St. Petersburg officers remembered at viewing; funeral is this morning

ST. PETERSBURG — It was the part of the process that's quiet and still and tense. No firearm salutes, choirs, wails or speeches.

Just two caskets draped in American flags.

Sgt. Thomas Baitinger, 48, and Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz, 39, St. Petersburg police officers killed on duty Monday, were remembered by thousands Thursday at First Baptist Church.

Even more are expected today for the funeral. The church holds 3,200. Another 4,000 can watch on large screens under tents outside.

Police officers came for Thursday's visitation from Miami and Chicago. They drove 22 hours from Rhode Island or an hour across the bay. They sat in highway traffic backed up a mile leading to the church on Gandy Boulevard. They stood cold in a line snaking through the parking lot, and they waited to get inside and say nothing much at all.

Officers from Miami Beach prepared to serve on the honor guard Friday. They mourned the recent deaths of police officers in Miami as well as St. Petersburg.

"We've had four officers lost in four days," said Officer Maria Zanudio, 43. "Being a part of the honor guard, this is what we do. But it doesn't get any easier."

The crowd was full of strangers and friends. Cub Scouts. Men in ties fresh from work. Teenagers in jeans. Elderly people with canes. They walked past the officers' police cruisers parked nose-to-nose and draped in gold orchids and photos. They walked beneath a 25-foot statue of Jesus hanging from the cross, and into the church. They went to projection screens and looked at photos of weddings and children and happiness.

"The atmosphere is so thick with sadness," said Amir Ardebily, owner of Amir Academy of Martial Arts, where some SWAT team members and police officers train. "I have never seen such a sad funeral in my life."

This was the biggest St. Petersburg Police Department tragedy in decades — an officer had not been killed in the line of duty in 30 years, two together in 73 years — and it drew out leaders past and present.

Former Chief Mack Vines, commander from 1974 to 1981, came.

Current Chief Chuck Harmon arrived with the city's Mayor Bill Foster, who moved through the crowd past 8 p.m. He embraced a police officer, wrapping a hand around his back.

"Appreciate you," he said.

U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young and City Council members including James Kennedy, Herb Polson and Wengay Newton were in the crowd.

"I knew them all," Newton said. "Their families. I was at their swearing-in ceremony. I was at their graduation ceremonies. . . . It's really just a heavy, heavy time and I guess tomorrow is going to be even worse."

Bob Jones, 49, a retired St. Petersburg motorcycle officer, knew Baitinger for 13 years.

"I never saw the man without a smile on his face," he said. "Some people handle it better than others. Tom was one of the people who was a positive influence no matter what."

In 26 years as a police officer, Jones has gone to funerals all across the state.

"It's never been easy," he said. "But you do it as a show of strength for the families. This is the first one for us here, and it's completely different."

Jim Gordon, 60, volunteers at Forest Lakes Elementary where Yaslowitz's wife, Lorraine, works as a kindergarten teacher.

"It's just very sad," he said, "that you go to work one day and you don't come back."

People consoled the officers' families in the front of the church. Others chose to stay back in pews, praying or just staring. Officers greeted old friends, some they hadn't seen in years.

The honor guard would spend the night. Everyone else filtered out of the church and drove off.

Inside, five officers in dress uniforms walked in unison. They stopped and saluted the caskets. They pivoted together and walked away.