A Pinellas Sheriff’s deputy was killed Wednesday afternoon as he was trying to stop a drunken driver who was leading deputies on a high-speed pursuit on East Lake Road, according to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Deputy Michael Magli, 30, died after he was struck by a pickup truck that spun out in the median of East Lake Road near Forelock Road in north Pinellas County. Magli had parked his patrol cruiser in the median of the road to retrieve and deploy stop sticks - a device used to deflate the tires on a vehicle, when he was struck by the driver deputies were pursuing, Gualtieri said in a Wednesday evening news conference near the site of the crash.
Robert Allen Holzaepfel was arrested by deputies Wednesday night. Gualtieri said Holzaepfel, 33, was driving under the influence and on a suspended license at the time of the crash. He was also on probation and has 16 prior felony convictions, the sheriff said.
Pinellas County jail records show Holzaepfel faces charges of first degree felony murder, DUI manslaughter, driving without a valid license resulting in death and aggravated fleeing and eluding law enforcement.
Deputies originally came into contact with Holzaepfel after East Lake Fire Rescue responded at about 4:25 p.m. to a call about a person passed out at a red light on Forelock Road. Fire Rescue broke a window of the truck to get inside to help, which woke up Holzaepfel, Gualtieri said. Holzaepfel then fled west.
Gualtieri described Holzaepfel’s driving as “extremely reckless and very dangerous.”
“He took off at a high rate of speed southbound on East Lake Road,” he said. “He needed to be stopped or he was going to hurt someone else. The safest way to do it was to deflate the tires and not endanger anyone else.”
Magli was out of his cruiser when Holzaepfel’s vehicle slammed into him and spun out in the median, pinning him under the car, said Gualtieri, who often fought back emotion during the news conference.
Magli’s death was the first line-of-duty death for the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. His death also comes just weeks after a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy was killed by a fleeing suspect.
Magli joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2013 when he worked part time as a criminal justice specialist at the courthouse. After graduating from the police academy in 2014, he worked in patrol duty in north Pinellas County. He was married and was the father of two children.
Gualtieri said he was going to visit Magli’s family after the news conference ended on Wednesday night.
“Deputy Magli was trying to protect people,” Gualtieri said. “He stepped up like cops do and tried to keep people from being hurt and lost his life in the process.”
Holzaepfel’s address history is in Manatee County, but the sheriff said he told deputies he was living out of the pickup and was a transient. His first arrest as an adult in Manatee County was in July 2014 when deputies arrested him after receiving calls about a driver who was “all over the road” and had hit a curb, an arrest report states.
The report notes that he was driving with a suspended license at that time as well, and records show he had a number of traffic infractions prior to that arrest. Tests showed his blood alcohol count at the time was around .250, more than three times the level at which Florida law presumes impairment. He was arrested on a drunken driving charge.
Many of his criminal charges stem from a series of thefts at Manatee County Walmarts in which he stole computers from at least six stores over a 5-week period in the summer of 2016. Deputies said he entered the Walmarts, took computers that were on display, removed their anti-theft devices and left the stores. He was eventually arrested on charges of theft and dealing in stolen property. His latest arrest in Manatee was in 2018 on a charge of driving with a suspended license, records show.
North and southbound lanes of East Lake Road closed Wednesday night and will remain closed until Thursday morning, Gualtieri said. Authorities recommend drivers avoid the area of East Lake and Forelock roads while the investigation is ongoing. Traffic came to a standstill in the area around the crash for hours Wednesday night.
This is a developing story. Stay with tampabay.com for updates.