LAND O'LAKES — Pasco sheriff's Lt. Larry Engle brought a Police Explorer with him that mid November night, showing the ropes of the graveyard shift. They were headed south on the Suncoast Parkway when a pair of headlights cut through the 2 a.m. darkness coming head-on.
Engle swerved. The dark BMW sedan passed. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper zoomed up the road across the median with its lights on, paralleling the other car. Engle turned around, cut on his own emergency lights and followed.
They neared State Road 52. Engle radioed his intentions to the dispatch unit.
"I'm not pursuing, but I'm on the wrong side as well," he said. "Vehicle is going to hit someone head-on. We need to get someone ahead of him."
Engle's handling of the incident would ultimately lead to his retirement after 24 years with the agency. The Sheriff's Office says he violated several general orders mostly involving pursuing the car.
Engle contends that he was not in pursuit. What he did that night saved an unknowable number of people from meeting a fiery highway death, he says. If that was wrong, he wonders, what would have been right?
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Engle, a 46-year-old Tampa native and Saint Leo University graduate, joined the Sheriff's Office in 1989.
His personnel file is decorated with more than 50 commendation letters and several safe driver awards. County Commissioner Pat Mulieri noted his professionalism in working with the Police Explorers. Other letters called him "diligent" and "compassionate" in dealing with victims of domestic violence.
Three previous internal affairs investigations of Engle were substantiated in his career. The most notable details an incident in 2002 when he was training Explorers for a state competition that included a scenario involving auto-erotic asphyxiation, which the Explorers were meant to distinguish from suicide. Engle said all the Explorers were adults except for one 14-year-old for whom he got parental permission for the training. He was cited with conduct unbecoming a deputy.
Despite his sterling record with the agency, his career ended up hinging on what happened Nov. 14.
As Engle followed the BMW, he called for other deputies to lay stop sticks near SR 50. He turned on his spotlight as a warning to drivers. On the radio, Engle counted off the BMW's six near misses with oncoming cars.
Explorer Kyle Wilson, 19, recounted in reports what Engle told him: "This isn't going to look good, but you know when there's people coming head on … you gonna let them go head on and die or you gonna try a(nd) save them?"
Eventually Engle found a path through the median and crossed into the northbound lane. A few miles later, the BMW stopped again. Wilson got out and grabbed the suspect, Ryan David Erdle, by the arm. Troopers raced over to make the arrest.
Internal Affairs investigators determined Engle violated policy by pursuing a vehicle going the wrong way, engaging in a pursuit with non-sworn personnel in the car, failing to use his siren during the pursuit and not filing a pursuit report afterward.
Engle maintains that he did not, by definition, pursue the BMW. He says he kept a safe distance a quarter mile behind the car. He pulled off to the side of the road whenever an oncoming car passed. He said he would have crossed to the northbound lanes sooner but didn't see any breaks in the median.
The incident came months before a rash of high-profile and horrific wrong-way crashes around Tampa Bay and the rest of the country.
On Feb. 9, four University of South Florida fraternity brothers were killed on Interstate 275 in Tampa when their car was struck head-on by Daniel Lee Morris' SUV. He was also killed.
The same day, six people died in a wrong-way crash in Diamond Bar, Calif.
On Feb. 21, Chase Kaleb Leveille died when he drove north in the southbound lanes of I-275 — 3 miles north of the first crash — and met an Enterprise rental truck head-on.
In a memo to the Sheriff's Office, Engle pointed to the fact that no crashes happened on his watch Nov. 14. He also noted that the suspect, Erdle, wasn't charged with fleeing to elude. He was charged by the FHP with DUI, resisting an officer without violence, reckless driving and refusing to submit to a DUI test after having his license suspended.
"We don't judge our actions by whether anybody died," said Sheriff's Office attorney Lindsay Moore. "It's not a valid defense."
The agency has procedures for dealing with wrong-way drivers. They include paralleling the driver with emergency lights on and communicating via radio so other deputies can deploy stop sticks farther down the road.
Investigators found that Engle passed five "official use only" signs indicating breaks in the median. They noted that the signs are visible going either direction on the parkway.
Engle retired before the investigation was finished because, he says, he heard the Sheriff's Office was looking to fire him. He has started his own business, Mental Health Advocacy and Training.
Kyle Wilson did not respond to calls for this story. But in an open Facebook post shortly after Engle left the agency, Wilson lamented losing his mentor.
"(Engle) responded and did what HE HAD TO DO," Wilson wrote, "he wasn't the person who got behind the wheel impaired and created the circumstances. He simply responded in the best possible way."
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.