WEEKI WACHEE — About 4 miles away from a scarred stretch of U.S. 19 is a quiet neighborhood where houses stand on stilts and pontoon boats sit in yards. There are just as many canals as streets. Cypress and palms form a canopy over yards. In the driveway of one of those houses, where a group of retirees gather every afternoon to sip Miller Lite and chat through the evening, there are two fewer chairs than usual.
They used to talk about issues of the day and neighborhood life. Now they mostly share memories of the man who helped bring them together: Charlie Hesser, who was living a dream retirement until Feb. 15.
Hesser was on his way back from Lowe's on U.S. 19 when a minivan came barreling into his lane. Behind the minivan's wheel, Richard Barrett Jr., 38, was on a rampage.
Around 9 a.m., authorities said, Barrett rear-ended a Toyota Camry and kept going. He rammed the back of Hesser's Toyota Tundra. The truck cut across a median, rolled six times and slid to a stop in a southbound lane. Barrett rammed another pickup before he finally stopped.
The other victims were fine. Barrett was taken to the hospital with minor injuries. Authorities were surprised Hesser had survived the crash. He was taken to the hospital with serious injuries.
Neighbors said Hesser, always a bit of a joker, had one question for doctors when he got to the hospital: "Does this mean I'm not going to be able to fish tomorrow?"
It was one of the last things he said. Doctors performed a tracheotomy on him. He had surgery for a hip fracture. His kidneys failed. There were several blood clots in his arms.
Hesser's wife, Brenda, spent the next 50 days beside his bed from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. She never missed a day.
Doctors said he was on his way to recovering, but last Thursday Brenda got a call. She got her friend and neighbor Deborah Barnhart to drive her to the Land O'Lakes hospital. Charlie had died.
Now, the Florida Highway Patrol is conducting an investigation of Hesser's death. Brenda says she doesn't know what specifically caused her husband's death more than a month after the crash. The autopsy report has not come back.
Sgt. Steve Gaskings, Florida Highway Patrol spokesman, said authorities are now looking into Barrett's case as a traffic death. Charges are still pending.
When Charlie died last week, Brenda went back to their other house in Fulton, Ill., where his funeral is scheduled for Saturday. She's there with family. For the first time since she was just out of high school, she's learning to be alone; the Hessers celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary in September.
Charlie worked as a plumbing pipe fitter at a power plant in Illinois. He had worked his way up to being a superintendent by the time he retired in 1997.
Their house was just off the Mississippi River. On weekends, he was up by 7 a.m., readying the boat and iff the fishing was good, he'd be out all day. Brenda remembers him coming home sometimes with 10 catfish and a big smile.
He was also a hunter. Squirrel, rabbit, quail, duck — he'd get them all and she would cook them.
They bought a house on a canal in Weeki Wachee and alternated between there and the house in Illinois. Charlie told her that if they were going to move anywhere, it was going to be on water.
He was about 5-feet-11 and mostly wore fishing shirts and khakis. His salt-and-pepper hair was usually covered with a fishing cap.
The couple's weekends were spent on the boat or golfing. They called each other "dear." They would fill their freezers full of grouper and throw neighborhood fish fries in their three-bay garage.
"He was a young 70," said Anne Leonard, a neighbor.
Ernestine Driskell remembers Hesser was quite the dancer.
Once at a fish fry, he asked her onto the floor for fun.
"Now, you'll have to watch me," she said. "I'll want to lead."
"Not with me, you won't," he told her.
These are the stories the neighbors tell when they gather in their white lawn chairs in the driveway across from the Hessers' house, with Charlie's boat nearby.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.