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'Person of interest' in agent's killing in custody

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Manhunt under way for Fla. officer's killer

By Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Ani Martinez and Adam H. Beasley
The Miami Herald

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. — A man described as ''a person of interest'' in the slaying of a federal agent was taken into custody Wednesday afternoon at a Davie shopping center.

SWAT team members and dozens of police officers with weapons drawn surrounded the shopping center near State Road 84 and Hiatus Road about 2 p.m. Ambulances were also on the scene with gurneys, but it was not clear whether anyone was injured.

The drama unfolded outside of the plaza, which houses a school uniform store, a gymnastics school and a Pinch-A-Penny.

Police were led to the shopping center after receiving an anonymous tip by phone, said Pembroke Pines police Sgt. Bryan Davis.

''It ended up being a promising tip,'' he said.

Just before 3 p.m., police took a man into custody. He is believed to have been inside the Universal Kidney Center of Davie. His name was not released.

The massive manhunt was to find the man who killed Don Pettit, an off-duty federal agent, Tuesday morning outside of a Pembroke Pines post office at Dykes Road and Pines Boulevard. Pettit's 12-year-daughter witnessed the shooting.

Earlier Wednesday, Pettit's widow, Ileana, pleaded with the public for help in finding her husband's killer.

''We need to find this dangerous man,'' a sobbing Ileana Pettit said Wednesday during a news conference in Pembroke Pines. ``We need to find him before he kills another innocent person.''

Ileana Pettit wept as she talked about how her daughter had watched her husband's slaying and how both her daughters cried all night. The family planned a large birthday party on Wednesday for her other daughter's 15th birthday.

Police are frantically hunting for his killer, who is described as six feet tall and in his 50s with a full head of slicked-back, gray hair and ''saggy'' cheeks, wearing a short-sleeved, plaid green shirt. He was also described as possibly being Hispanic with a dark complexion. The gunman drove off in a green or gray Chrysler 300.

Throughout the morning Wednesday, drivers in western Broward County -- from Miramar to Weston -- were stopped by police officers searching for clues in Pettit's murder. Some drivers were even asked to exit their cars, while police searched inside and in their trunks.

An area of Pembroke Pines, near Pines Boulevard and 208th Avenue, was shut down for a time Wednesday afternoon by police. Helicopters hovered overhead. A nearby school, West Broward High, was put on lockdown for employees and any parents and students who were visiting the campus.

The area has since been cleared.

Hundreds of local, state and federal law enforcement officers are assisting in the widespread manhunt for the shooter and his car.

Millie Puldon, 40, of Miramar, said she had never seen such a swarm of police activity in her neighborhood.

As she left home Wednesday morning, she saw dozens of officers pulling over cars, talking to drivers and showing them a sketch of the shooter.

''They're on it,'' she said. ``And they're not going to let it go.''

Cars matching the description were stopped throughout the night and will continue to be until the killer is caught.

Postal carriers are handing out fliers with a sketch of the suspect, a picture of a similar car and notice of a $275,000 reward during their deliveries Wednesday.

Carlos Baixauli, a senior special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, acknowledged Wednesday morning that the next 24 hours were critical in finding the shooter.

Complicating the search is how common the car the gunman was driving is in South Florida.

''It's a large task, but it's something that can be done and has been done in the past,'' he said. ``We don't look at how big it is. We just do it.''

Pettit was a retired soldier who survived a long military career, including a terrorist bombing in Bangkok.

Pettit spent a lifetime in government and military service -- including a stint protecting former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.

Authorities would not confirm what preceded the shooting, but federal sources close to the investigation said an argument started between Pettit and a motorist while they were driving on Pines Boulevard near the post office.

Both drivers ended up pulling into the parking lot of the South Florida Mail Processing Center on Pines Boulevard and Dykes Road, where they confronted each other, the sources said. The post office has a complicated entrance, one that forces drivers to make a U-turn from southbound Dykes Road.

Pettit, a polygrapher with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was unarmed; his gun was found in his car.

Anyone with information should call Broward Crime Stoppers at 954-493-8477 or go online at www.browardcrimestoppers.org. A $275,000 reward was announced for tips leading to the suspect's arrest.

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