BROOKSVILLE — Authorities charged a 17-year-old high school student Tuesday with third-degree murder for the February crash that killed a Hernando County sheriff's captain who seemed likely to lead the agency one day.
Andrew Frank Morris collided head-on with Capt. Scott Bierwiler in the early morning hours Feb. 19 along an empty two-lane road south of Brooksville. Bierwiler died instantly.
Morris, a Nature Coast Technical High student who was charged as an adult, surrendered to a Florida Highway Patrol trooper shortly after noon, walking with crutches and a back brace from his Weeki Wachee home, said his attorney, Robert Whittel of Spring Hill.
Morris also faces a count of grand theft, according to an arrest warrant that his attorney called "a bit of an overreach."
He returned home after posting a $15,000 bond at the Hernando County jail about 3 p.m.
Assistant State Attorney Peter Magrino said the case amounts to a "tragic set of circumstances that resulted in the tragic death of a career law enforcement officer."
The collision occurred at 5:45 a.m. on Powell Road. About midnight, Morris, then 16, took his mother's sport utility vehicle without permission.
Bierwiler, 42, a father of three and 22-year veteran, left for work two hours early that morning, kissing his wife as he left their Spring Hill home.
The violent wreck woke nearby homeowners and ripped apart the two vehicles.
Morris suffered two broken legs, a number of broken ribs and three broken vertebrae — among other injuries — that required extensive surgical reconstruction at a Tampa hospital, his attorney said.
In his first statement about the wreck, arrest reports indicate that Morris admitted taking the 2002 Mitsubishi Montero without his parents' consent. He told investigators he couldn't recall the crash and "was very sorry for what had occurred."
The reports leave unanswered some details surrounding the incident. The prosecutor said he could not immediately disclose why Morris took the car, where he was going or his mental state at the time of the wreck.
The wreck shook the local law enforcement community, which saw Bierwiler as a likely successor to Sheriff Richard Nugent.
Bierwiler's family released a statement late Tuesday, saying it is "grateful for the time and effort that the law enforcement agencies and State Attorney's Office have put into the investigation. The legal system will take its course, and whatever decision is made at the conclusion of the criminal proceedings, the family will support."
Both attorneys acknowledged a difficult reality about the case against Morris: It is predicated upon the statements of his parents, Andrew and George Lyle.
They reported their SUV stolen minutes before the collision. In sworn statements a day later, they said their son didn't have permission to take the vehicle.
This provided the justification for the grand theft charge and also the murder charge. A third-degree murder is a death committed in the commission of another felony, an elevated charge from vehicular homicide, which involves a death in the course of reckless driving.
Whittel, who spoke for the Lyle family, said the parents didn't want to press charges for the theft, but the prosecutor went forward. "We think it is very unfortunate," Whittel said. "It tears the family apart to think they are charging him on actions which they planned to discipline him for at home."
The charges carry a maximum 20 years in prison. Whittel said his client's injuries suggest Morris has already "suffered a severe punishment himself."
The prosecutor acknowledged the family is traumatized. But Magrino stood his ground. "The death of a law enforcement officer when he's just doing his job," said Magrino, a former cop, "… to me, that is the most important case there is."
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6114.