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In motorcyclist's death, a cautionary tale

SAFETY HARBOR — Eric Schnetzer of Tampa, an athletic 40-year-old, loved to surf, windsurf, kayak and ride water scooters. But there was another challenge he itched to try: riding motorcycles.

His mother and daughter pleaded with him to forgo the idea. But in late May, the senior program manager for L-3 Communications finally bought a red Honda CBR sport bike.

Within a week, Schnetzer was dead. He died at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg on May 31, a day after he crashed his bike on Philippe Parkway in Safety Harbor and slid into a guardrail.

Investigators with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office said Schnet­zer failed to negotiate a turn on Philippe and his brakes locked up. It's unclear why. A report from the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office showed he did not have any alcohol or drugs in his system.

Schnetzer was not wearing a helmet. After he died, his mother, Angela Kendall, said she found two "sticky notes" at his home reminding him to order one.

Kendall said she would like to see a state law requiring helmets, because her son would not have broken the law.

"It might save the next guy or girl," she said.

In 2000, Florida lawmakers repealed a 31-year-old law that required all bikers to wear helmets. Thirty-seven percent of fatal crashes in Florida involve drivers who are not wearing them, according to the Suncoast Safety Council in Clearwater.

The council is currently compiling statistics on crashes involving inexperienced motorcycle riders, but that report is not yet complete.

However, several studies have shown that rider inexperience is one of the top factors in fatal motorcycle accidents.

According to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, riders of sport motorcycles like the one Schnet­zer was driving are four times as likely to have a fatal crash as drivers of other types of motorcycles. The sport bikes are often referred to as "crotch rockets" because of the speeds they can attain.

Schnetzer had been at Freedom Fest in Oldsmar and was heading home when the crash happened, Kendall said. It was fitting he spent his last day supporting American troops, she said, because her son was extremely patriotic and had spent years of his career working on laser technologies to support U.S. military campaigns. Schnetzer held several advanced degrees in electrical engineering.

Prior to joining L-3 in July 2009, Schnetzer spent a number of years working on advanced laser systems for Northrop Grumman.

He was "an integral member" of the optical engineering team at Northrop Grumman Laser Systems, according to spokeswoman Yolanda Murphy. Murphy said Schnetzer developed "a significantly lighter-weight laser for military applications" which is still used today.

Friends described Schnetzer as brilliant and a genius and said he had loved to tinker with machines and electronics as long as they'd known him.

"Ever since he was a little boy, I'd buy him something and he'd take it apart to see how it works," Kendall said.

Schnetzer was born in Cincinnati and moved to East Lake in northeast Pinellas County in 1986. After graduating from Clearwater's Countryside High School in 1988, he earned an associate's degree from what was then St. Petersburg Junior College in 1990. In 1993, he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, also earning the distinction of top honor student from the College of Engineering that year.

In 1996, he earned a master of science degree in electrical engineering from Ohio State University. In 2003, he received his master of business administration degree from Duke University.

Schnetzer was divorced and had recently rekindled a relationship with his high school sweetheart, Tara Huggins, 41, of San Rafael, Calif. The two originally met when they both worked at a Burger King in Palm Harbor.

"I jokingly say I fell in love with him over the french fries," Huggins said.

Schnetzer was a one-in-a-million man, she said, who strived to contribute to society and excelled in everything he did.

Of his death, she said: "It's like someone blew out a candle."

Allen Torres, who worked with both Schnetzer and Huggins at the Burger King, said his friend was "extremely intelligent, well spoken, cordial (and) had excellent manners."

Torres, who also owns a motorcycle, said he and Schnet­zer talked about the sport bike Schnetzer wanted to buy. Torres said he cautioned his friend about buying such a powerful bike when he was an inexperienced rider.

"Just try to be careful was the moral of the story," Torres said.

Torres said his friend's death has made him consider selling his motorcycle.

"Just for the simple fact that you never know," he said.

Rita Farlow can be reached at farlow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4157.

. FAST FACTS

Schnetzer family

In addition to his mother, Schnetzer is survived by his 12-year-old daughter, Ashley; his sister, Dr. JoAnn Schnetzer; and his maternal grandmother, Marjorie Wahoff.

In motorcyclist's death, a cautionary tale 07/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, July 18, 2011 12:51pm]

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