Slain St. Petersburg Sgt. Thomas Baitinger lived in Palmetto

ST. PETERSBURG — Thomas Baitinger, 48, didn't have the flashiest job in the St. Petersburg Police Department. Before Monday, when the veteran sergeant died trying to rescue two wounded officers, he made the news only a couple of times.

The most recent case occurred in 2006 when he helped a distraught mother track down her baby's kidnapper. What made it tough was that the mother didn't speak English, and the license plate numbers she remembered were wrong, and the crime had occurred in another county. Somehow, Sgt. Baitinger figured it out.

Mostly, Sgt. Baitinger dealt with more routine cases: auto thefts, domestic violence, the kind of thing that makes up 99 percent of all police work but seldom makes headlines.

Within the department, though, Sgt. Baitinger was well-known. His squad appreciated how he took care of them, fellow officers say. Mayor Bill Foster considered him a friend. He played golf with Chief Chuck Harmon. Every year in his evaluations, his bosses wrote that he was "a pleasure to supervise."

He was ambitious, too. He went through a leadership class, records show. In 2008 he earned a master's in business administration from Saint Leo University. After six years on the street, showing new officers how to do their jobs, he recently asked to be moved back to the detective division as a sergeant "to enhance my supervisory skills."

He also worked as an instructor at St. Petersburg College's police academy, training officers how to handle firearms safely. But his personnel file said he had never fired his Glock pistol, his AR-15 assault rifle or even his Taser in the line of duty. He knew how to defuse a crisis before it erupted.

Until Monday, that is — a day that dawned cool and a bit cloudy, and ended with Harmon facing a room full of reporters and holding up Sgt. Baitinger's badge. It glittered under the television lights.

"He enjoyed life," the chief said.

But he valued something else even more: duty.

He wasn't from Florida. Like a lot of Floridians, he sought it out.

Thomas John Baitinger was born at 7:55 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1962, in Wisconsin, according to police records. His father, Kenneth, worked for an insurance company. His mother's name was Lulu.

In high school, he sang in the choir and played in the band and earned a B in advanced physics. At the University of Wisconsin, he got a bachelor's degree in behavioral science — good grounding for police work.

At age 24, he landed a job as a part-time officer in the little town of Cottage Grove, Wis. The chief regarded him as "very mature for his age." He worked his way up to larger departments, eventually spending seven years as a deputy in Dane County, Wis.

It was not an easy job. He lost one patrol car when a deer crashed into it. He crashed another car when it hit a patch of ice. And once, when he was dealing with someone else's crash, a passerby ran over his foot.

He got married, got divorced. Wisconsin's bitter weather began to get to him. He moved south in 1995. He later told Chave "Steve" Aspinall, who retired as a St. Petersburg police detective in 2000, that he found Florida's warmth very appealing, especially when he looked at the temperatures back home.

He was hired by the St. Petersburg department in 1996. He advanced to sergeant in 2004. He volunteered for various committees, including the police pension board, where he worked with Aspinall. The detective liked his willingness to jump in and help without making a big fuss.

"He was never looking for notoriety," Aspinall said. "He just wanted to serve."

In 2002, love found him again. He married Paige M. Gayzagian, the daughter of longtime Kenneth City community activist D. Marie Boudreau. They went back to Wisconsin for the ceremony.

He and Mrs. Baitinger, a guidance counselor for the Pinellas school district from 1996 to 2005, lived across the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Palmetto. On Monday afternoon, a St. Petersburg police officer posted outside the house told everyone stopping by that she was not up to seeing visitors.

Two years ago, Sgt. Baitinger served as mentor for a student at Gibbs High School. Catherine Smith, the former family and community liaison at Gibbs, said he stood out among the 100 or so mentors who volunteer each year.

"Some police officers, you know, seem to have like a hard exterior," Smith said. "This man was just so nice."

When the sergeant showed up, usually carrying a McDonald's bag, the student's face just glowed. "He loved him," she said. "When that young man came down and saw the sergeant, oh my goodness, it was like he saw his father."

His hobbies were golf and poker, especially Texas hold'em, recalled Gary Robbins, a fellow sergeant who retired two years ago. He was, of course, a Green Bay Packers fan. He wore a green "Packers" bracelet. He cheered Sunday's big victory and eagerly awaited Super Bowl XLV.

On Monday at 7:07 a.m., a police detective trying to interview a fugitive's relative at a house on 28th Avenue S called for backup. Sgt. Baitinger was one of the officers who responded. At 7:29 a.m., when shots were fired and two officers went down, he was among the lawmen who stormed the house to try to rescue them.

As a sergeant, he could have stayed outside supervising everyone else, said Aspinall and Robbins, but that wasn't the way he operated. "True leaders lead from the front," Robbins said.

Although Sgt. Baitinger was wearing his protective vest, a bullet fired downward from the attic pierced an unprotected part of his torso, killing him, Harmon said.

At the hospital, Harmon said, Mrs. Baitinger "grabbed me by the hand, and made me promise to get this message out: 'He would have done anything for his fellow officers.' "

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