The recent death of an officer prompts memories of another, who is honored yearly.
By WILLIAM PROFFITT, Time Staff Writer
Published August 22, 2007
Editor's note: Four different shootings involving police officers in the Tampa Bay area took place in recent days, including the deadly ambush of Hillsborough County sheriff's Sgt. Ron Harrison. So far this year, 117 law enforcement officers have died in the line of duty nationwide, 47 as the result of gunfire.
Retired St. Petersburg police Officer William Proffitt wrote this tribute to a friend and colleague, Herb Sullivan, the last St. Petersburg officer to die in the line of duty. Proffitt titled the tribute "In Valor There Is Hope."
The events of last week have been a sad reminder of the dangers faced by law enforcement officers, and it comes especially close to home for me.
I clearly remember the day, 27 years ago last Saturday, when St. Petersburg police Detective Herbert R. Sullivan was shot and killed in the line of duty.
Both Sullivan and I were hired as St. Petersburg police officers in 1974. He graduated in Class No. 42 at the police academy, two classes ahead of mine. We were assigned to patrol in the area known today as Midtown. We often worked adjoining zones, backing each other up on calls.
Sullivan, one of the few new recruits in that era with a four-year college degree, was a great cop and fun to work with. He was energetic, and enjoyed searching for people wanted on warrants whenever he wasn't busy handling a call.
I remember seeing him in his cruiser on hot summer days, slurping a large Icee to stay cool. In many ways, Herbie was anything but the stereotypical cop.
In 1975, he married June, a nurse at a local hospital. Many of us attended their festive wedding at the Lutheran Church of the Cross on Shore Acres. Of course, we didn't know we would return to the same church five years later for a more solemn service.
In 1977, Sullivan transferred to the department's Vice and Narcotics Unit after several years of working the street, since his offbeat style and gift of gab seemed suitable for undercover work.
He partnered with Detective George Chapman to work vice cases, where he quickly developed good undercover skills. Later, he shifted his focus to narcotics work and teamed up with Detective Harry Herbst. It was a successful team, and they made many arrests.
A fateful deal
In 1980, Sullivan and Herbst investigated Bill Haake, a drug dealer who owned a moped rental business on the beach. After a few deals, Haake offered to sell a large quantity of cocaine and methaqualone to Sullivan and Herbst for $65,000.
On Aug. 18, the three of them met in the parking lot of the old Plaza Theaters at First Avenue S and 31st Street to make the deal. Haake told them, however, that the drugs were in a motel room at the Save Inn Motor Lodge at 54th Avenue N and I-275. Follow me, he told the officers.
Sullivan and Herbst followed Haake as he drove a winding route through downtown instead of a more direct route on the interstate.
When they finally arrived at the Save Inn parking lot, Haake introduced them to Sammie Lee Mathis, who, unknown to the detectives, had parked his car on the service lane of I-275 with the hood up, just out of their sight.
What happened next was a well-planned robbery masterminded by Haake, who had recruited Mathis to help him pull it off.
Herbst and Haake walked into the motel, presumably to look at the drugs, while Sullivan stayed with the money in an undercover vehicle in the parking lot. When Sullivan looked away for a moment, Mathis, standing next to the driver-side window, pulled a .38-caliber handgun and shot three times from point-blank range. Two of the bullets struck Sullivan in the chest.
Mathis grabbed the money and ran through the parking lot and down the embankment to his car on the interstate, where he closed the hood and fled. Haake jumped in his black Cadillac and drove away as backup detectives raced in to help Sullivan.
Police radio transcripts put the time of the shooting at 1:22 p.m., a moment forever etched in my mind.
I was on duty driving a patrol cruiser near the main station when I heard the frantic, garbled voice on the police radio, followed by the dispatcher's chilling words: "10-24, Officer Down."
I rushed to the area and joined other officers in a frenzied search for Haake's black Cadillac, but he and Mathis had gotten away.
I drove to the shooting scene and helped a large team of officers searching for evidence in the parking lot and along the interstate. Only then did I learn that Sullivan was the detective who had been shot. They told me he was taken to a hospital in critical condition.
When I finally returned to the station, I got on the elevator with Detective Gus Gore. I noticed that he was unusually quiet. I said, "How's Herbie doing?"
He stared blankly, looked down, and then left the elevator without answering. His silence told me that Herbie was dead.
Investigators arrested Mathis the next day and recovered the gun he used to kill Sullivan. Mathis confessed and provided details up to and including the moment he shot Sullivan.
Haake fled the country. He was caught several years later smuggling drugs and weapons into Spain. He was extradited to Florida only after U.S. authorities agreed not to pursue the death penalty. As a result of that agreement, both Haake and Mathis are now serving life sentences in a Florida prison.
Most men and women who were there that day have long since retired from the agency, but I know they have not forgotten that day or the loss of a dear friend.
Every August the Department bestows the "Herbert R. Sullivan Distinguished Performance Award" on an undercover detective in recognition of his or her achievements. George Chapman faithfully attends the ceremony every year to solemnly recount the events of that day for the benefit of the new detectives.
The ceremony is joyous for the person who receives the award but sacred for those who remember an old friend killed in the line of duty. It will take place this year on Aug. 30. It is private.
In the history of the St. Petersburg Police Department, 12 officers have died in the line of duty, but none since Herb's death in 1980.
Sullivan's widow, June, moved to another state and remarried several years after Herb's death. We call her every August to tell her the name of the latest award recipient, thus reassuring her that Herb will always be remembered as a member of the undercover unit.
Detective Herbert R. Sullivan's name is inscribed on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial carries a banner with the aide- memoire: "In valor there is hope."