamia's file, Moloney followed the standard practice and notified Lamia.

Moloney said Lamia didn't want to see another story in the paper because he didn't want the slain suspect's family to relive the tragedy again.

The family filed a civil action against the sheriff's office, which later was resolved.

Lamia also was tired of being constantly tied to the shooting. Any time a story was published on the Web about an arrest Lamia made — and he's made several that were news worthy – the angry barbs would be posted one after the other in the comments section.

Sometimes the news stories themselves would be a struggle to read, at least for Lamia and his family.

In one newspaper article published about a month after the 2002 shooting, a reporter stated Lamia had shot a man "wanted for trespassing."

The suspect was wanted for trespassing, but he compounded his troubles by fleeing deputies. He also had threatened to kill his wife and his arrest record had been piling up with charges of DUI, shoplifting and writing worthless checks.

A few days before the shooting, he told a woman during a road rage incident that he would blow her head off, according to the sheriff's office.

The suspect also wrote a letter to his father stating he was ready to die.

* * * * *

The smirk John Tenison had on his face just before he stepped on the gas is burned into Lamia's memory.

Everything else felt as though it happened at a fast forward pace, but it seemed as though time froze for a moment when Tenison made eye contact, Lamia said.

Tenison wasn't scared when he looked at Lamia, who was yelling and pointing his .40-caliber Glock at him.

Tenison wasn't in any mood to cooperate. He was determined to die and was willing to do so by goading a police officer to shoot him, according to an FDLE report.

"I did what I had to do because I felt my life was in danger," Lamia said.

After Tenison accelerated toward Lamia in his 1990 Buick LeSabre, the deputy fired 11 shots. The suspect was shot in both arms and in the back of the head. He was taken off life support the following day.

Moments before the shooting, maybe less than a minute before, Deputy Nicole Smith warned Lamia about Tenison's flight risk.

"Be advised … He tried to run before," she said over her radio. She was headed toward Lamia's location.

Lamia was behind Tenison along Maximillian Avenue when he called off the pursuit. The deputy had seen a pedestrian walking along the street.

"Do you copy?" the dispatcher asked Smith. "He called off the 10-31."

Smith copied. She was still on her way.

Tenison stopped at an intersection. Even though he called off the pursuit, Lamia was still heading north when he came upon Tenison's vehicle again. This time, the deputy pulled in front of the Buick and got out of his cruiser.

What happened seconds later was life shattering.

"Send me an ambulance," said Lamia, who was at the corner of Hazelcrest Street and Matthew Avenue.

The dispatcher asked whether Lamia or the suspect was hurt.

Lamia's first answer over the radio was garbled and the dispatcher didn't hear it.

"I need to confirm who's down," the dispatcher said.

"He is," Lamia answered. "He came at me. He's down."

According to both the internal affairs and FDLE reports, Lamia used his cruiser to block Tenison's forward progress.

Tenison tried to drive around, but by then Lamia was out of his car. That put Lamia in front of the suspect's Buick, according to the FDLE.

Tenison ignored Lamia's orders. Then came the smirk, then the acceleration and then the gunfire.

A woman living near the Hazelcrest and Matthew intersection was watching television with her sons. A news report came on about the infamous D.C.-area snipers, who had shot 13 people that month from Maryland to Ashland, Va.

While the family was watching the news about the snipers, they heard a series of gunshots coming from outside.

Another witness to the shooting, Shayne Thompson, told FDLE the deputy was at an angle and wasn't directly in front of the car when he opened fire. He thought Lamia was trigger happy.

It "seemed he could have stopped (shooting) sooner than he did," Thompson said.

A third witness, Vivian Korner, was even less merciful toward Lamia during her interviews.

The 60-year-old was outside when she saw the incident unfold. She took cover behind a tree when the shots rang out.

"In no way did (Tenison) endanger his life," she said last week over the phone. "There's no way he should have been shot so many times."

Korner wondered about a lot of details and virtually none of her conclusions painted Lamia in a positive light, but even she questioned "why Mr. Tenison did not get out of the car when he was told to," according to court records.

* * * * *

The Tenison shooting went before a grand jury. Prosecutor Ric Ridgway said jurors rode a school bus to the corner of Hazelcrest and Matthew and the entire scene was re-enacted for them — both in slow motion and in real time.

