BRANDON — Deputy John Kotfila steered his patrol car onto the upper deck of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, headed to his district in southern Hillsborough. It was 2:45 Saturday morning, and he had just wrapped up a crash investigation.
Back at the Hillsborough sheriff's dispatch center, operators got a 911 call about a driver going the wrong way on the Selmon. They put out an alert on the agency's four radio channels.
No one knows if Kotfila heard it.
Within moments, investigators say, a sport utility vehicle driving west in the eastbound lanes crashed head-on into Kotfila's patrol cruiser just west of Interstate 75. The SUV's driver, identified as Erik Thomas McBeth, 31, of Hudson, died at the scene.
Firefighters pried the top off Kotfila's patrol car, then rushed him to Tampa General Hospital, where he also died. He was 30 years old from a family full of cops.
"Our HCSO family is one less today," Sheriff David Gee said in a statement. "The tragic loss of one of my deputies has all of our hearts heavy."
Traffic homicide investigators believe that McBeth might have driven up the Brandon express exit ramp, where the expressway ends at Town Center Boulevard, said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
The express lanes are reversible, with several iron gates blocking the north side of the intersection at night. Cars heading east leave the expressway on the south side. A metal sign warning "Do Not Enter" and a pair of flashing yellow lights overhang that side near where the road ends.
Signs showing the ramp was closed to westbound traffic were working, sheriff's officials said. An investigation will determine if alcohol was a factor in the crash.
Kotfila had worked for the sheriff's office for six years. He was raised in Massachusetts and came from a family of law enforcement officers. His father, John Kotfila Sr., is a sergeant with the Massachusetts State Police. His grandfather, Robert Cahoon, was a lieutenant for the same agency. An uncle, Robert Cahoon, Jr., is a deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The family connection sparked a natural interest in law enforcement for Kotfila and his three younger siblings, his father said Saturday from his home in Falmouth, on Cape Cod. His son earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Westfield State College, he said. After graduating, he researched job opportunities at several agencies. He chose the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, putting him close to his uncle and grandfather, who had retired to Pinellas.
"I say I tried to dissuade them from it," John Kotfila Sr. said, noting the inherent dangers of the job. Two of his four children went into law enforcement.
His son's younger brother, Michael Kotfila, is an officer with the Falmouth Police Department in Massachusetts, Kotfila Sr. said.
The deputy's death drew words of sorrow and support from law enforcement agencies nationwide and from local elected officials. Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement expressing his and his wife's grief.
"Ann and I are heartbroken by the death of Deputy John Robert Kotfila, whose tragic loss will not only be felt by his family members and fellow officers, but also by Floridians across the state," Scott said. "Our law enforcement officers bravely and selflessly risk their lives to protect us."
Kotfila worked evening shifts, 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. He specialized in traffic crash investigations and was preparing to take leave to attend accident investigation training, his father said. He was also a founding member of the SafetyNet Team, which helped locate missing adults and children with special needs, the Sheriff's Office said. He received a smattering of attention from the news media last year when he rescued a kitten that had fallen into a Riverview storm drain.
In his off-time, he raced triathlons, competing in several Tough Mudder runs and road races. He lived alone in Valrico with his German shepherd, Dexter.
Early Saturday morning, deputies knocked on the door of his uncle's home. Soon after, a phone rang in Falmouth.
"There are no words to describe it," John Kotfila Sr. said. "He was one of the police officers you want out there.
"It's just a tragic waste."
The crash came exactly one month after a collision on Interstate 275 near downtown Tampa that killed two men, both fathers and Air Force veterans. A 2014 Tampa Bay Times analysis of Florida Highway Patrol data found that wrong-way crashes are common in the Tampa Bay area, with many attributed to drunken driving. That year, five separate crashes — four of them on the same stretch of Interstate 275 in Tampa — claimed 11 lives.
On Tuesday, Hillsborough deputies stopped a wrong-way driver on U.S. 301 after the driver's truck hit a patrol car. No one was injured in that incident.
Mourning the loss of an HCSO Deputy Sheriff, who was killed in a wrong way driver traffic crash. pic.twitter.com/cZ6WnmVHp1— HCSO (@HCSOSheriff) March 12, 2016
McBeth worked as a branch banker for BB&T and lived in Hudson with an Australian shepherd named Ruger. He had no criminal records in Florida, records show.
Barbara Clark, 62, who lived near him, said he would help her son, Chris Clark, 24, when he was short on money or needed food. Another neighbor, Tonya Doppler, said McBeth had promised to set her daughter up with a bank account when she turned 18.
"It's absolutely devastating," Doppler, 44, said of the crash.
His older brother, Ryan McBeth, said he grew up in Pennsylvania with five siblings and moved to Florida about 10 years ago. He got divorced last year and had no kids of his own but would frequently visit his brother's family in Atlanta. Just last weekend, he drove to see his 10-year-old niece perform in a gymnastics tournament near Orlando.
Ryan McBeth said he didn't know where his brother was going when the crash happened.
"Our family is truly sorry," he said. "And we are all hurting."
Times news researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or [email protected] Follow @kathrynvarn. Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.