PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla - It was a Sunday night in February, 1993.
Palm Beach County Deputy Vincent Tuzeo parked his patrol cruiser in an intersection on Northlake Boulevard when a burglary suspect leading deputies on a midnight chase suddenly turned around.
“He's not running anymore. He's coming back at me,” Tuzeo recalls in his first interview about the shooting since it happened 22 years ago.
"I kept thinking this guy is trying to kill us. All I can think of in my mind is 'I have to stop this truck. I have to stop this truck.' "
Tuzeo fired 16 shots.
"I don't remember firing 16 shots. I had no idea, no idea that I had expired every round in my firearm," he told the Contact 5 Investigators and The Palm Beach Post. For the past two years, the news-gathering partners have embarked on an unprecedented journey to track every officer-involved shooting since 2000 and study how the shooting was investigated.
Among other findings, our investigation confirmed what many in the community have been saying for years: PBSO is quick to defend deputies and justify shootings before an investigation is done.
Deputy Vincent Tuzeo is the last Palm Beach County deputy to face criminal charges for an on-duty shooting. He was charged in 1993.
At the time of the shooting, Deputy Tuzeo had no idea that one of the 16 shots he fired struck William Dawson in the head, and that Dawson was legally drunk at the time, high on cocaine, unarmed and a 32-year-old father to a 5-year-old.
"I can't even explain the feeling. You walk up to the truck, the driver is there, he's on the floor and you know that you did that. And now you're feeling sorry, now you're feeling sad," he said.
Twenty-two years later, Tuzeo is still living with the weight of killing a man.
"I think it’s important for people to understand that police officers don't want to shoot their guns at people. That's not what we become police officers for.”
The Contact 5 Investigators asked Tuzeo if he regretted his decision to shoot.
“No I can't regret it,” he said. “Am I sorry, of course. Who wouldn't be sorry for taking somebody's life? You can't not be sorry," he said.
Shortly after the shooting, PBSO’s internal investigators cleared Tuzeo of any wrongdoing in the shooting. But, then-State Attorney Barry Krischer, a former union cop lawyer who was just elected as State Attorney, disagreed.
"We unanimously feel that it was not a good shoot," Krischer said during a news conference about a month after the shooting.
At the time, Tuzeo, a 27-year-old teacher turned cop, was arrested and put on trial.
Despite a jury finding him not guilty of the charge of unnecessary killing to prevent an unlawful act, Tuzeo couldn't escape the headline-fueled guilt of being the officer who pulled the trigger.
"I always still felt like I had that shadow hanging over my head. That I was that guy who did that shooting.”
His marriage ended. He moved south where's he's been with the Miami Beach Police Department for nearly two decades. He says he’s older and wiser. After years patrolling the streets of Miami Beach, now Tuzeo is the department’s tech guy.
"You start to see things that way when you experience a situation like I went through because now that burglar isn't just a burglar with a white striped shirt and a mask. That burglar is now a person who has a problem."
William Dawson came into Vince Tuzeo's life during an overnight shift in 1993 and never left.
"I hope that my message gets to the family that I am sorry. I want them to understand that it was an unfortunate situation and something I hope that they can forgive me for," Tuzeo said.
"An animal didn't take her daddy. An animal didn't take somebody's son.”
In a statement to the Contact 5 Investigators a family representative for William Dawson's wife and daughter stated, "despite what happened in our case, we have the greatest respect for the men and women in law enforcement. For the most part, they do a great job. But we also have to remember, we are arming them with deadly weapons, and the power to use them. Anytime an officer uses deadly force, especially when it involves the shooting of an unarmed person, they should be held to a much higher standard of accountability.
Your report raised the question of forgiveness. That’s a difficult question. The best answer I can give is this. It’s not our place to forgive. That’s between God and Mr. Tuzeo. Our task is acceptance. We’ve accepted what happened and moved on."
After Vincent Tuzeo was acquitted, the Dawson family won a civil suit against the Palm Beach County Sheriff's office for wrongful death.