TAMPA — Rocked from their sleep by gunfire early Tuesday, the east Tampa residents found two police officers lying next to each other in the grass.
David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, both 31-year-olds working the midnight shift, had been shot in the head. Both were dying.
“Their weapons weren’t drawn at all,” said Rose Dodson, 32, who ran outside and checked each officer’s pulse. “They didn’t even get the chance.”
The female driver of the red 1994 Toyota Camry that Curtis pulled over at 50th Street and East 23rd Avenue was gone. So was the passenger believed to have shot the officers after they tried to arrest him on an outstanding warrant.
Never miss a local story.
Their disappearance would set off a massive manhunt in a city where another officer died in the line of duty just 10 months ago.
An estimated 200 people from local, state and federal agencies joined the search. Armored vehicles rolled into the command center. Police cars with emergency lights flashing raced down 50th Street to chase each tip, and officers arrived at an apartment complex with guns drawn.
By day’s end, the gunned-down officers — one a married father of four young sons, the other a married father-to-be — were dead at Tampa General Hospital.
Investigators were questioning the driver, 22-year-old Cortnee Nicole Brantley. The shooting suspect — identified as Dontae Rashawn Morris, a 24-year-old felon with a lengthy rap sheet — remained on the loose late Tuesday.
Authorities offered a $95,000 reward for information leading to his capture.
“We know who he is,” Police Chief Jane Castor said, “and we’re going to find him.”
No visible tag
The tragedy started with a traffic stop.
Curtis flagged the Camry at about 2:15 a.m. because it didn’t have a visible tag.
Neither Brantley nor Morris had a good explanation for the missing tag, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. Following standard procedure for investigating a possible stolen car, Curtis asked for identification from both occupants.
Records showed Morris was wanted in Jacksonville on an arrest warrant for a worthless check.
Kocab responded as backup, also standard practice when someone is determined to be wanted, police said.
The two officers headed toward the passenger door together, where Morris was standing. It’s unclear whether they asked him to step out of the car or whether he did so on his own.
When they approached to arrest him, Morris fired at close range, police said.
Both officers were wearing bullet-proof vests, but they did little good. The shooting happened so quickly that they didn’t have time to return fire or radio for help.
Brantley sped away in the Camry. Morris fled on foot, witnesses said.
Authorities got their first indication of trouble when the initial 911 call came in six minutes after the traffic stop.
Tampa police Officer Jeremy Larson, who had worked with Curtis, was on patrol when the news came across his radio.
“That’s the worst thing a police officer could hear,” he told reporters Wednesday. “Except what we heard next.”
Two officers down.
Mayor Pam Iorio knew something was wrong when she received a phone call from Castor at 3 a.m.
She remembered getting a similar call from now-retired Chief Steve Hogue last August after Cpl. Mike Roberts was shot and killed by a man pushing a shopping cart full of weapons in Sulphur Springs.
On Tuesday, she found herself again at a hospital witnessing the “heart-wrenching” grief of the slain officers’ families.
Curtis was pronounced dead at about 8:40 a.m., his body kept on life support by his family for several hours so his organs could be donated.
The mayor said Kocab’s wife, nine months pregnant with the couple’s first child, had gone into labor a few hours after her husband died at the same hospital. Her status was unclear late Tuesday.
“We are doing everything we can to help the wives and the family members,” Iorio said. “It’s just a very bleak day for us in Tampa.”
The mood was also somber inside police headquarters downtown, where a stack of extra programs from Roberts’ funeral still sat on a table in the personnel department. Outside the building, fresh flowers and candles decorated the fallen officer memorial onto which the names of Kocab and Curtis will now be added.
Castor ordered a seven-day state of mourning for the agency, during which officers in uniform will wear black bands over their badges and the department flag will fly at half-staff.
Colleagues remembered the men Tuesday as equally devoted to their jobs and their families.
Neither had been with the Tampa Police Department long.
Kocab came to the agency about 14 months ago from the Plant City Police Department, where he was named Office of the Year in 2007.
Curtis joined in 2006 from the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office. In August 2007, he earned an Officer of the Month distinction after investigating a complex case of child neglect.
Both men had a passion for working on the streets.
“I love law enforcement,” Kocab told the Tampa Tribune in 2007. “But I really love being able to bring my energy to the street. I love to get the bad guys.”
On his 2002 application for the Sheriff’s Office, Curtis wrote: “I want to be a part of the criminal justice system so that I can do my part to keep people safe.”
Just after 10 a.m. Tuesday, citizen tips led officers to an apartment complex about a mile from the shooting scene.
Dozens of law enforcement officers, including about a half-dozen FBI agents, descended on Bristol Bay Apartments. Two armored vehicles moved in, along with fire rescue ambulances.
Investigators went door to door, looking in closets, bathrooms and under beds for the two people connected to the shooting.
They found Brantley in apartment 202.
They found the red Camry outside.
They did not find Morris. Authorities issued an arrest warrant for him on two counts of first-degree murder charges and felony possession of a firearm.
Police were still interviewing Brantley late Tuesday and could not say what charges she might face. Her arrest record includes charges of giving a false name to a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer and petty theft. In March, she pleaded guilty to driving with a suspended license and received six months of probation in Lafayette County.
That’s the same county where Morris was released from prison April 4 after serving two years on cocaine charges.
It was the second short prison stint for a man whose criminal record in Florida dates back to at least 2002.
His previous run-ins with police came nowhere near Tuesday’s magnitude.
In 2004, Morris ran from a Tampa police officer who saw him getting out of an SUV that had been reported stolen, an arrest report states. After another brief foot chase in 2008, Tampa officers learned he had five outstanding warrants.
In October 2005, authorities accused Morris of gunning down a Tampa man he had tried to rob.
A witness said he had been out driving and drinking gin with Morris when Morris said he needed to relieve himself. The man pulled over, Morris got out and the man heard a gunshot and screams.
When Morris jumped back in the car, he unloaded and re-loaded a shotgun, the witness said.
“Somebody gonna die tonight,” he heard Morris say, according to court records.
But to the dismay of the victim, Morris was acquitted at trial on charges that included attempted first-degree murder.
“I wanted to see that guy behind bars five years ago,” said 50-year-old James H. Wright, whose left arm still bears a long scar from the gun shot. “I’m lucky to be alive.”
Castor, facing the toughest challenge so far in her short tenure as police chief, vowed that Morris would not get away this time.
“I feel confident we’re going to get him,” she said. “There are not too many places for him to go to.”
Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube expressed sorrow for Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, as well as their families.
“Our heartfelt thoughts and prayers and thoughts are with the officers and their families,” Steube said. “It just brings home the reality that this is something officers and their families could have to deal with each day.”
Steube said all supervisors with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office will be discussing the incident with their deputies and encourage them to be ever mindful of their safety.
“Really we don’t need to talk to them, because when something like this happens I think every deputy will re-evaluated how they go about doing their job,” Steube said.
— Bradenton Herald reporter Robert Napper contributed to this report.
Times staff writers Kim Wilmath, Nandini Jayakrishna, Jessica Vander Velde, Shelley Rossetter, Lane DeGregory, Robbyn Mitchell and Sarah Hutchins, and researcher John Martin contributed to this story.