Editor’s note: This story contains an account of domestic violence and suicide. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline, 1-800-799-7233, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255.
PLANT CITY — Kathy Garrison took notice when her friend’s voice came over the radio.
Garrison had known Terry Strawn for all her 19 years with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. They’d worked the streets together early in their careers. Now, on this chilly morning six days before Christmas, Garrison and her coworkers heard Strawn make a stunning confession.
“I need 10-46,” he said in a flat voice, using the code for emergency traffic. “I have killed my family.”
Strawn, 58, described where to find the bodies of his wife, Theresa, their daughter, Courtney, and their 6-year-old granddaughter, Londyn. He gave his location as Plant City High School but said he wouldn’t be alive when deputies got there. He asked God for forgiveness.
Garrison arrived and parked her patrol car behind Strawn’s SUV. Two more deputies who had known Strawn for years pulled up behind her.
His coworkers pleaded with Strawn, by radio and in person, for 12 minutes. But he had made up his mind.
“Hillsborough, please help deputies with depression,” he said. “It’s real. It hurts. It’s so real.”
Strawn wiped out three generations of his family that morning, driving eight miles from his Dover home, where he killed his wife and granddaughter, to his daughter’s place in Plant City. He fired a single shot to the back of their heads with his service pistol.
His colleagues would spend months trying to understand why one of their own betrayed his loved ones and an exemplary law enforcement career.
But the final, 493-page investigative report from the Sheriff’s Office, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times under Florida’s public records law, provides few hints about Strawn’s motive in the slayings. Sheriff Chad Chronister called the case perplexing and frustrating.
“We’re certainly motivated by trying to find out why,” Chronister said in an interview, “because you can’t prevent something if you don’t know what the cause was.”
Until that morning, Terry Lynn Strawn had been a model deputy.
Strawn joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1991 as a detention officer, then moved to patrol two years later. He would receive dozens of commendations in the next 26 years, including East Hillsborough Deputy of the Year in 2009.
Supervisors packed Strawn’s evaluations with praise. Citizens who wrote to Strawn’s supervisors complimented his calm, caring demeanor. In 2016, a woman whose grandson had written a note with suicidal thoughts commended Strawn for helping persuade the boy to get professional help.
His fraternal twin, Perry Strawn, told investigators, “My brother was one of the nicest people you’d ever meet,” and loved his family, especially Londyn. “They were just buddies."
Strawn retired in October 2017 at 57. After the slayings, Perry Strawn told a detective that his brother had complained about a former supervisor, saying the supervisor was part of the reason he left the force.
Yet in a 2017 employee evaluation, the same supervisor called Strawn “a good example for new deputies to emulate” and gave him a good overall score.
Theresa Strawn retired from her accounting job that same year, according to her obituary. The couple moved to Durango, Colo., where their son, Andrew, and his wife, Stacy, live. Courtney Strawn and Londyn moved with them.
Personnel records show Terry Strawn worked a while as a hospital security guard in Durango, but after about six months, the family moved back to Florida. Perry Strawn said his brother told him they couldn’t afford to buy the type of home they wanted in Colorado.
In June 2018, Terry and Theresa took out a mortgage to pay $227,000 for a four-bedroom home in Diamond Hill, a gated community in Dover. Perry Strawn told detectives he advised against the purchase because the house was more than they needed.
“I begged him, I said, ‘Don’t get into debt,’” Strawn said.
The Strawns were helping raise Londyn and the girl had her own bedroom, decorated in shades of pink. Courtney Strawn, a 32-year-old single mother, lived in a townhouse on Maki Road, near Plant City High.
When a detective asked about Terry Strawn’s relationship with his daughter, Perry Strawn said she could be “combative” and “a bucket of stress.”
“As he would put it, every time she was around there was gonna be a war,” Perry Strawn said.
Terry and Theresa Strawn argued, “but nothing big time serious," the brother said. Both could be jealous and Theresa had accused Strawn of cheating on her, Perry Strawn said, but his brother told him he’d never been unfaithful.
Perry Strawn said he didn’t see any sign his brother was capable of hurting himself or others, especially his own family.
So why kill them, a detective asked.
“I think he thought that he was doing them a favor by taking 'em with him to get ‘em outta this sh---y world,” he said.
In July 2018, Strawn returned to the Sheriff’s Office as a part-time security officer and was assigned to Valrico Elementary, where Londyn attended first grade. The day before the slayings, Strawn’s commander called to tell him he’d been approved to start full-time in January.
Strawn was excited, Chronister recalled, telling his supervisor, “Christmas came early.”
The Strawns had filed for bankruptcy in 2011, but Chronister said no financial issues surfaced during Strawn’s pre-employment background check and he passed a psychological test before he was re-hired.
Friends and coworkers would later tell detectives that Strawn had voiced concerns about health issues and finances but didn’t seem depressed or desperate.
