Friends, family have fond memories of Palm Harbor accident victim

PALM HARBOR — It was about 8 p.m. Wednesday when Patrick Wheeler really started worrying about his dad.

It usually only took the 79-year-old about 40 minutes for his round-trip walk to the nearby Sweetbay Supermarket, but more than two hours had passed.

When Raymond M. Wheeler didn't answer his cell phone, Patrick Wheeler — disabled and most often using a wheelchair because of debilitating back pain — dragged himself into his dad's car and went in search of his father.

Instead, he found a nightmare.

"I saw the police cars," Patrick Wheeler said. "And that's when I found out it was him."

The Florida Highway Patrol said Raymond Wheeler was crossing County Road 1 about 1,500 feet south of Tampa Road and was not in a crosswalk when he was hit about 5:40 p.m. by a 1994 Toyota four-door sedan driven by 29-year-old Laura Santoro of Holiday.

Wheeler was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, where he was pronounced dead.

The impact shattered Santoro's windshield and knocked Wheeler out of his shoes.

He was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was a salesman for a business that sold airplane wing modification kits. He owned the Inn on Trout River, a "country inn" in Montgomery Center, Vt., for several years. He loved classical music, his son said.

Raymond Wheeler moved to Florida about eight or nine years ago after his wife died. He bought a mobile home in Westwind, a 55-and-older community in Palm Harbor, and quickly made friends, Patrick Wheeler said.

"Everybody here is devastated," he said.

Neighbor Bob Lang said he and Wheeler had become "best buddies" and that he last saw his friend Wednesday, about an hour before the accident.

Lang, 68, said Wheeler was beloved in the community.

"He knew everybody and he had a very unique dialect, I would call it. He called all the women 'Love,'  " Lang said. "He had this unique personality, so friendly. He was just one of a kind."

Patrick Wheeler, 49, said he moved into his father's home in 2005, so his father could help care for him. The son mostly gets around in a wheelchair because he "can't walk more than 10 feet" after botched back surgery several years ago.

Patrick Wheeler said his father was in excellent health and walked or rode his bike daily. He said he can't fathom how the driver of the car couldn't have seen his dad. The speed limit in the area is 30 mph, he said, which should have given the driver plenty of time to stop.

Investigators told him they did not detect any obvious signs of intoxication, but he wonders if the driver may have been speeding or distracted.

Santoro could not be reached for comment Thursday.

An FHP spokesman said investigators are awaiting toxicology tests. No charges have been filed and the investigation is ongoing.

In addition to Patrick, Raymond Wheeler is survived by three other sons, Larry, Raymond and Daniel; and a daughter, Donna Wheeler.

Lang, who lives across the street from the Wheelers, said his friend, a pipe smoker, had an endearing habit.

"He had a ritual to empty his pipe every night about 9 o'clock," Lang said. "And you'd hear that little 'rap, rap, rap' against the porch railing when he emptied his pipe and we knew all was well."

But on Wednesday night, there was only silence.

Friends, family have fond memories of Palm Harbor accident victim 05/05/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 5, 2011 8:32pm]

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