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May 26, 2006
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Tampa officer's life likely saved by bulletproof vest

MITCH STACY
The Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. - A bulletproof vest likely saved the life of a police officer who was shot in the chest by a man during a traffic stop early Friday, authorities said.

The suspect was fatally shot by three other officers a half hour later.

Officer James Wilkinson, 25, walked out of a Tampa hospital later Friday with just a superficial chest wound after being shot at close range by a motorist with a .357-caliber handgun.

"Thank God he was wearing that vest," police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "A .357 is a very powerful bullet and the vest was able to slow down the bullet."

McElroy said Tomas Montesdeoca, 51, fired at Wilkinson from his Ford pickup truck as the officer approached the vehicle at about 1:30 a.m. Montesdeoca then drove away.

The bullet pierced Wilkinson's shirt, a spiral note pad and the vest before lodging in the fleshy part of his chest, McElroy said. Wilkinson managed to radio for help, and a woman who witnessed the shooting tended to him until authorities arrived.

Shortly after 2 a.m., three other officers spotted Montesdeoca pulling into a gas station. As they approached the truck, he raised his gun and all three fired at him, McElroy said. He was dead at the scene.

The officers who killed Montesdeoca, including married couple Sgt. Debra Hutches and Cpl. Wayne Hutches, were put on paid leave pending an investigation.

Montesdeoca was arrested last year on grand theft, battery, and false imprisonment charges, jail records said. Florida Department of Corrections records show Montesdeoca was serving three years probation. Police didn't know why he fired at Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, a 2 1/2-year veteran of the force, left Tampa General Hospital surrounded by fellow officers. McElroy said he was too shaken up to talk to reporters.

"Any time an officer can go home safely to their family after an event like that is a good thing," said Michael Fox, spokesman for Second Chance Armor Inc., the Central Lake, Mich., company that manufactured Wilkinson's vest.

Fox said Second Chance armor has been credited with saving the lives of more than 900 people who were shot, stabbed or otherwise assaulted. Police organizations say around 3,000 lives have been saved by body armor of all types.

Second Chance previously was the nation's top producer of soft, concealable body armor for police, with more than $50 million in annual sales.

But the company was hit with more than a dozen lawsuits and recalled some vests in 2003 after questions arose about the durability of a Japanese-made synthetic fiber called Zylon with which the vests were made.

 

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