TAMPA – There’s a place in Tampa where George McNamara won’t go.
A career law enforcement officer who has risen to the rank of major with the Tampa Police Department, McNamara never pulls off Interstate 275 at the Floribraska Avenue ramp.
“I won’t. I just can’t do it,” he said.
It’s been this way since 10 years ago Monday.
That’s when McNamara walked along the ramp toward an unmarked police car, a green Ford sedan with a Miami Dolphins license plate, and saw two detectives shot to death inside. Ricky Childers and Randy Bell had worked for him.
The men were victims of a shooting rampage that spanned the Bay area and only ended when the gunman, Hank Earl Carr, killed himself after holding a woman hostage for hours. Carr also killed two others — his girlfriend’s 4-year-old son, Joey Bennett, and Florida Highway Patrol Trooper James B. Crooks.
Five were dead by the time darkness fell. But the people who would suffer the pain of that day — May 19, 1998 — numbered in the hundreds, even thousands, counting those who lined the funeral routes clutching American flags.
Greg Stout felt it more than others. He sat that morning at police headquarters with Carr and remembers him as affable and calm. Stout, a detective, came close to riding with Childers in the green sedan on a trip with Carr to where the boy was shot. Bell went instead. On the way back, Carr killed the detectives with Childers’ gun.
“Everyone lost some innocence that day,” Stout says today. “You honestly treat everybody differently now.”
Carr’s legacy includes changes in law and policy so officers can do a better job protecting themselves and others. Anyone carrying a concealed handcuff key, as Carr did, can be charged with a third-degree felony. The Tampa Police Department changed the way it transports prisoners.
But Ricky Joe Childers II, now 33, one of the detective’s sons, still feels the pain.
“My children were cheated out of not seeing their grandfather,” said Childers, of Lake Panasoffkee. “I have an hour’s drive to work every day. I’ll spend time thinking about what went wrong for that to happen.”
Lives Converge Over Boy’s Shooting
A convicted felon, Carr, 30, shared an apartment at 709 1/2 E. Crenshaw St. with his girlfriend, Bernice Bowen, and her two children, Joey and his sister, then 5. He kept several weapons including two SKS assault rifles.
That day, about 9:50 a.m., Carr and Bowen drove Joey to a Tampa fire station at Nebraska Avenue and Hanna Street. The boy had been shot in the head. Paramedics pronounced him dead and called police. A sergeant sent Childers and another detective to the scene.
Carr was wanted on a marijuana trafficking charge from Ohio, but at that moment, Tampa police didn’t know who he was. He called himself Joseph Bennett, the name of the children’s biological father, and he called Bowen his wife.
Bowen perpetuated that façade. “He told me to tell everybody his name was Joseph Bennett,” she later said in a transcript related to the case.
May 19 was supposed to have been the last day Childers and Bell worked together for a while. Bell, 44, had been transferred to Internal Affairs. Childers, 46, and his wife had a vacation in Key West planned.
“I can still close my eyes and picture it,” said Vickie Metzler, who was Childers’ wife. “I was cleaning up some breakfast things, and he kissed me on the cheek. We said, ‘I love you.'”
Bell was excited about his new assignment – and about finding “a treasure trove of Beanie Babies” at a card store near police headquarters, Stout said. One of Bell’s daughters collected the toys, and he bought a bunch that morning.
Missing A Date With Death
At the fire station, Carr ran once he heard the toddler was dead. He darted across the street right in front of the green sedan as Childers pulled up. Childers brought him to headquarters in handcuffs. He seated Carr next to Stout’s desk and went to the men’s room.
Carr was “very friendly, very talkative,” Stout said. He spoke about running to check on his “daughter” and said the shooting of his “son” was an accident.
“I don’t think anybody anticipated what he was capable of doing,” Stout said.
McNamara said Carr’s duplicity fooled them. “Here’s a guy who says, ‘I didn’t shoot my son.’ We’re thinking we’re dealing with a grieving father, and we’re dealing with the Devil.”
Stout said Childers asked him to join the interview with Carr, but he declined because he had another one scheduled. So Bell took part instead.
On tape, Carr told the detectives Joey had been dragging an assault rifle by the barrel and the gun fired when Carr grabbed it to take it away. The detectives decided to drive Carr back to the apartment where the family lived and have him walk them through the chain of events.
“That was the last time I saw them alive,” Stout said.
Carnage In A Green Sedan
Documents from the case state that the blood spatter in the apartment wasn’t consistent with Carr’s story. “They started calling me a liar,” Carr would say later in a live radio interview aired while he held his hostage.
Childers and Bell confiscated one of the SKS rifles and placed Carr, his hands cuffed in front of him, into the back of the green sedan for the ride back to headquarters. They didn’t know he wore a handcuff key on a chain around his neck, or that he often said he would rather die than return to prison.
Childers was driving. Using the key, Carr slipped out of the handcuffs, reached up front and shot the detective with his own 9mm handgun. Then he shot Bell. “I shot them both in the face,” Carr said in the radio interview. “I had to shoot one twice because I shot him and he was still trying to get the gun so I shot him again.”
