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Cleared, but still burdened after split-second decision to fire fatal road-rage shot

TAMPA — Before dawn on a humid morning last August, Rob Padgett turned his Ford Expedition onto East Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just as a single headlight suddenly appeared in his rearview mirror.

The vehicle closed on him fast. Padgett figured the driver would pass him. And he did, but not in the way Padgett expected.

A battered, dark-colored pickup truck tore through the grassy shoulder on his right, cut back into the lane and skidded to a halt. Padgett slammed on his brakes to avoid a collision.

Seconds later, the pickup driver appeared in the glow of Padgett's headlights — a burly, bald man shouting threats and waving his arms as he walked toward the SUV.

Hillsborough County Sheriff

Handout photos provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that shows the scene where Robert Padgett shot and killed Gary Durham during a road rage incident on E. Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd. near Forbes Road in August. Durham cut off Padgett, stopped his small pickup truck blocking Padgett from passing and got out of his vehicle. Durham then approached Padgett's Ford SUV yelling and making threatening remarks. Padgett shot Durham once at close range in the chest. No charges were filed against Padgett.

Padgett, a 42-year-old father of four on his way to work in Zephyrhills, grabbed his handgun from a cupholder in the door panel. He warned the stranger he was armed and told him to get back in his truck.

Padgett didn't know that the angry driver was Gary Lynn Durham, a 40-year-old lawn care worker who had served prison time for killing a man in an earlier fit of road rage.

But he knew he felt threatened.

"The only thing I was thinking was he wants to kill me and I really love my wife, so I've got to get home."

The man was almost to Padgett's window.

He had to make a decision.

•••

Padgett was 10 the first time he fired a handgun. He was taught by his father, a sheriff's deputy in the Savannah, Ga., area.

"He believed if you take away the curiosity, then you take away a lot of the danger," Padgett said earlier this month as he and wife Brenda sat at the dining room table of their Valrico home.

It was Padgett's first interview since the road rage incident. A light hanging above the table made his ice-blue eyes glimmer. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut close, his goatee neatly trimmed.

Padgett got his concealed carry permit after serving nearly three years in the U.S. Army. He didn't have to shoot anyone while in the service, and, after he got his permit, he didn't expect to use his gun in altercation.

At 6-foot, 265 pounds, Padgett could hold his own in a fight but always tried to talk his way out of trouble. He had considered scenarios where he might not be able to. Maybe he'd walk in on an armed robbery, or happen upon someone in danger.

Hillsborough County Sheriff

Handout photos provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that shows the scene where Robert Padgett shot and killed Gary Durham during a road rage incident on E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. near Forbes Road in August. Durham cut off Padgett, stopped his small pickup truck blocking Padgett from passing and got out of his vehicle. Durham then approached Padgett's Ford SUV yelling and making threatening remarks. Padgett shot Durham once at close range in the chest. No charges were filed against Padgett.

Padgett also assumed he might have to fire in less than ideal conditions, so he used quarters to draw circles on a target and tried to hit the mark by firing with his non-dominant left hand.

Spending time at the gun range was a way to decompress from the week and bond with his sons, now 16 and 19. He told them carrying a gun was a responsibility and, in a way, a burden.

"You're carrying an obligation to be the last person to respond. You have to always be thinking about confrontations and situations, and it's exhausting. Sometimes I would rather not carry in some ways because I don't want to have to think about it."

But the desire to be prepared outweighed that burden.

On the morning of Aug. 10, his Springfield Armory .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol sat in its usual place, in the cup holder on his driver's side door.

•••

Padgett left home a few minutes late that day. It was the first day of school and his youngest son was dragging his feet, but Padgett got him to the bus stop in time.

As he drove north on Forbes Road, Padgett chatted with his stepfather by phone on his Bluetooth headset. Instead of taking his usual Interstate 4 route, he made a last-minute decision to turn onto Dr. King boulevard with plans to stop for coffee in Plant City. It was about 6:25 a.m., half an hour before sunrise.