Days before the murders, Strawn told two other deputies that he’d pulled his hamstring while pushing a water cart at school and was worried about passing the physical fitness test required to start full-time.
Strawn was set to take the test Dec. 27 and was looking for a backup job if he couldn’t pass, he told one of the deputies.
The last text messages between Terry and Theresa Strawn show no tension between them. In one exchange, Strawn mentioned a screening that showed a high protein count in his urine, which he noted could be a symptom of kidney disease.
“So scared,” Strawn said in one message.
Perry Strawn told detectives his brother called him on Dec. 18 and was “just nervous as he could be” about the finding.
“I think he thought it was the end of the world,” Perry Strawn said.
The same day, Strawn sent his supervisor a text message saying he would be late to his post at Valrico Elementary the next morning. Strawn told his boss about the urine screening and a trip to the hospital for treatment. Strawn said he had an appointment with his doctor at 9:30 a.m.
By then, he would be dead.
On Dec. 19, half an hour before sunrise, Deputy Garrison was pulling out of her neighborhood about a mile away from Plant City High when she heard Strawn’s voice on the radio.
The conversations that followed were recorded.
Strawn asked his coworkers to go to his house and his daughter’s townhouse to find the bodies.
"I love them all so very much," he said. "I’m just at the end of my rope. I’ve lost pretty much everything."
“Hey, brother, you’ve still got a lot to live for, man,” Deputy Lance Shiver said over the radio. “We can figure something out. Remember, we’re all in this together, okay?”
Shiver urged Strawn to reconsider ending his life, telling him he just needed a plan.
“No plan when you killed your wife, your granddaughter and your daughter,” Strawn replied. “I don’t wanna leave ‘em behind. ... It’s a cruel world, a very cruel world.”
Strawn called out to his lieutenant, Buddy McCullough, and told him he loved him and appreciated his help over the years. He said he was probably going to hell for what he’d done.
McCullough asked Strawn to give him time to get there so they could talk. It won’t do any good, Strawn replied.
“Lieutenant, you know there’s more to this than meets the eye, man,” Strawn said. “I’ve lost everything, man. I’ve got health problems in a bad way.”
“You are one of the best men I have ever known, and it would mean so much to me to be able to talk to you and try to work through this," McCullough said. He promised he wouldn’t try to stop Strawn when he got there.
Garrison pulled up behind Strawn’s SUV and asked Strawn to come out of the SUV and give her a hug. There’s no indication he obliged.
Deputy Rennie Lariz, who’d known Strawn for nearly two decades and had pulled in behind Garrison, said over the radio: “Terry, we’re all here for you. All of us have hard stuff to go through. We’ll go through it with you.”
Deputy Greg Starling, who had attended the same church as Strawn, arrived before Strawn got out and stood by his driver’s door. Strawn wore a Nike sweatshirt, plaid pajama bottoms and flip flops. He was armed, Garrison told those on the radio.
There was a brief exchange off the air as Garrison, Lariz and Starling talked directly to Strawn. McCullough asked Garrison to tell him he was about eight minutes away.
Seconds later, Garrison called out over the radio in a quavering voice.
“He just — in the head," she said.
Strawn had shot himself with his service pistol. He died at the scene.
Strawn had no drugs or alcohol in his system, according to a toxicology report. Medical records showed he visited the emergency room Dec. 17 complaining of pain to his left side, but all the lab results were clear.
A CT scan showed something — details are redacted from the Sheriff’s Office report — “though this was not malignant and there was no related symptomatology,” the report says.
There’s no indication in the investigative file that Strawn had been diagnosed with depression or mental illness.
Strawn’s family has said little publicly about the deaths. Perry Strawn declined to comment for this article. Andrew Strawn did not respond to messages left on numbers listed for him and his wife.
The deputies who last spoke to Strawn also declined interview requests.
Suicide rates among first responders have been climbing at an alarming rate, eventually surpassing deaths in the line of duty. In Hillsborough, Strawn was the second deputy to fatally shoot family members and then themselves in late 2018.
The Sheriff’s Office has now expanded and improved confidential mental health resources, including a Doctor on Demand service. It is encouraging employees to speak up if they see coworkers struggling, offers a peer support program and access to more chaplains of all faiths. The office is also working to convince employees they shouldn’t be afraid to take advantage of the resources.
“As a command staff we talked about how it’s okay to struggle, it’s okay to get help," Chronister said. "Everyone’s afraid that if they come forward, they’re not going to get the transfer they want, they’re not going to get the promotion they want because it’s a sign of weakness and we said, ‘No, you’re hearing it from us, it’s just the opposite.’ ”
Chronister said Strawn’s coworkers are still grieving and wondering after the investigation pointed to no obvious triggers.
“What that led us to believe is it goes back to depression," Chronister said, "and sometimes with depression, there doesn’t have to be a reason.”