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Thousands mourn Hillsborough deputy, husband and father killed while on duty

His wife told Brian LaVigne to sit still in the last days before his retirement. He said okay. “That was a lie. He couldn’t in a million years ‘not do anything.’”
The folding of the flag is part of the memorial service Tuesday at Idelwild Baptist Church for slain Cpl. Brian LaVigne.
The folding of the flag is part of the memorial service Tuesday at Idelwild Baptist Church for slain Cpl. Brian LaVigne. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 19
Updated Jan. 20

The governor was there and so was the attorney general, the mayor of Tampa and Hillsborough County’s sheriff.

By 7 a.m. on Tuesday, law enforcement officers, reporters and local officials were donning face masks, getting their temperatures checked and packing the pews of Idlewild Baptist Church. The crowd would swell to about 3,000 in a cavernous sanctuary that holds 5,000.

An honor guard presided over the funeral and the fallen officer’s widow received a proclamation from the County Commission in honor of her husband’s more than 30 years of service.

In his remarks, Sheriff Chad Chronister announced that Master Cpl. Brian LaVigne — killed, investigators said, when a fleeing suspect deliberately rammed his patrol car — has been posthumously promoted to the rank of sergeant.

Related: Live updates: Memorial services for slain Hillsborough Sheriff's Cpl. Brian LaVigne

Outside, hundreds more prepared to honor LaVigne’s sacrifice with solemn ceremony — a presentation of colors to his family, the traditional riderless horse and “final call” from a nearby squad car,” a 21-gun salute, a motorcycle motorcade, a small army of kilted bagpipers and a spectacular helicopter flyover.

Law enforcement officers came from across the state and as far as New Jersey and California, forming up over a period of 23 minutes for a 23-mile procession to the sheriff’s District 5 office near the Falkenburg Road Jail. That’s where LaVigne reported for duty each day.

“Brian would have thought it was all too much, that it was too much of a fuss,” his wife Cathy said. “We spoiled him rotten, and he was so, so happy.”

Teacher Erin Liam Lavigne posted this family photo to Facebook after the death of his father, Cpl. Brian LaVigne. From left are Brian; Erin Liam;  mother Cathy LaVigne; and sister Caitlin LaVigne, also a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy.
Teacher Erin Liam Lavigne posted this family photo to Facebook after the death of his father, Cpl. Brian LaVigne. From left are Brian; Erin Liam; mother Cathy LaVigne; and sister Caitlin LaVigne, also a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy. [ Facebook ]

If the shoe was on the other foot, she said, if it were Brian who had to stand at the pulpit to deliver a tear-filled eulogy Tuesday morning, it likely would have sounded just like the one she has been practicing since Jan. 11 — the day before her husband was due to retire and the night he was killed on the job.

“Brian and I joked that he had to sit still and not do anything in the last days before his retirement,” Cathy LaVigne told the crowd. “He assured me he wouldn’t do anything. That was a lie. He couldn’t in a million years ‘not do anything.’”

Still, she said, she knew what she signed up for. So did his children. The rules are different when your spouse was born to “serve and protect.”

Everyone says that if you know Cathy, you know Brian, too. They were high school sweethearts who fell in love their sophomore year when they were just “barbarian teenagers,” she said. Their two children turned out just as wonderfully weird as they did.

They shared the same heart, same brain, and same sense of humor — dry sarcasm mixed with quick, biting wit that shocked and delighted his colleagues in the Sheriff’s Office, the kids he coached on his children’s soccer teams, the friends in his jiu-jitsu class and the thousands of students he met and still remembered from his days working as a school resource officer.

”I can’t stand before you and cry, that’s not what Brian would do,” Cathy LaVigne said. “He’d tell you this isn’t fair and probably rant — he would definitely rant — and then maybe throw out something shockingly inappropriately funny just to see your reaction.”

And he would have loved the music chosen for his funeral — a mixture of Irish pub music from the Dropkick Murphys and Flogging Molly and old-time hymns that had his colleagues in uniform singing along.

He would have laughed when a bagpiper stepped onto a stage bathed in green light and white flowers to play the elegiac Por Ti Volare, “with you I will leave.”

Ever the Irishman, LaVigne had recently decided, at 54, he would learn to play the bagpipes.

Brian LaVigne loved to learn. When he reached his 50s, he began studying jiu-jitsu and taekwondo with his children and had earned his brown belt days before his death. He taught himself to speak Spanish fluently and was a certified translator for the Sheriff’s Office. He practiced by speaking only in Spanish to friend and sparring partner Frank Orobello, who told the crowd that, after a while, he learned Spanish too.

“And then one day during a fight, he started talking, and I said, ‘Hey man, that’s not Spanish,’” Orobello said. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, now that we’ve done that, Cathy and I are learning French.’”

LaVigne would have risen quickly through the ranks, Sheriff Chad Chronister said. But he passed up promotions so he could spend more time with his family. He was often the only deputy volunteering for a midnight shift. That way, he could squeeze in just enough sleep before his kids came home from school.

THANK YOU. As we reflect on the previous week, we are speechless. There are no words to express our gratitude to...

Posted by Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office on Sunday, January 17, 2021

He would have beamed with pride listening to his son, Erin Liam Lavigne, speak eloquently about his father. A shy and timid child, Erin Liam said his dad always knew how to break through his shell — with Battlestar Galactica, a perfectly poured Guinness, or their shared love of history.

Because of his dad, Erin Liam became an AP History teacher at Riverview High School, beloved by his students for his offbeat humor. But his daughter Caitlin was always known as Brian’s “mini-me” — even following in his footsteps to join the Sheriff’s Office as a deputy nine years ago.

“When I get quiet or fade into the background of a conversation, which I would do a lot, my dad would lean over and ask how teaching was going or just engage me in a topic that he knew I couldn’t shut up about,” Erin Liam said. “He was good like that ... Dad was the sort of person who it was almost impossible to be sad around.”

From a young age, his children developed a habit of running to the front window if their dad didn’t wake them up for school to make sure his patrol car was in the driveway.

“It’s always been my worst fear that dad wouldn’t make it home,” Caitlin LaVigne said. “I don’t have an answer for what happened last week. Cops always try to figure things out, but there is no motive here. There is no answer.”

Still, his wife said she had no regrets.

“If you had told me when I was 17 that I would have an absolutely amazing life with this man - my best friend, my love, my husband - but it would be violently cut short with no warning, and I would be devastated and broken and it would be the worst thing ever, I would still sign up for this ride again in a heartbeat,” she said.

“I think it’s more frightening to come to the end of your road and realize that you never really lived.

“Well, Brian lived.”