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Stolen sign was matter of life, death

Thomas Hawkins was doing the speed limit as he and his wife drove to lunch in Brandon on Sunday. Both of them were wearing their seat belts. No doubt he would have stopped at the stop sign at Jaudon and Wheeler roads.

That is, if someone hadn't stolen it.

Just after noon, as the couple was traveling south down an unfamiliar road on their way back from church, their Buick LeSabre was hit broadside by a family van heading west on Wheeler.

Both vehicles were going about 40 miles per hour when they collided. There were no skid marks.

"It took both of them by total surprise," said Sheriff's Deputy Mark Clark, a traffic homicide investigator.

Hawkins, 80, was pronounced dead at Tampa General Hospital at 2:23 p.m., officials said. His wife, 81-year-old Katherine, was in fair condition Monday at Tampa General.

The Martin family and two other children also were on their way home from church, Clark said. None of the six people in the 1988 Chevrolet Astro van was injured. All were wearing seat belts, he said.

"Somebody had to have a stop sign, and somebody died because of it," Clark said.

Working against Hawkins was his unfamiliarity with the area, Clark said. Hawkins and his wife lived at a trailer park in Thonotosassa and spent several months a year in Ohio, he said.

Clark said the sign was probably taken sometime Saturday night or early Sunday. A sheriff's supervisor had seen the sign in place Saturday afternoon, and a golfer on his way to a course noticed it was missing Sunday morning, he said.

There is no physical evidence that investigators have found that can help them identify the thief, Clark said.

If caught, the person who stole the sign faces a misdemeanor petty theft charge and possibly a manslaughter charge, Clark said. It will be up to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office to decide whether to file such a charge, he said.

There is a new sign at the intersection now.

Anyone with information is asked to call Deputy Mark Clark or Deputy Alan Hill at 247-8566.