WEEKI WACHEE — When George and Andrea Lyle stirred from their sleep early Thursday, they quickly realized something was missing from the driveway: their 2002 Mitsubishi Montero.
They dialed 911 and reported that the vehicle had been stolen.
Then they realized something else was missing from the house: their 16-year-old son, Andrew Frank Morris.
While the Lyles frantically tried to figure out the whereabouts of both their son and the vehicle, Morris was driving the SUV west on Powell Road, south of Brooksville, in the pre-dawn darkness.
Minutes later, about 5:45 a.m., the teen apparently crossed the center line on Powell and collided head-on with a dark-colored 1999 Ford Crown Victoria driven by Hernando sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler, who was on his way to work in Brooksville.
"Everything just exploded in about 10 minutes' time," George Lyle, Morris' stepfather, said Friday as tears welled in his eyes.
Authorities spent the day after the violent wreck trying to piece together details of Morris' whereabouts before the crash, in which Bierwiler, 42, was killed. Morris, a junior at Nature Coast Technical High School, was listed in critical condition and remained at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
"We're not positive about the time line," said Sgt. Steve Gaskins of the FHP. "That's all part of the investigation. Right now, we're trying to let the family deal with their issues."
Gaskins said the investigation could take as many as 90 days.
Authorities said they believe Morris left his home on Mertal Street, just west of Weeki Wachee, sometime about midnight Thursday and had been driving around in the SUV. His parents said he did not have permission to take the car. It remained unclear where Morris had been and where he was headed.
"The parents thought the car had been stolen and then realized he wasn't there," Gaskins said. "Then they put two and two together. Next thing they know, the crash is occurring."
At Morris' home Friday morning, his parents said they were devastated by the death of Bierwiler.
"This is so monumental that we don't even know the words to tell how we feel about the loss," George Lyle said. "We're extremely upset about this situation and the tragic loss of a well-regarded member of the community."
"Words can't express it," Andrea Lyle said. "We have to live with this."
George Lyle said his stepson was in a medically induced coma after spending 8 1/2 hours in surgery Thursday night. Morris talked a little about the accident in the hospital, but as of Friday afternoon still didn't know that Bierwiler had died, Lyle said.
"His thought process wasn't all there," Lyle said.
The Lyles said they were not sure why their son took the SUV and was out so early Thursday morning. But they repeatedly echoed the words of neighbors, who uniformly referred to their son as "a good boy."
"I couldn't ask for a better son," said Andrea Lyle, her face streaked with tears. "He's a responsible kid."
At Nature Coast Tech, principal Margaret Schoelles said many teachers and staff members had heard of Bierwiler's death on Thursday morning. Those who had gone to school in Hernando with the captain were particularly upset, as were his niece and nephew, both of whom attend the school.
Counselors were available Friday for grieving students.
Schoelles said she had no idea why Morris had been on the road at 5:45 a.m., less than a mile from the school. He wasn't part of the cheerleading squad, the only activity that was holding an early-morning practice that day, she said.
"There were no student activities that he would have been participating in any way, shape or form," Schoelles said.
Meanwhile, family members and friends of Bierwiler were struggling to deal with their grief following the loss of a man who had talked about his desire to one day run for sheriff.
A 22-year veteran of the agency, Bierwiler's thick personnel file at the Sheriff's Office overflows with commendations, thank-you letters from the State Attorney's Office and letters of praise from colleagues and local residents. Not once in his career had Bierwiler been officially reprimanded.
"That is very unusual," said Hernando sheriff's Maj. Alan Arick, Bierwiler's direct supervisor. "But that's how it was with Scott. He kept everything on the up and up. He had a great work ethic."
On the Times' online guestbook, dozens of tributes and prayers for Bierwiler and his family poured in from places as far away as California, New Hampshire and even Iraq.
"I am absolutely at a loss for words! Scott is one of the finest persons I have ever had the honor to meet," wrote Jim Kuchenbecker, chief of the Washington (Ill.) Police Department, who attended the FBI Academy with Bierwiler last summer. "My condolences, deepest sympathy (and) prayers to all of you during this time of grief. May God bless your soul my brother! You will be sorely missed."
Staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report. Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.