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Pinellas road rage heads up U.S. 19

Road construction forced Kenneth Koelle to merge his 1992 Buick LaSabre into heavy traffic on Thursday afternoon.

The Palm Harbor retiree had no idea that road rage _ from an angry man in a pickup truck _ would leave him with a sore cheek and his wife, Joan, nearly in tears.

Koelle, 60, was slapped in the face by the driver of a red Dodge Dakota pickup after Koelle pulled in front of the vehicle on U.S. 19 near Tarpon Avenue. The pickup followed Koelle into Pasco County, where the altercation occurred.

"It got way out of hand," said Koelle, who jotted down the other driver's license plate number and called police. "I was ready to beat his face in. I guess I did the right thing by not doing that. Now he's in trouble, not me."

Pasco sheriff's officials are looking for the driver of the pickup, which sped north on U.S. 19 after the incident. The driver, who could be charged with burglary and battery, is described as a white man in his mid-40s, 6 feet, 200 pounds, with gray hair and a beard.

Connie Kremser, who works at Padgett Funeral Home on U.S. 19, heard the commotion and looked out the window just as the pickup driver reached in and slapped Koelle. Kremser saw Koelle's wife, Joan, jump out of the Buick and wave her cane at the other driver.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Kremser, 25. "I guess they pushed each other's buttons just a little too far."

After Koelle pulled in front of the pickup in North Pinellas, the truck began following closely, at one point almost hitting the Buick, Koelle told sheriff's deputies. Koelle stepped on his brakes to try to get the driver to pass.

Instead, the man followed Koelle north on U.S. 19 into Pasco, pulled in front of Koelle and stopped. He got out of the truck, walked to the Buick and reached in as if to grab a teddy bear off the rear-view mirror, Koelle said.

Koelle grabbed the man's arm and tried to get out of his car. The man blocked the door, then slapped Koelle in the face.

Koelle pulled into the parking lot of a nearby restaurant and the pickup driver followed. The men began yelling and swearing at each other, witnesses said. At one point, Koelle bumped the man with his stomach, according to sheriff's reports.

Fran Mooney, who works at Padgett Funeral Home, said she called 911 as soon as she heard the screaming outside. She said she was afraid that someone was going to get hurt.

"It was unreal," she said. "All this commotion and hand-waving. You just never know what people are going to do. Someone who gets road rage should know better than to drive on U.S. 19. They're just asking for trouble."