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Disbelief gives way to warm remembrances of man killed in boating accident

A friend of Joshua Griffin’s said, “He was always smiling.”
Published Sep. 4, 2013

Jason "Gator" Guralny was at a weekend getaway at Clearwater Beach when his cell started ringing. Hugh Townsend was at home with his wife, Betty, when several friends called. And Luke Phelan, a Hernando sheriff's deputy, was nodding off after returning from a night shift when he heard from a friend that Joshua Griffin had died.

"I told her it wasn't true, to calm down," he said.

Phelan decided to drive over anyway. But it didn't sink in, not really, until he arrived at the Griffin family ranch off State Road 52 and saw the cars in the driveway.

As Griffin's friends and acquaintances struggled Tuesday with how the 29-year-old, a former candidate for Pasco County Commission, could have died so suddenly, new details emerged about the boating accident that killed him.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating, said Griffin died after the boat he was riding in, a Boston Whaler, struck a red channel marker about 11:45 p.m. Sunday as it headed west out of the Pithlachascotee River into the Gulf of Mexico.

Investigators think Griffin was thrown from the boat and struck the marker after the boat's front right side hit the marker while traveling at 25 to 45 mph.

Griffin's brother, Jeffery Jeremiah Griffin, 32, was piloting the boat. Also aboard was a friend, Denelle Walicke, 25. All three are from Land O'Lakes, the commission said.

Pasco Fire Rescue met the vessel when it returned to shore. Griffin was pronounced dead at 12:15 a.m. Monday. Investigators could not say whether alcohol contributed to the accident. Blood was drawn from Jeffery Griffin.

Friends of Griffin's said his death seemed surreal. Many said they called one another Monday to find out more or offer comforting words. Others logged onto email and social media accounts to seek updates.

By midday, dozens had left messages — words of encouragement and prayers — on Griffin's Facebook page. By Tuesday, many more had visited a Facebook memorial site packed with recollections and photos — a smiling young man embracing someone at a party, on a boat or at a beach.

"He was always smiling," said Townsend, a family friend. "That's just the way he was. He had a smile on his face."

Some of Griffin's closer friends checked with his family, offering whatever they could.

"That family has been extremely supportive of me and the Republican Party and Pasco County in general, and I told her I would do anything I could for her," Richard Jenkins, a former County Commission candidate, said of Griffin's mother, Danielle Griffin.

Luke Phelan's brother, Chip Phelan, said he was at his job as a mental health counselor when his wife called to tell him what happened.

"It was totally out of the blue," he said. "I think that's why it was hard to believe. I remember a year ago I lost a dear friend from college, but not as suddenly as this."

Guralny said he had the same stunned reaction after the phone rang Monday morning.

"It was just disbelief," he said. "Of all the people this could happen to. He was just bigger than life."

Griffin worked as a project manager at the family business, Bio Mass Tech. Friends said he was equally adept reading blueprints or running heavy equipment, but he wanted more from life. He was preparing to go to law school and had a love of politics nurtured by his parents, Jeff and Danielle, who attended local political events and donated to Republican candidates and causes.

Josh played football at River Ridge High School and graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Tampa.

Two years ago, he ran for Pasco County Commission, losing in the primary to Kathryn Starkey, but he had thought of someday making another run for political office, friends said.

"We told him he was young and had his whole life ahead of him," Townsend said.

Guralny, who had known Griffin 15 years, said, "You just knew he was going someplace in life.

"He just had a good head on his shoulders and was good at listening to other people's concerns. He was just an all-around positive person."

Rich Shopes can be reached at (727) 869-6236 or rshopes@tampabay.com.

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