A former firefighter with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, Padgett works for a construction company, driving an 80-ton truck moving heavy equipment to and from out-of-state job sites. His commercial driver's license is his livelihood so he drives "like an old lady."

The rest of this account is based on Padgett's recollection and the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office investigation report.

When the headlight appeared in his rearview mirror, Padgett eased off the gas pedal to make it easier for the vehicle to pass him. But there were oncoming headlights ahead. A Mazda pickup with a headlight out suddenly appeared on Padgett's right, cut him off and stopped abruptly.

Padgett stood on his brake pedal and nearly slammed into the truck's bumper. With an uneasy feeling, he shifted into reverse and backed up with plans to go around the truck, but headlights appeared in the distance behind him, so he stopped. His driver door handle was less than three car lengths from the driver door handle of the truck.

At the same time, the pickup driver got out and started walking toward him. He was about 5-foot-10 and muscular, wearing an orange long-sleeve shirt, dark-colored pants and work boots.

"He just had this rage on his face," Padgett recalled. "He looked like I had just run over his kid."

I'm going to kick your a--, the man shouted.

Padgett told Durham to get back in his car, but he continued to approach. Padgett warned that he was armed.

I don't give a f --- if you have a gun. I'm going to kick your a--.

Padgett warned him again, then drew his gun with his left hand and pointed it out the driver-side window. He warned Durham he'd shoot.

I'm going to f----- kill you.

He was almost to Padgett's driver-side mirror.

At that moment, Durham appeared to reach toward his waist.

Padgett squeezed the trigger once.

I can't believe you shot me.

Durham staggered backward and fell to the pavement in front of Padgett's Expedition.

Hillsborough County Sheriff

Handout photos provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that shows the scene where Robert Padgett shot and killed Gary Durham during a road rage incident on E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. near Forbes Road in August. Durham cut off Padgett, stopped his small pickup truck blocking Padgett from passing and got out of his vehicle. Durham then approached Padgett's Ford SUV yelling and making threatening remarks. Padgett shot Durham once at close range in the chest. No charges were filed against Padgett.

•••

Padgett was on the phone with his stepfather the whole time.

Oh my God, I just shot this guy, Padgett told him. Call 911.

Padgett called out to Durham: Are you armed? Are you going to hurt me?

No answer.

When he walked over and saw Durham writhing on the ground, blood flowing from a bullet wound in the center of his chest, Padgett called 911, too. He began to sob as he told the dispatcher what happened.

"I had to shoot him! He wouldn't stop!"

He kneeled down and touched the man's neck. No pulse, and he wasn't breathing. He pumped Durham's chest but knew it was too late.

Hillsborough County Sheriff

Handout photos provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office that shows the scene where Robert Padgett shot and killed Gary Durham during a road rage incident on E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Forbes Road in August. Durham cut off Padgett, stopped his small pickup truck blocking Padgett from passing and got out of his vehicle. Durham then approached Padgett's Ford SUV yelling and making threatening remarks. Padgett shot Durham once at close range in the chest. No charges were filed against Padgett.

"Do you think he's beyond help, sir?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yes," he said, weeping.

Padgett remembers leaning against the deputy's patrol car, looking down at his bloody hands and sobbing some more.

"As a firefighter, I was very proud of being a lifesaver," he said. "To have to take that kind of action was so contrary to who I am. I remember just the weight of it starting to settle on me."

Then it was time to answer the detectives' questions.

•••

Sitting in a cramped interview room at the Sheriff's Office on Falkenburg Road, Padgett told detectives he didn't know what set off Durham. The men had no interaction before Durham passed him.

What puzzled him most is why Durham kept coming even after he showed his gun.

"I can't wrap my head around that," he said during the recorded interview, his voice breaking and his face reddening. "All he had to do was go back to his car."

Detectives asked the obvious question: Why not just drive away?

