BRANDON — An hour before nightfall on what should have been the second-to-last shift of his career, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Cpl. Brian LaVigne sat in his squad car on the shoulder of Lumsden Road.
LaVigne, 54, had built a reputation over the course of three decades as a deputy others wanted to be around: He was the kind of guy who insisted the members of his units share meals, a former field training officer whose pupils included some of the agency’s command staff. In October, he updated his Facebook page with a new cover photo: a calendar page with a January date circled. Retirement.
Now, early Monday evening, he stood by as a pursuit unfolded just a few hundred yards away. Two deputies had responded to a report that a resident of the nearby Paddock Club Brandon apartments was acting strangely, walking around in the nude and breaking things. Then, they alleged, the man, 28-year-old Travis Zachary Gabriel Garrett, attacked them and fled in his car, unfazed when they deployed their Tasers.
The deputies gave chase. Two others fell into pursuit. LaVigne had his lights on, an arrest report would later say, but he wasn’t trying to apprehend Garrett. But as Garrett’s Nissan Maxima sped down Lumsden Road, deputies said, he veered to the right, across two lanes of traffic and toward LaVigne.
“He’s aiming for your car,” one of the other deputies yelled over the radio. “Get out of the way, get out of the way!”
LaVigne’s car moved forward about a foot, one deputy said, before the Maxima slammed into the driver’s side. The damage, according to the report, was “catastrophic.” A fire rescue crew pulled LaVigne out of the car and took him to Tampa General Hospital. Hours later, his body was wheeled out, draped by an American flag.
Garrett was also taken to a hospital, where he was booked remotely into Hillsborough County jail custody Tuesday morning, according to the jail website. The Sheriff’s Office did not publicly update his condition Tuesday. An initial toxicology screening noted the presence of THC and cocaine, according to the arrest report. He faces charges of: first-degree murder; DUI manslaughter; vehicular homicide; two counts of battery on a law enforcement officer, for fighting with the deputies who responded to his apartment; two counts of resisting arrest with violence; felony criminal mischief; and aggravated fleeing to elude.
LaVigne was the first Florida law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, a nonprofit that tracks such things.
He was also a husband and a father to two adult children, one of whom is a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputy. His Facebook page evinced some of his interests and passions: muay thai and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Irish history, craft beer. He bantered in comments in Spanish and French, and one post boasted of 910 days straight of Duolingo practice. “Laissez le bon temps rouler,” the signature below the name on his profile read — let the good times roll.
His array of interests and activities, and his close relationship with his family, would have served him well in retirement, said Carl Hassell, who worked with LaVigne in the street crimes unit from 2013 to 2015 and retired in 2019 as a master sergeant. Some cops, especially as they approach retirement, need to be reminded that there’s more to life than the job, Hassell said. He never worried about that with LaVigne.
The two knew each other for most of their careers, Hassell said; they could go years without seeing one another, then pick up a conversation as if they’d never left it. When they worked together in street crimes, Hassell was technically the superior, but he looked to LaVigne for his undercover experience, his deep knowledge of narcotics policing and his ability to “filter the nonsense out,” he said. And though he didn’t want to go into personal details, he said LaVigne was just as adept at being a good friend as he was a good colleague.
“I respected his counsel, and his friendship for me during that time was important in my life,” Hassell said. “He was the right person for me in my life at that time.”
Travis Baumgardner, the head instructor and owner at Gracie Fishhawk, the martial arts gym where LaVigne studied and sometimes taught classes, said Tuesday that LaVigne worked incredibly hard but was “infectiously happy.” He’d trained there since the gym opened seven years ago, Baumgardner said, and was often the first through the door in the mornings.
“His relationship with Caitlin, his daughter, would be the envy of any parent,” Baumgardner said in a Facebook message. “I always watched them and looked at my kids and hoped I would do a good enough job that they would look at me like Brian’s (children) looked at him.”
LaVigne’s family could not be reached for comment Tuesday. In response to questions about whether the family would speak publicly or whether anyone would speak on their behalf, a Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman said the agency was trying to organize something but was unsure of when that would happen.
Garrett, the defendant in LaVigne’s killing, does not have an extensive criminal history. Sheriff Chad Chronister on Monday night mentioned a previous arrest in Camden County, Georgia, but the Times could not locate a record of such an arrest.
In 2017, according to public records, Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies hospitalized Garrett under the Baker Act, Florida’s involuntary mental health examination law. According to an incident report, Garrett took medication for bipolar disorder and had previously been treated at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, though the Times was not immediately able to confirm whether he served in the military.
Deputies responded twice to Garrett’s apartment Monday, the first time less than two hours before the encounter that led to the fatal chase. A caller had reported that Garrett was throwing clothes and furniture off his balcony. Deputies said they spoke to Garrett through the door of his apartment and determined that no crime had been committed.
Nobody answered the door Tuesday at a home belonging to Garrett’s family in Wesley Chapel, nor did they respond to a note left there by a Times reporter.
Chronister held a news conference near the site of the crash late Monday night, revealing how it had occurred and often choking up when talking about LaVigne and his family.
“You could only imagine the pain they’re going through being only one shift away from retirement,” Chronister said.
A day after the crash, Hassell was thinking about his friend, about how cruel it was that he’d made it through 30 years of a sometimes dangerous job only to be killed just before retirement. He hadn’t slept, he said.
“You paid all your dues,” he said. “You did everything right. And this random violent act takes away everything you worked hard for.”
Hassell was texting with his squadmates from that street crimes unit, swapping memories of what remained, for some of them, the most fun period of their careers. The camaraderie that built with the long, unpredictable hours. The old Chevy Impala that LaVigne sometimes drove, smelling of gym clothes and nicknamed Black Betty.
And those dinners he insisted on. Hassell was a little skeptical at first, but he became a believer in them quickly: the face-to-face time, in a job where whole shifts might be spent communicating by radio, brought them closer and helped them snuff out any tension before it became a problem. There was value in that, LaVigne believed. It was part of what made them a family.
The Sheriff’s Office has set up an official link for those interested in making a donation in memory of Master Corporal LaVigne.
Anyone who would like to donate is asked to do so through the Lynn Sowers Memorial Foundation. The link to donate can be found on the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office website at www.teamhcso.com/BrianLaVigne.
Times staff writers Romy Ellenbogen, Josh Fiallo and Luis Santana contributed to this report.