No disciplinary action will be taken against a Panama City Beach police officer who shot a teenager who allegedly tried to rob him. Officer Noel Howard, who was off duty at the time of the Friday night incident, has been cleared to return to work Tuesday.
The case was prompted by an ad offering a computer for sale on the Craigslist website. Howard was curious as to whether it was the laptop recently stolen from a friend. "He probably did what most of us would have done, trying to track down something that belonged to a friend or a relative," said Chief Drew Whitman of the Panama City Beach Police Department.
According to the Bay County Sheriff's Office, Howard offered to meet the seller in the Walmart parking lot but agreed to a rendezvous at the Callaway Chase Town Homes on State Highway 22 when the seller said he did not have transportation.
"He was going to see if that was the same computer and check the serial number," said Major Tommy Ford of the Bay County Sheriff's Office. "He indicated that had it been the same computer that he would have called 911."
It was dark – just before 10 p.m. – and Howard felt a sense of unease after arriving at the apartment complex, said Major Ford. "There was something that was posted on the door of the apartment that just made him feel like 'hey, this is an abandoned apartment and this is not looking good,'" said Ford.
As Howard prepared to leave, he was approached by a male wearing jeans and a hooded jacket. Investigators identified him as Antwan Bolware, 18, of Panama City.
"Bolware opened the door, pointed a pistol in his face and that's when the struggle ensued," said Ford. "Bolware ran and then attempted to come back and that's when the shots were fired."
Ford said investigators found seven shell casings, all apparently fired by Howard using his Taurus 9mm handgun. Bolware did not fire any shots, said Ford.
As the robber fled the scene, Howard called 911. Bolware showed up at Bay Medical Center's emergency room an hour later, seeking treatment for gunshot wounds to both legs.
Ford said deputies located Bolware's vehicle in the parking lot, obtained a search warrant, and discovered the jacket and handgun Howard described during questioning. Bolware was charged with attempted armed robbery after Howard picked him out of a photo lineup.
Chief Whitman met with his officer Monday afternoon. "We had him on administrative leave today to see what the outcome of the shooting was going to be," said Whitman. "After talking to the sheriff's office I cleared him... he will be able to come back to work tomorrow."
Ford said state law allows law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons while off duty. Panama City Beach police department policy also allows it.
Both Whitman and Ford downplayed Howard's efforts to locate the stolen computer. "I don't know that I would recommend that for a citizen to go try to find stolen property like that [but] it is not illegal for him to do that," said Ford.
Chief Whitman said Howard was the victim in the case and he's concerned with the well-being of his officer. "I feel sorry for him, it's something he's going to have to live with," he said. "Any time you have to use force against someone it stays in the back of your mind."
As for the laptop computer, Major Ford isn't sure it ever existed. "Sometimes when you deal with this type of situation there is no property to buy," he said. "They're simply luring an unsuspecting victim into an area so they can rob them of the money that the victim may have brought."
Ford said buyers and sellers through online services should always meet in public places and should never go alone.