ZEPHYRHILLS — He heard the gunfire and thought his cruiser had been sprayed with bullets.
"Wow," Zephyrhills police Officer Kevin Widener, 32, thought to himself. "They're shooting at me."
It was 7 a.m. Aug. 2 and Widener was three hours into his regular shift. Widener, a newlywed and father to a 6-month-old daughter, was parked with his radar gun and clocked a white Subaru Impreza going 45 mph in a 30 mph zone. When he tried to pull it over, the car sped up. Soon, Widener found himself being shot at in a 100-mph chase that ended when his tire was blown out. This incident began an eight-day crime rampage by east Pasco siblings Lee-Grace Dougherty, 29, Dylan Dougherty, 26, and Ryan Dougherty, 21, who were caught Wednesday in Colorado during another shootout with law enforcement. The siblings are also accused of robbing a Georgia bank at gunpoint. They're being held in the Pueblo County jail.
While the siblings were being hunted by federal and local authorities, their faces plastered on billboards throughout the country, Widener prayed each night they wouldn't kill anyone. He feared the worst, but hoped they would be arrested without any officers or citizens injured. Lee-Grace was shot during her arrest and all three siblings suffered minor injuries after their car crashed, but Widener's hope came true — no others were hurt.
"I'm thankful," he said Thursday during a press conference with reporters outside his station in Zephyrhills. He's a local boy, the high school football quarterback, tall, broad-shouldered, piercing blue eyes, who enlisted in the Navy right after high school and joined the police force six years ago.
He said he always wanted to be a police officer. As a kid, he dressed up like one and had toy guns. He had never been shot at previously. The last time a gun was discharged during police activity in Zephyrhills was in the 1980s, when a gun went off as an officer wrestled with a suspect, said Chief David Shears.
Still, Widener often challenged himself to visualize what he would do if he was shot at: How would he react?
He stayed calm.
"Okay," he told himself as the chase began. "Let's get them."
His voice was steady as he spoke with a dispatcher as shots rang out. He tried to keep going even after his tire was shot out.
"I just wanted to catch them before they hurt anybody," he said.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6229.Correction
Zephyrhills police Officer Kevin Widener's name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.