LARGO — The Pasco-Pinellas state attorney cleared a Largo police officer who fatally shot a 30-year-old man last month.
The letter from State Attorney Bernie McCabe said Officer Matthew Steiner was "in imminent fear for his life" during the March 23 encounter and ruled the death of Linus Phillip a justifiable homicide. McCabe also wrote the initial contact with Phillip, which sprouted from heavy window tint on the car he was driving, was reasonable.
Largo police also released two surveillance videos Wednesday. They do not show the shooting but appear to match some of the account given by police.
The footage, from cameras at the Wawa gas station where the shooting occurred, show a man approaching the driver’s side of a black sedan parked at a pump. The car soon accelerates in reverse with its driver’s side door open and turns sharply.
A man can be seen getting up from the ground and running with another man toward the car as it slams backward into a pole, then inches forward into a vehicle parked at another pump. Police said Phillip tried to drive away with Steiner halfway in the car, which led the officer to fire his gun.
McCabe’s letter builds on the account provided by police with a few more details:
Steiner spotted the car Phillip was driving, a black Nissan Altima, and thought the window tint was illegal. The tag showed it was a rental.
Steiner wasn’t sure if he had probable cause to stop the car, so he followed the car into the Wawa at 1215 Missouri Ave. N. He approached Phillip and asked for the rental agreement.
Steiner smelled marijuana coming from Phillip and the car. He asked Phillip why it smelled that way. Phillip said that it didn’t and that the officer could search the car. Steiner said he was going to search Phillip first, and Phillip grabbed two bulges in his gym shorts pockets.
Phillip then jumped back into the vehicle. Steiner, caught between the gas pump and the open driver’s side door, hopped halfway into the car with him. Phillip put it in reverse as Steiner yelled for him to stop.
Steiner pulled his gun, "thinking that that would get Phillip’s attention to stop the vehicle," the letter says. The Altima accelerated in reverse. Officer Prentice Ables, who was also at the scene and had moved out of the way, spotted Steiner hanging out of the car, about to get pulled underneath. Steiner fired his gun four times. Two bullets entered the left side of Phillip’s back, one his left arm, and the fourth grazed his left leg. Steiner fell out as the car rounded two gas pumps backward.
Police later found about 0.2 ounces each of marijuana and crack cocaine, about 0.4 ounces of powdered cocaine, an unspecified amount of hydromorphone pills and $1,632 in cash in Phillip’s pockets. That differed from the initial account from police, who said the drugs and cash were found inside the Altima. Victoria Armstrong, who dated Phillip and is raising their son, said: "There’s so many parts of the case that still aren’t adding up," she said. "I just want the truth."