More than 500 police officers used night-vision scopes and tracking dogs early Friday to search through thick woods and rural neighborhoods for a man who shot two sheriff's deputies, killing one of them.
Deputy Vernon Matthew Williams was killed in a burst of gunfire Thursday as he pursued the suspect, who had fled from a traffic stop, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said. The gunman remained on the loose Friday.
"We can literally walk by him, close enough to touch him and not see him" because the woods are so dense, Judd said during a Friday morning news conference.
Judd said the man was from Miami and stressed officials were confident he was involved in drug dealing because they had spoken with several of his associates. Even so, they had not been able to determine his real name as he used several aliases.
But the gunman's face was identified by Deputy Douglas Speirs, who made the initial traffic stop and was shot in the leg moments after Williams was killed. Williams, 39, probably died instantly, Judd said.
"He was shot multiple times. I don't believe he felt a thing," he said.
Speirs, also 39, was treated for a gunshot wound to the leg and released Thursday evening, Judd said.
Speirs had stopped the gunman for speeding in north Lakeland near Interstate 4 shortly before noon and became suspicious of the man's identification. The gunman got nervous and bolted into the woods, Judd said.
Speirs pursued him and called for backup. Williams arrived and they began working their way into the woods, Judd said.
As the officers tracked him, there was a "burst of gunfire" that is believed to have killed Williams and his police dog, Diogi, Judd said.
Speirs returned fire and was shot.
The suspect later exchanged gunfire with a Lakeland police detective who was at a home warning residents to stay inside. No one was hit.
"We won't rest," Judd said of the manhunt. "We are prepared for a gunfight if he wants a gunfight. Or we're prepared to take him in peaceably if he has any sense at all."
A $40,000 (Ђ31,464) reward was being offered for information leading to the gunman's arrest.
Officers arrived en masse from counties across the state to assist in the manhunt. Some officers drove for several hours to get to the scene in central Florida, about 35 miles east of Tampa, reports AP.
Judd said 10,000 to 15,000 people live in the area cordoned off for the manhunt. Officers went house to house Thursday in some areas asking people to lock themselves inside. Three schools were locked down for several hours. Two of them were closed Friday so officers could continue to search the area.
Williams had been with the sheriff's office since April 1994. He had a wife, who turned 40 on Thursday, and three children.