The Florida Highway Patrol redirected traffic so that jurors could have the entire intersection to themselves.

Ridgway said jurors reached the conclusion that the shooting was "legally justified."

Whatever doubts he might have had at the time, Ridgway doesn't seem to have them any longer.

"You have to take into account the stress of the moment," Ridgway said. "(Lamia) makes a decision in a matter of seconds that I have days and weeks to make."

After the shooting then-Sheriff Richard Nugent came out with a policy prohibiting deputies from abandoning a safe distance or cover and putting themselves in harm's way when pursuing or corralling a suspect.

"We feel this is a wise decision," wrote the grand jury foreman in the report that accompanied the decision not to indict Lamia.

The report was extensive. Jurors laid the blame on Tenison for disobeying the deputy's commands, but they didn't fully absolve Lamia.

Jurors acknowledged the "benefit of hindsight" and the fact that Lamia lacked the necessary time to ponder his decision before making it.

"However, we feel this death, while not criminal, was unnecessary and avoidable," jurors wrote.

They also recommended Nugent "take disciplinary action as he deems appropriate."

Nugent suspended Lamia for 15 days.

When Lamia returned from suspension, he worked the 911 call center. About 10 months later, he was shifted over to the front desk in the lobby. He didn't return to the road until 2008.

In 2009, he was reprimanded by Nugent for taking part in a pursuit the sheriff thought could have endangered residents. Otherwise, Lamia's record shows no blemishes.

* * * * *

Lamia took pride in his desk job. When he was out on vacation, those who filled in were amazed at not only how fast-paced the job was, but at how effectively Lamia worked it.

In every annual evaluation – before and after the shooting – Lamia met or exceeded every standard.

His supervisors commended him on his joyfulness, professionalism, work ethic and his ability to handle his emotions.

While working in the lobby, Lamia arrested at least a couple DUI suspects. He watched them pull up to the Sheriff's Office and stagger inside.

A few other people Lamia encountered had weapons. A few more had drugs.

It seems no restrictions or reprimands can prevent Lamia from making an arrest as long as he wears a badge.

Not long after the 2002 shooting, while Lamia was on paid leave and under investigation, he was driving along a toll road and noticed a Ford Explorer that had nearly run a semi-trailer off the highway, he said.

He called FHP, but no trooper was close. When the driver pulled into the toll booth, Lamia parked behind her, got out of his car, flashed his badge at the toll collector and told her not to let the Explorer leave the booth.

He took the keys from the driver, who had a baby lying in the backseat.

Lamia said the woman was convicted of DUI and child neglect.

Predictably, the incident made the news. Lamia was disciplined, but he kept his job.

"Any time I've been reprimanded, justified or not, you respect the decision," he said. "I carry out an order. If they discipline me, I don't fight it.

"I would've done what I did that day even if I wasn't a deputy."

More angry letters were published in the newspaper after the DUI incident. By then, some people were convinced Lamia was a loose cannon or too much like Dirty Harry.

Coincidentally, on Lamia's first day back on the job, he spent his morning in Tallahassee. He was given an award by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the DUI arrests he made while a patrol deputy. He had made about 200 in two years.

* * * * *

Lamia doesn't think he's changed all that significantly during the past 10 or more years. He's gotten older and more seasoned. He attributes his career choice for making him who he is today.

"The longer you're a law enforcement officer, the more you change," he said. "It's a community that's given me a good life. That's my job to serve my community. I like that people can go to the store safely and not worry about being harmed by a criminal. That's why I got into this job."

Ciucci called Lamia "the most energetic and most competent" among those who have ever worked under his command.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis offered similar praise. Earlier this summer, he picked Lamia among a long list of candidates to be promoted to sergeant.

It was a goal Lamia had set for himself years earlier, even during the days when he was sharpening pencils.

Maurer said the decision to keep Lamia behind a desk was the best decision for the sheriff's office to make.

"At the time, it was a very emotional issue for us and the public," he said. "There was a lot of scrutiny."

He said it also worked out best for Lamia, but it only could have worked out for someone with his level of patience and determination.

"He's had some dark days where I'm sure he's done some reflecting," said Maurer. "There are some police officers who don't come back from something like that, but he always knew what he wanted."


wholt@hernandotoday.com (352) 544-5283
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