Monday, December 18, 2017
Public safety

Two years after crime rampage, justice awaits Dougherty gang in Pasco County

ZEPHYRHILLS — It all began here.

Two years ago, three Lacoochee siblings sped away from Zephyrhills police Officer Kevin Widener after spraying his patrol car with bullets.

The sister and her two brothers then took off for Georgia, where they put on masks and robbed a Valdosta bank. One of them fired an AK-47 into the ceiling before the group escaped with about $5,200.

Exotic dancer Lee Grace Dougherty, and her brothers, construction workers Ryan Dougherty and Dylan Dougherty Stanley, became known forever after as the Dougherty gang. Their cross-country crime rampage ended eight days later in a high-speed chase and shootout with police near Pueblo, Col.

Judges in Colorado and Georgia called the trio cowards and their actions "dangerous" and "stupid." The three are now scattered across the country. Each is serving 35 years and eight months in federal prisons for what happened after they hatched an escape plan to Mexico when Ryan violated his probation for "sexting" an 11-year-old girl.

Now, local authorities are eager to end everything where it all began, in Pasco County.

"I welcome it," said Widener, 34, who noticed the trio's white Subaru sedan going about 15 miles over the speed limit on U.S. 301 at 7 a.m. on Aug. 2, 2011. The former nursing assistant turned on his flashing lights and followed the car. When the 100 mph chase ended about 4 miles later, authorities recovered 20 shell casings.

Widener, now a Pasco County sheriff's deputy, recalls that day with the same calm demeanor he displayed during the chase. He wanted to keep up the pursuit but had to stop when one of his tires was shot out.

He called his wife, who was still asleep, to let her know he was okay. He then returned to his shift and worked a full day.

"He's the type of guy you want in tense situations because he is reliable, calm and thoughtful," said retired Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina, who has known the former Zephyrhills High School quarterback and Navy veteran for years. "He won't jump into something and think later."

Widener said he hasn't really kept up with the media coverage of the Dougherty gang, whose story was featured in GQ magazine. He said he thinks their apologies in court were "just because they got caught."

"I'm just glad no one got hurt," he said.

Local prosecutors are working to complete the paperwork necessary to have the trio brought back to Pasco so justice can be served.

Local law enforcement officers think they should be returned to face charges even though they will spend more than three decades in federal prison.

"The Pasco Sheriff's Office takes the threat of attempted killing of a law enforcement officer seriously and wants justice to prevail," Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco said. "We will continue to work with our local, state, and federal partners to ensure that the Dougherty siblings are prosecuted for their crimes here in Pasco."

Court records show all three are currently charged with fleeing and eluding, though that could change.

Chris Burke, a spokesman for the federal Bureau of Prisons, said wardens at each prison have the authority to release inmates to state and local jurisdictions for court. However, the receiving agencies have to pick up and return the inmates and bear the costs.

That would include trips to prisons in Tucson, where Ryan is housed; Estill, S.C., north of Savannah, Ga. where Dylan was sent; and Hazelton prison in Bruceton Mills W.Va., where Lee Grace is being held in a satellite for female prisoners.

Each is required to have a prison job, though Burke said privacy rules prevented him from disclosing their duties. Inmates work a seven-hour day, with evenings free for counseling programs educational opportunities or recreation.

Programs vary by prison, but most typically have basketball courts, a baseball field, and running tracks. Some have exercise bikes and treadmills. Arts and crafts also are available.

Burke said that while prisons have stringent rules, they also are aimed at rehabilitation.

"We explain what it is we expect, and we give them an opportunity to improve their situation while in prison," he said.

Lisa Buie can be reached at (813) 909-4604.


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