LUTZ — Officer Jesse Madsen considered everyone he met to be family.
He was born to a young mother who loved him but knew she couldn’t care for him, so he went home from the hospital with an adoptive family. After a few weeks, the family decided his skin was too dark and he was given up again.
When Jesse turned 6 months old, Bruce Madsen, a single father of two, adopted him. As the boy grew up, he showed a unique capacity to love strangers as if they were family. He was more than a son, Bruce Madsen said. He became a real-life superhero.
“Was he Superman? Batman? Tony Stark? No, he was Jesse Madsen,” Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan said during the officer’s memorial service Tuesday at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. “Those fictitious superheroes got nothing on him.”
Under the circumstances, Dugan said, someone was going to die the night of March 9 as Master Patrol Officer Jesse Madsen drove home on Interstate 275 and a call came in about a wrong-way driver. Madsen made the split-second decision to keep driving, Dugan said — to lead by example, to turn fear into courage, and to sacrifice his own life for others he would never know.
He intentionally maneuvered his patrol SUV into the path of a speeding, impaired driver, according to police, in an attempt to stop him and save others. Both men died on impact.
“This was not a car accident,” Dugan said. “This was done on purpose to save lives.”
Staring down the interstate, into the headlights of an oncoming driver was a scenario Madsen had thought about before, his friend and colleague Cpl. Terry Sims told mourners.
“Jesse and I had specific conversations about how to stop a wrong-way driver, and that night he did instinctively what we had always planned to do, years ago,” Sims said. “First man in, last man out, leading by example. … If he was here, I think Jesse would tell us doing these things is worth it, and that it’s an honor to serve others.”
Still, it’s hard to let go of a hero.
One by one, soldiers, police officers and family members sobbed as they spoke Tuesday at Idlewild church about their lion-hearted friend.
Under coronavirus protocols, all in attendance wore masks and every other pew was roped off. All seats available in the church, which can hold, 5,000, were full. Following the funeral, officers from across the state escorted Madsen’s body to the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, where he was interred with full military honors in a private ceremony.
Madsen spent 16 of his 45 years as a Tampa Police officer and served three tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. military. He joined the Marines in 1994 and went on to become a sniper and firearms instructor. He suffered serious injury when an improvised explosive device exploded under his Humvee, yet finished his tour of duty and earned awards for his service.
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He worked for the Lyndhurst and Shaker Heights Police Departments in Ohio, then was hired by the Tampa Police Department in 2004. Among his assignments, he served in the honor guard and earned eight life-saving awards as well as four excellent duty awards, one unit citation, 17 letters of appreciation, three certificates of appreciation and now, in death, the Police Purple Shield and Police Medal of Honor as well as his final life-saving award. His family will receive the Tampa Police Department’s Gold Cross in recognition of his selfless act of heroism and Madsen’s badge number, 507, will be retired.
As a young police officer in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Madsen fell in love with another member of the force – his wife Danyelle, now a police officer at the University of South Florida. Behind her husband’s heroic persona, Danyelle told the mourners, it is his soft heart, his capacity to love and be loved, that she’ll miss most.
His greatest joy was being a father to their children, sons age 12 and 16 and a 10-year-old daughter. He taught the boys to fish and hunt and let his little girl paint his toenails, she said. Instead of target practice, Jesse would meet up with friends to shoot old TV sets, computers and copiers. You knew when he was about to tell a funny story because his eyes would well up with tears before he could even speak, she said. And when he laughed, it was so loud the dog would start barking.
“When our first son was born he called me from home at 2 a.m. sobbing,” Danyelle Madsen said. “I asked him what was wrong and he could barely get the words out. He said, ‘I never knew I could love someone so much that I only just met.’ But that’s how he loved everyone – fiercely.”
Madsen’s love knew no bounds, said Master Patrol Officer Michael Strom, his friend and longtime Tampa police partner.
To Madsen, brotherhood wasn’t a cliché. He was overseas when Strom’s brother died in car crash. Mourning the loss, Strom got a tattoo on his side like his brother’s — a Bible reference, Corinthians 10:13, about resisting temptation. When Madsen returned, he lifted his shirt and showed Strom he had gotten the same tattoo.
The tattoo meant Madsen could no longer serve in the Marines, Idlewild Baptist Pastor Ken Whitten told the mourners. Still, he wanted to enlist again, so he joined the Army Reserves.
At first, Danyelle begged him not to. But Madsen said the Army would never “deploy an old man like me,” Whitten said. Soon, he learned he was being sent to Afghanistan.
“He told Danyelle, ‘Now listen, I’ve got this shoulder thing and I can get out of it because I told you I would protect you, and I told you I would be here for you, and I’m telling you just say the word and I’ll stay,’” Whitten said. “She simply asked him, ’Why do you want to go,’ and his response will not surprise you.
“He said, ‘I want to make sure these kids come home. I wanna make sure the car behind me comes home. I wanna make sure my own kids and my community, my family, can come home.’”
And Madsen never made a promise he couldn’t keep.