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Family says man, 79, killed at railroad crossing is not suicide

DADE CITY — Less than an hour after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper informed Susan Schmitz that her father's SUV had been hit by a train, she read the most scathing comments on an online forum.

People who didn't even know her father, Robert Stephens, implied the 79-year-old committed suicide Wednesday afternoon when his Ford slipped into the path of a 32-car train loaded with produce.

Witnesses told the FHP that Stephens sat for 15 minutes at a railroad crossing on Santa Gertrudis Drive — a dirt road southeast of Dade City that appears to end at a driveway — and pulled into the CSX train's path as it rumbled through, according to a FHP report.

There were no electronic crossing gates at the tracks.

Stephens' family has ruled out suicide.

"There was no (suicide) note at home or in the car," said Schmitz, 42, a graphic artist. "My poor father was in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Schmitz met Stephens for a long lunch at Arby's just hours before the crash. They made plans to visit Tarpon Springs. Last week, a stealthy young woman had slipped her grandmother's phone number into his hand, hoping to set them up on a date. Stephens looked like he was having a good day.

"He was fine," Schmitz said. "Short of breath, but fine."

Stephens suffered from congestive heart failure. Recently, he found it more difficult to catch his breath.

He also appeared confused more than he used to. It was just little things, Schmitz said, like taking lefts at stop signs when he should have turned right.

She wondered if he was on the phone Wednesday while waiting at the railroad crossing. He was partly deaf, and may not have heard the train coming.

"I think maybe he was disoriented," Schmitz said.

In his youth, Stephens founded Stephens Gas Service Inc., which, in its heyday, provided propane gas to more than 7,000 customers in Sebring and Zephyrhills.

"Dad built a gas company out of nothing," Schmitz said.

His wife, Joyce, who passed away in 2004, used to work with him. The couple kept an old hand pump as a souvenir on their front porch in the Silver Oaks subdivision.

Schmitz said her father was an active member of the Bible distributor Gideons International.

He attended Faith Baptist Church in Zephyrhills for more than 30 years. At least one person there knew him to be a very generous man.

About four years ago, Stephens bought a slightly rusty 1979 Oldsmobile Cutlass with fewer than 83,000 original miles for Tim Batchelor, the youth minister at Faith Baptist.

Batchelor had been married less than a month, and said Stephens thought the new couple needed more than one car.

"I don't know if he helped other people in this way or not," Batchelor said. "It appeared to me that that was his practice, he helped people, he was generous with people, but he didn't want his name published. I don't think he wanted a lot of pats on the back."

Thursday, Schmitz stood in her father's driveway, accepting hugs and handshakes from neighbors.

She doesn't know why her father was on Santa Gertrudis Drive Wednesday afternoon, one of the many questions left unanswered by his death.

He liked to walk, but since developing breathing troubles, he opted for rambling drives in the car instead.

"He used to like driving around the old back roads," she said. "My father knew Florida like the back of his hand."

The FHP is still investigating the crash. Anyone with information is asked to call, toll-free, 1-800-235-6019.

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Helen Anne Travis can be reached at htravis@sptimes.com or (813) 435-7312.

Family says man, 79, killed at railroad crossing is not suicide 10/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 28, 2008 6:53pm]
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