01/09/2008

Slain Miami police officer may have stumbled onto gunfight

By Andrew Tran, Joel Marino and Mike Clary
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Related: Suspect arrested in murder of Miami officer

MIAMI, Fla. — The off-duty Miami detective gunned down presumably with a high-powered assault rifle early Tuesday may have been slain after he unwittingly drove into a crime in progress in a neighborhood that has been plagued by violence in recent years, according to police.

The death of James Walker, 30, sent police into yet another intensive manhunt for a cop killer after his body was discovered in his unmarked patrol car in a North Miami Beach alley Tuesday morning just after midnight.

He was struck by multiple bullets, presumably fired from an AK-47 assault rifle found nearby, police said.

"It's not clear how it went down, but it may be that he stumbled on a gunfight in progress," said Miami Police Chief John Timoney, who cut shot a vacation in upstate New York to fly back to Miami when informed of the slaying.

Timoney said late Tuesday that no arrests had been made. "It's a pretty complex investigation," he said. "We got some leads and we're working them very hard."

Timoney said the FBI had joined the investigation.

Among several people being questioned late Tuesday was a man found in the area with a bullet wound to his arm.

Timoney called him "a person of interest."

Police asked for the public's help in finding a white Ford Taurus, model year between 2001 and 2007, with tinted windows, right rear damage and possible bullet holes.

Walker was also driving a white Ford Taurus, said police, who followed blood trails leading from the car.

Timoney visited Walker's parents at their home in Allapattah Tuesday afternoon.

"We're going to beat all the bushes, look under every rock," Lt. Bill Schwartz said. "The message has to get out that you don't get away with killing a cop."

Walker, a Broward County resident, assigned to work domestic violence cases, had finished his shift at 11 p.m. and may have been in the area to visit his ex-wife, police said. His body was found in an alley by North Miami Beach officers responding to reports of shots fired about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday near Northeast 164th Street and 18th Avenue, Schwartz said.

Some of the officers who set up a perimeter around the scene were visibly shaken. At Miami police headquarters, uniformed officers slipped black bands of mourning over their badges.

"When something like this happens, you realize they are not just officers," said officer Martha Carbana. "They are family, brothers and sisters, the people you spend a whole career with."

When Walker's fellow officers gathered for the 3:30 p.m. roll call Tuesday, several spoke of the "compassionate, soft-spoken" man who began work with the department as a public service aide.

"There was not a dry eye in the room," said officer Delrish Moss.

Walker is the fourth South Florida law enforcement officer to be shot and killed in the past six months. A Miami-Dade police officer was fatally wounded in a shootout with a suspect in September. One Broward Sheriff's deputy was fatally shot in August outside a 24-hour drugstore as he checked vehicle license plates in search of stolen cars. Another was shot with his service weapon in November while transporting an inmate to court.

Later Tuesday, Miami motorcycle officer Victor Ramos, 45, was injured when he was struck by a car as he was escorting Walker's body to the medical examiner's office. Ramos had stopped his 2008 Harley-Davidson at the bottom of the 125th Street entrance ramp to Interstate 95 to block traffic when he was hit. He was hospitalized with leg injuries.

Dalia Nagneen, who lives nearby, was struggling to fall asleep when she heard shots ring out at 12:30 a.m. She counted six rapid shots, followed by a pause and then four more shots, coming from behind her apartment on the 1700 block of Northeast 164th Street, she said.

Getting out of bed, Nagneen said she looked out her second-story window and saw two unarmed men run across Hanford Boulevard. Minutes later, four more shots rang out, followed by three, she said.

A man carrying a large rifle started to run across the street, then reversed direction when he spotted search helicopters, she said. Retreating, he struck two parked cars with the butt of his rifle, Nagneen said.

"I'm really scared," said the mother of two. "It was so close. That room, my children are sleeping there."

Lebi Fuller, 29, standing at the edge of the police perimeter Tuesday morning with his arms crossed, said he grew up with Walker and attended Allapattah Middle School and Miami's Jackson Senior High with him.

"He's always been a quiet person, never bothered anyone," he said. "It's sad, a good person gone again." Walker became a Miami police officer in 2000 and had several commendations in his personnel file, including one for nabbing a fleeing purse-snatcher four months ago.

Moss, who worked with Walker in Overtown years ago, described him as "a nice, quiet guy. He seemed to love the profession and was very meticulous. On domestic disputes, he had a knack for calming people down."

Speaking for Walker's family at the Allapattah house, the Rev. Raymond Carvil Sr. said a public memorial service for Walker would be held Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. at Jordan Grove Missionary Baptist Church, 5946 Northwest 12th Ave. in Miami. Funeral services are set for the same church at noon Saturday.

Staff Writer Sofia Santana and Staff Researchers William Lucey and Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Copyright 2008 The Sun-Sentinel

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