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Sheriff's cruiser, car collide during chase

Dennis Keup heard sirens as he left Wal-Mart early Monday morning, fishing hooks in hand. He paused at U.S. 19, then went east on Ridge Road.

Tires squealing, a car whipped out in front of him. Two police cars followed. Stolen car, Keup thought. A drunken driver maybe.

As he approached Regency Park Boulevard, Keup saw smoke and the wreckage of a collision between a Pasco sheriff's cruiser and a Honda Accord.

It got worse. Keup found a deputy on the ground, his right leg broken near the hip. Flames were shooting from the dash of the cruiser. Keup, a former emergency medical technician, took the man's pulse, then heard moaning from the shrubs in front of CVS Pharmacy.

Another deputy lay there.

Both had been ejected from the cruiser, and it appeared neither had been wearing a seat belt, said people at the scene. The two deputies and three people in the Honda were flown to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg.

"I've seen a lot of accidents," Keup, 38, said Monday afternoon, "and this is definitely up there with some of the worst."

The 1:36 a.m. Monday crash happened as Deputy Kenneth Petrillo and the man he was training, former New York City police Officer Robert Ferro, assisted New Port Richey and Port Richey police in pursuit of a Buick seen speeding earlier on U.S. 19.

Petrillo's cruiser collided with the Honda as both vehicles went through the intersection of Ridge and Regency Park, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. The cruiser rolled over, and Petrillo landed near the shrubs. Ferro also was ejected from the vehicle, according to reports, though he came to rest near the cruiser.

With the car ablaze, Keup and others pulled Ferro to safety.

"We were worried it was going to explode," Keup said.

Petrillo, 31, was in fair condition Monday afternoon at Bayfront Medical Center; Ferro, 44, was in serious condition and was undergoing surgery on his leg.

Honda driver Jennifer Wohlgemuth, 21, of Port Richey was in critical condition, as was passenger Pasquale Berardi, 24. A second passenger, Kristen Breivik, 19, was in good condition.

Wohlgemuth has a history of driving infractions, including an accident in 2002 and several violations, including careless driving and speeding, according to state records.

Berardi told emergency workers that he and the women had been "partying" that night, according to a Pasco sheriff's report.

It was unclear Monday who had the green light at the intersection, though FHP said Petrillo had his emergency lights on and motorists are required to yield.

FHP also had not yet determined how fast Petrillo's cruiser was going.

"The whole thing is under investigation," FHP spokesman Trooper Larry Coggins said.

The driver of the Buick that sped out in front of Keup got away after police called off the pursuit. Officers, however, had the blue car's license number, and the driver was being sought Monday. He initially was stopped by New Port Richey police for speeding on U.S. 19 but took off when an officer approached the car on foot. The driver nearly hit a cruiser driven by a Port Richey officer who arrived as backup, officials said.

Pasco deputies are required to wear seat belts at all times, sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said Monday, citing department regulations. But he declined to comment about the situation Monday, in which neither deputy appeared to be wearing one.

Since he was a kid, Petrillo had wanted to be a cop. His father, Ken Petrillo Sr., patrolled the streets in the Bronx, N.Y., before moving to Florida and taking a job with the New Port Richey Police Department _ a position he still holds.

The younger Petrillo has enjoyed a successful career with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. At age 26, he was promoted as the school resource officer for Land O'Lakes High School. In 1999, he was honored for heroism after pulling a man from a burning car.

Ferro has been a deputy since Dec. 13. He is so new, Doll said, that he does not have a uniform yet. But the deputies' first thoughts after the crash turned to each other, Keup said.

"They wanted to know if their partner was okay."

Alex Leary can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is learysptimes.com.

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