The sedan stopped on the Floribraska exit ramp. There, the gunman carjacked an auto-parts truck and, with the rifle, headed north.
Stout, out of the office, heard on police radio that two people had been shot in a carjacking. He was the first Tampa police detective to arrive at the scene. When he saw the sedan, he recalled, “I thought, ‘Rick Childers beat me to this.'”
Metzler, Childers’ wife, was working as information systems manager at the Tampa Police Department and remembered supervisors calling her upstairs about 2 p.m.
“Something didn’t feel right,” she said. “They said Ricky was out on an investigation and he’s been shot and he didn’t make it. Suddenly, the bottom dropped out.”
Scrambling To Stop The Killing
With emotions swirling, detectives swung into high gear. Stout interviewed the carjacked man and put out an alert about the truck.
Others focused on Bowen, the girlfriend.
Unable to find booking photos of Bennett, police wanted any names the gunman might use. Police and court records related to the case say Bowen continued to say her boyfriend’s name was Joseph Bennett.
Shortly before 2:30 p.m., a Florida Highway Patrol trooper stopped at Floribraska Avenue to report other troopers had spotted the truck on Interstate 75 in Pasco County.
Crooks, 23, a trooper on the job just eight months, pulled up in traffic behind Carr on the exit ramp for State Road 54.
Timothy Bain, now 30 and living in Sarasota, was a University of South Florida student driving to a job at the Saddlebrook Resort that afternoon. Bain said he saw Carr pop out of the truck and raise a gun.
“I ducked down,” Bain recalled. “I was just praying I wasn’t going to get shot.”
Bain said he heard gunfire, then glass shattering. He peeked over the dashboard to see another motorist try to run over Carr. Carr climbed back into the truck and drove away.
The trooper’s car began rolling down the exit ramp. Bain said he ran after it, reaching inside to apply the brake. The trooper had been shot in the head.
“It was obvious he was beyond saving,” Bain said.
An Audience Before Dying
Speeding through Pasco County, Carr exchanged gunfire with Pasco deputies and shot a truck driver in the shoulder. He barreled into Hernando County and fired through a floorboard of a sheriff’s helicopter before being wounded in the buttocks.
About 3 p.m., Carr pulled into a gas station just off Interstate 75 on State Road 50 and scrambled inside for refuge. He took 27-year-old clerk Stephanie Kramer hostage.
“You know what he’s done already,” said Hernando County Sheriff Richard Nugent, who at the time supervised the negotiators at the scene. “We’re not going to let him leave.”
Tactical officers and snipers surrounded the station. So did officers from Tampa, Pasco and the highway patrol, along with news crews from the Bay Area and Orlando.
“We had the news helicopters overhead with our helicopter,” Nugent recalled. “We had to call down to the TV stations to quit showing our SWAT team live.”
The negotiators had no mobile command post and set up at a nearby hotel, Nugent said. As they worked with the phone company to limit Carr’s phone access, WFLA, 970 AM, dialed into the gas station for an on-air interview.
The station’s news director asked Carr to describe what had happened and urged him to release Kramer. “Not until I hear from my wife,” Carr said in a transcript.
Police flew Bowen in a helicopter to speak to Carr – a gamble Nugent said they had to take. “You don’t know what they’re going to say, but our options were limited.”
Carr released Kramer unharmed at 7:20 p.m. Before sending her out, he gave her the handcuff key to give to Bowen, along with letters for his mother and the children.
Then he shot himself in the head.
Dealing With A Decade Of Pain
Detectives Childers and Bell are buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery. The year after they died, Tampa police issued a policy requiring all prisoners to be handcuffed behind their backs and to be transported in a patrol car with a screen separating the front and back seats or with an officer beside them.
“Hopefully, that will prevent this from happening again,” said Metzler, who in 2006 married a retired Tampa police officer.
Bell’s widow also remarried and moved out of state. The detectives’ children are rearing children of their own.
“I don’t cry often because I think he’s in a better place,” said Demetra Jones, 33, of Fort Myers, one of Bell’s daughters. “He was doing what he loved to do, and he died a hero.”
Bowen is housed in the Homestead Correctional Facility in Florida City, serving a 21-year sentence for being an accessory. She is scheduled for release in 2017.
Stout is president of the union representing Tampa police. Bain, who stopped the slain trooper’s car, has become a Sarasota police K9 officer.
“It was so horrible, so inhuman, the events that took place,” Bain said. “I felt so helpless at the time, and I never wanted to feel that way again.”
Some of those who lived through that day will cope today by remembering the lives lost.
McNamara planned to take the day off to visit the cemetery. Metzler said she and her husband will, too. They will bring fresh flowers.
“My advice to people is, live today like it’s your last, and treasure moments. It’s not the material things that matter,” she said. “In my heart, I treasure moments.”
Information from the Tribune archives was used in this report.
Reporter Valerie Kalfrin can be reached at (813) 259-7800 or [email protected]