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Recalling a life cut short: Tampa Tribune reporter David Sommer

David Sommer, 60, of Safety Harbor and a longtime Tampa Tribune courts reporter, was killed in June, according to deputies. [Courtesy of Fred Bellet]
David Sommer, 60, of Safety Harbor and a longtime Tampa Tribune courts reporter, was killed in June, according to deputies. [Courtesy of Fred Bellet]
Published Nov. 28, 2017

David Sommer spent two decades covering the crime and courts beat for the Tampa Tribune, reporting on cases across Tampa Bay.

In June, the journalist was found dead at the age of 60. Four months later, Pinellas sheriff's detectives arrested a man on a charge of first-degree murder, accusing him of killing David Sommer in an armed robbery.

Andrew Sommer imagined how his oldest brother would have reacted to that grim news.

"Damn it David, you gotta add a little news drama," the younger brother said. "I think he would appreciate that it happened to turn out that way…

"Instead of covering the story, he is the story."

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office released few details of David Sommer's death at the time. But now, with a defendant in custody and facing trial, family, friends and colleagues opened up about the man they knew.

They talked about David Sommer's sardonic wit in the newsroom, his love of travel and life on the water, and his devotion to his job and his craft.

• • •

The oldest of three brothers, David Sommer was born in north Philadelphia before the family moved across the Delaware River to Cherry Hill, N.J. Growing up, he always had a job, a way to pay for the muscle cars he loved dearly.

After a short stint at Syracuse University and a hitchhiking trip to California, David Sommer graduated from Rutgers University at Camden, cutting his teeth at the college newspaper there, said youngest brother Jeff Sommer.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Deputies: Safety Harbor man killed neighbor over yard work money (Oct. 27, 2017)

Afterward, David Sommer combined two of his passions — journalism and the water — by moving to the beach and working for the Ocean County Observer in Toms River, N.J.

That's where he met the love of his life, Jeannie Schad, who was from Florida and visiting New Jersey for a friend's wedding. She caught his attention at a restaurant, and he asked her to dance.

"He was pretty persistent, he kept coming up to ask me," she said. "And on the fifth time, he said 'I'm not asking you to marry me, I'm just asking you to dance.' "

They began a long-distance relationship. Then in 1986 he landed a job at the Tribune and moved to Florida to be with her. She became Jeannie Sommer when they married 10 years later.

• • •

David Sommer quickly carved out a space for himself covering law enforcement agencies and courthouses in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

Former Tribune photographer and longtime friend Fred Bellet called him a "throwback" reporter. Think trench coat and cigarette, Bellet said, and a very direct manner.

David Sommer was also proud of his productivity. Bellet said that he was always quick to point out to colleagues that his "byline count" was higher — in other words, he had written more stories than they had.

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Bellet remembered covering a murder in Port Richey with his friend. David Sommer schmoozed with the officers on the scene and it paid off in the story he wrote about the case for the Tribune.

"He was able to get information at the scene that none of the other (reporters) were able to get," Bellet said.

David Sommer was most proud of his work covering the Terri Schiavo case. She was a brain-damaged woman whose husband and family fought in court for years over the removal of her feeding tube, generating national headlines until she died in 2005.

The family wrote a book about their side of the legal battle. They sent David Sommer a signed copy thanking him for his compassion and accuracy while reporting on the case.

He cherished it, his wife said.

• • •

What Jeannie Sommer said she admired most about her husband was how knowledgeable and well-read he was.

"I was just so amazed to have somebody who was like a computer," she said. She remembered sitting in on Sommer family arguments. Sometimes they'd later check to find out who was right. It was almost always David Sommer.

"The way his mind worked, that was amazing," she said.

When they'd travel across North America, which they did often, Jeannie Sommer said that she loved that he'd just drive in no particular direction looking for authenticity.

"We would go where other people wouldn't go," she said. "I like the zest that he had for adventure."

The couple built a life together. They put off marriage, spending the money instead on their Safety Harbor home. They eloped in Nevada while driving through one day. They had left the rings at home and hadn't even thought to bring them; it was so impromptu he married her with a cigar band.

Together they adopted rescue pets and bought a boat, with a jet motor though, not a propeller. It was safer for the manatees, they reasoned.

And when disaster struck, David Sommer did what he could, always donating.

"I loved that about him," his wife said. "He really cared and he's got a sentimental heart. People didn't always see that, because he's got a rough exterior."

• • •

The newspaper industry has shed tens of thousands of jobs over the years. One of those belonged to David Sommer. He was laid off by the Tribune nine years ago.

The last years of his life were defined by sickness. David Sommer started to experience serious health problems, his family said, including being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Losing the job he had been so devoted too, Bellet said, also took a toll on his friend.

The Tribune's waterfront headquarters on the west side of the Hillsborough River was bought by the Related Group of Miami in 2015. A year later, the Tampa Bay Times bought the 123-year-old newspaper and closed it.

An excavator started tearing down the building in February. Months before he died, David Sommer drove to Tampa to collect some bricks from the old Tribune building site and stuck them in the back of his Mustang.

David Sommer, his friend and fellow journalist said, was a newspaperman through and through.

"He was gruff," Bellet said. "He would not have been a good doctor because his bedside manner would have been terrible.

"But he was a really good reporter."

Contact Josh Solomon at (813) 909-4613 or jsolomon@tampabay.com. Follow @ByJoshSolomon.

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