With traffic coming behind him and in front of him, Padgett said, he thought about going around on the right but worried about getting stuck. Once he stopped backing up, his eyes were fixed on the angry, rapidly approaching stranger.

"I just felt stuck and everything unfolded, and escape didn't seem like an option anymore."

Padgett told detectives Durham's brazenness led him to believe he might be armed, too. Then he appeared to reach toward his waistband.

Other motorists drove up on the scene but investigators found no witnesses who saw the shooting. One witness said Padgett looked like "an undercover cop" as he stood behind his door, gun trained on the man on the ground. A school bus driver who passed by remarked how calm Padgett looked at that point.

"I felt the strongest level of fear that I have ever felt in my life, and it triggered something in me to know that this will not end well," Padgett told the Times. "But right when I pulled the trigger, I had a calmness. I had a peace, that I knew I had to that."

Investigators did not find a weapon on or near Durham. But they soon learned that Padgett's account of the man's behavior sounded eerily similar to another road rage incident that left a man dead and sent Durham to prison.

•••

In October 2001, Durham turned in front of motorist Timothy James Gibbs at the intersection of N Armenia and W Linebaugh avenues. Durham followed Gibbs into a parking lot, they got out and argued. Durham punched Gibbs in the face, a Tampa police report said.

Gibbs fell and hit his head on concrete. Durham got back in his car and drove off. Gibbs died days later from a brain hemorrhage and skull fracture.

Durham was convicted of manslaughter in 2002 and served about 10 years in prison. It was his third and longest prison stint, after previous convictions for aggravated assault, grand theft and trafficking in stolen property, state records show. He was released in 2012 and was on probation at the time of his death.

According to the Sheriff's Office report, investigators found a potential clue tucked between the driver's seat and the console — an empty package labeled "super strong incense."

Known as synthetic marijuana or spice, the herbal material has been sprayed with chemicals that behave in ways similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. But it can be 100 times more potent than pot and cause erratic — and sometimes violent — behavior.

A toxicology screening showed only caffeine in Durham's system. The Sheriff's Office did not ask the Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office to screen for synthetic marijuana, which is typically difficult to detect because it contains many compounds, said Dr. Julia Pearson, chief toxicologist with the medical examiner.

Durham's widow, Heather, did not respond to interview requests for this story. In August, she told the Times her husband was a kind, generous man who wasn't defined by his past.

"I don't know what happened this time, who was the aggressor or if both people were at fault," Durham said then. "In my mind it doesn't matter because he died over something stupid. It's not going to bring him back."

Courtesy of Heather Durham

Gary Durham, shown here with wife Heather, was shot to death a in a road rage incident Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016. The couple had been married 18 months.

Detectives told him if he'd gotten out of his SUV, Durham probably would have hurt or killed him, Padgett said. Criminal charges seemed unlikely, but he would have to wait two months for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to decide.

Until then, he lived in a state of uncertainty, wondering if deputies would knock on his door or show up at work to arrest him.

"I think if you're not questioning whether you did the right thing, there's something wrong with you because it should not be natural to take another life. It should make you second-guess everything you've done."

Padgett's account is the rare case that aligns perfectly with Florida's divisive stand your ground law, which states that an individual met with the threat of violence need not retreat before responding with force, said Charles H. Rose III, director of the Center for Excellence in Advocacy at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa.

"It's in that narrow lane where the use of force made common sense, was justified by law and apparently was the only option available," Rose said.

But Padgett could also make a solid argument for traditional self-defense, which does require retreat when possible, Rose said.

The case's lead detective, Edward Remia, declined an interview request. Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober's office declined to comment.

Last month, Ober sent a letter to the Sheriff's Office. The evidence, he wrote, "is insufficient to refute Mr. Padgett's claim that he acted in self-defense when he fatally shot Mr. Durham. No criminal charges shall be filed."

•••

In the weeks that followed, Padgett found himself looking over his shoulder, wondering if someone who knew Durham would come looking for him. His concerns made him decline to be photographed for this report.

