'Wild' car theft suspect shot by Polk deputy after claiming to be armed with gun, sheriff says

A Mulberry man went on a violent crime spree that ended with him being shot several times by a Polk County deputies, the sheriff said, adding that he "chose to be shot."

Sheriff Grady Judd said the 27-year-old suspect and an accomplice stole a vehicle in Lakeland on Monday evening. Deputies later located the vehicle abandoned on Ruby Street. 

Investigators said the Mulberry suspect went to 1500 West Highland, a mobile home community, and made two separate attempts to threaten car owners. 

In the first attempt, "when they refuse to give him the keys, he takes his finger out and says ‘Bang’ and walks off," Sheriff Judd described. Then, he approached a second victim, who also refused to hand over their keys, and the suspect slashed the victim.

The injury was significant enough for emergency surgery at Lakeland Regional Hospital, the sheriff said.

The Mulberry suspect left the mobile home community without a car but later stole a white Lincoln. 

"Between the sheriff's office and the Lakeland Police Department, we are feverishly looking for this wild man," the sheriff explained during a Tuesday press conference, "who has now stolen two vehicles, tried to steal two more vehicles and gashes someone with a knife."

A little after 2 a.m., officials spotted the stolen Lincoln on U.S. 98, south of Lakeland. They said the driver drove behind an unknown person's home and got stuck.

"He says to himself, ‘Self, I got a problem. I can no longer flee in this vehicle,’" Sheriff Judd said, "and he jumps out and he runs."

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The sheriff's office aviation unit was monitoring the suspect, and notified one of the units – a deputy who was by himself. Judd said the deputy has four years of experience, one with the sheriff's office and three with the Bartow Police Department. 

The deputy chases the suspect, the sheriff described, "through backyards in the pitch dark all alone."

He said the suspect began screaming at the deputy, "I’ve got a gun. I’ve got a gun. I’ve got a gun."

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"When you tell us you got a gun, we’re going to take you for your word," the sheriff said, adding that the suspect pulled an item from his jacket. "At that point in time the deputy starts shooting, and he shoots seven times."

The suspect was taken to Lakeland Regional Hospital and is expected to be OK. The sheriff said the item he pulled out was a cell phone.

"When he spins around with that black object in his hand…that’s when he got shot," Judd said. "Once again this shows the dangers that deputies faced every day. It shows how our deputy did what he should have done in that moment in time in order to protect himself. I am pleased that the deputy is alive and well."

The second suspect involved in the initial car burglary has yet to be located.