TAMPA — Their paths crossed suddenly, violently, fatally.
Master Patrol Officer Jesse Madsen was heading north on Interstate 275 in his marked patrol SUV early Tuesday, probably on his way home from work. Joshua Daniel Montague, 25, new in town, got onto the interstate and headed in the wrong direction, police say. They crashed near E Hillsborough Avenue. Both men died on impact.
Montague was likely intoxicated at the time of the crash, driving his rented sedan at speeds of more than 100 mph, police Chief Brian Dugan said Thursday. And data collected from Madsen’s SUV showed he made two sharp turns just before impact.
The chief said that corroborated an eyewitness’s account that Madsen appeared to intentionally veer into the path of the oncoming car to stop the wrong-way driver.
“Officer Madsen is a true American hero,” Dugan said at a news conference at police headquarters. “He deliberately moved his patrol car into the other driver’s path of travel. We believe Jesse Madsen was attempting to stop this wrong way driver from putting anyone else’s life in danger by laying down his own.”
Madsen was a 45-year-old father of three and decorated veteran of the Tampa Police Department. Montague had a 3-year-old daughter with his partner of six years, Sandra Bundy.
He had just moved to Tampa from Colorado to work for a local moving company with a friend, she said. Bundy spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday, before the chief revealed new details about speed and possible impairment in the crash.
She said his plan was to earn enough money to eventually move the rest of his family to Tampa Bay.
“Everything about what happened was terrible,” Bundy said through tears. “People are talking about (Madsen) and they should, but Josh was a father, too. An amazing one.”
Bundy said she understands why people are upset at Montague. But she has a theory why her partner drove the wrong way on the highway: He just didn’t know the roads.
“He didn’t mean to do it — he just got confused,” Bundy said. “He had too much to leave behind to do anything on purpose.”
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But at Thursday’s news conference, Dugan said investigators believe impairment was a factor in the crash.
Detectives said they found beer bottles in Montague’s hotel room along with his still-unopened luggage.
“We have reason to believe he was at a local bar and, basically through interviews, he was out drinking somewhere,” Dugan said. “We’re still following up trying to determine exactly who he was with and who he talked to that night.”
Police started receiving calls about a wrong-way driver shortly before 1 a.m. The crash happened about a minute after the initial call, officials said.
Investigators believe Montague got onto the interstate at the E Busch Boulevard exit, Dugan said. Madsen was probably on his way home at the time of the crash, the chief said, and was not responding to the reports of a wrong way driver.
“It all happened so fast that he just reacted and placed himself in front of that car,” Dugan said.
The force of the crash “obliterated” both cars, he said.
“The front end was gone, the engine was on the side of the road,” Dugan said of Montague’s car. “Officer Madsen’s (SUV) was in a ditch, on its side, you couldn’t get him out.
“You truly feel for our officers who were first there and their sense of helplessness.”
The Florida Department of Transportation also believes Montague entered I-275 via the E Busch Boulevard ramp, said spokesperson Kris Carson. The agency is still investigating whether the wrong-way detection system was working at the time, but said it passed a test two days before the crash.
Dugan said Madsen will be awarded the police Purple Shield, presented to Tampa officers who suffer extreme injury or death in the line of duty. He will also be awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest medal for police employees who distinguish themselves “by an act of heroism at the cost of imminent personal danger,” Dugan said.
Madsen will be posthumously awarded the eighth Life Saving Award of his 16½-year career with the department.
The officer’s family will receive the Gold Cross Award, presented to families of law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty.
A candlelight vigil was planned for Thursday night at police headquarters, where Madsen’s name has been etched into the Fallen Officers Memorial, which sits downtown at the corner of E Madison Street and N Franklin Street. He is the 32nd Tampa police officer to die in the line of duty.
The officer’s funeral is set for 11 a.m. Tuesday at Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz. Visitation is at 10 a.m. Both events are open to the public.
A private committal service will be held at 2:30 p.m. at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
Bundy said that Montague was like a father to her oldest child, Walker, even though the boy wasn’t his son by blood. She said Montague and their daughter, Irys, were inseparable.
“She was his absolute best friend,” Bundy said.
Bundy said she plans to focus on being the best mother she can to their daughter now.
“She just keeps saying she wants her dad,” Bundy said. “I don’t even know what to tell her.”
Later Thursday, she wrote on Facebook that she would no longer post publicly about Montague’s death, saying she was receiving harassing messages.
“Both families are mourning losses and my daughter and I don’t need the negativity so back off,” Bundy wrote. A funeral for Montague will be held at a later date, she wrote, and after his cremation she and her daughter will receive half his ashes.
Dugan called the crash “a complete tragedy for both families.”
The chief added: “When you have alcohol involved, this whole thing could have been avoided.”