Friends and loved ones tried to comfort him by talking about divine intervention, about being placed at that intersection by God to protect others who might have crossed paths with Durham that morning. Padgett said he eventually came to believe that.

But he had nightmares nearly every night. In one, Durham tried to attack him in his sleep. Padgett awoke thrashing at wife Brenda, who had tried to rouse him. He snapped at people and lost his temper over little things.

Taking a life in an act of violence can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder, said Dr. Glenn Currier, professor and chair of psychiatry at the University of South Florida Health Morsani College of Medicine. It's a common cause of the disorder in combat veterans.

Patients experience flashbacks, avoid circumstances that could remind them of the trauma, struggle with anger or grief and feel nervous or jumpy.

"The sooner you get care for something like this, the easier it is to contain," Currier said. "If you don't, it can last a lifetime."

Padgett's wife Brenda, his church pastor and friends who saw combat in the military urged him to seek counseling. But he was embarrassed and afraid to reach out. Then, one night, he had a "meltdown" and asked his wife and sons to leave.

"I didn't trust myself," he said. "It was like I was trapped in an out-of-control robot. I was fighting a lot of demons inside of me and was not myself. I was pretending to be okay. It was terrorizing me, and eventually it was just too much."

Brenda and the couple's sons stayed with their daughter for a few weeks. She said it was one of the best decisions they made.

"He needed his space to be able to feel, to release, and to figure out who he was now because of this situation without having to worry about saying the wrong or doing the wrong thing."

Padgett said his counselor easily identified his PTSD.

"When you shoot someone and see their face and put your hands on them to save their life, it's very personal, and it hurts you," he said.

"I realized I had a choice. I could either let him win from the grave and accomplish what he set out to do that morning, or I could rise above it."

Padgett choked up as he recalled explaining to his kids that some part of him would likely be broken for a long time.

"God reminds me through it that you're okay, you feel that hurt because you're still that guy who loves people, who cares about people, and that's why I'm letting it hurt you,'' he said. "I could have been turned into a monster by it."

He thought about reaching out to Durham's widow and family but decided against it.

"They're victims. His choices dumped all this on them. I wanted to say I'm sorry they're suffering from an unimaginable grief, but I was forced to do what I did, and I also have a wife and family.

"Unfortunately, only one man was going home that day and it had to be me."

•••

One day last month, Padgett stood in front of about 60 men and talked about anger.

He'd been asked before the shooting to speak at a men's conference hosted by his church, the nondenominational Palms in Brandon. After the incident, he changed his topic to use the experience as a warning.

Padgett told the men that Durham's rage, driving him to shoot, uncovered a latent anger that was probably rooted in Padgett's childhood. He said he had an abusive father, a U.S. Army veteran scarred by combat in the Vietnam War. He told them not to keep their emotions corked.

The shooting also has Padgett considering a career change.

His goal is to become certified by the National Rifle Association to give advanced firearms training classes. He wants to teach people how to go through a mental checklist, even when they're frightened, in deciding whether to pull the trigger. And he wants to tell them how to navigate the aftermath if they do.

"If people react out of emotion, they're going to make a bad choice most of the time," he said.

"If they respond out of training or instinct, they're going to do the right thing nine times out of 10. And that may be keeping it in the holster."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

Threatened with death by a stranger on the side of the road, Rob Padgett pulled a Springfield Armory .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol from its place in the cupholder of his Ford Expedition. Padgett has been cleared in the man's fatal shooting. He said he hopes to teach others now about making the right life-or-death decision. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

Threatened with death by a stranger on the side of the road, Rob Padgett pulled a Springfield Armory .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol from its place in the cupholder of his Ford Expedition. Padgett has been cleared in the man's fatal shooting. He said he hopes to teach others now about making the right life-or-death decision. [Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office]

Cleared, but still burdened after split-second decision to fire fatal road-rage shot 11/25/16 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2016 2:51pm]
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