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Pinellas community mourns deputy killed in line of duty

Deputies said a drunken driver slammed into 30-year-old Deputy Michael Magli on Wednesday. It marked the first time in the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office history that a deputy was killed in the line of duty.
A procession of law enforcement vehicles escort the body of slain Deputy Michael Magli from the Medical Examiner's Office in Largo to the Thomas B.Dobies Funeral Home in Holiday on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 in Holiday.
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A procession of law enforcement vehicles escort the body of slain Deputy Michael Magli from the Medical Examiner's Office in Largo to the Thomas B.Dobies Funeral Home in Holiday on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2021 in Holiday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 18
Updated Feb. 19

Signs of destruction remained Thursday morning on East Lake Road, which a day earlier became the site of something that had never before happened in the century-plus history of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office: the death of a deputy in the line of duty.

Utilities crew worked on a destroyed light post. Deputies packed up the mobile command center that had been set up Wednesday evening. A street sweeper removed debris from where deputies said Robert Allen Holzaepfel, driving drunkenly and recklessly, slammed into 30-year-old Deputy Michael Magli as he tried to deploy tire-deflating stop sticks in an effort to apprehend Holzaepfel.

Cars slowed in bunches as they drove near the site of the crash, which had blanketed local news Wednesday night and drew an outpouring of grief and support from the community. Just before the road reopened to traffic, a deputy adorned it with a red, white and blue bouquet and a single American flag.

Related: Pinellas sheriff’s deputy killed trying to stop drunken driver, sheriff says

At the Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Largo, a blue-and-black banner encircled a patrol vehicle. Magli’s agency photograph sat at its base. He smiles in the picture, his cheeks flushed, one eyebrow slightly raised. People who worked with him at the beginning of his career remembered him saying that he’d wanted to be a deputy since he was a kid.

Josh Waulk, a retired deputy from Belleair Bluffs, stopped by the memorial with his three children to pay their respects. They knelt and prayed silently for a minute.

“This is a tough day,” Waulk said.

Related: Memorial fund for fallen Pinellas deputy announced

Magli joined the Sheriff’s Office as a civilian employee in 2013, working as a criminal justice specialist at the courthouse, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Wednesday. He became a patrol deputy in north Pinellas County the next year. He was married and had two young children.

More details of his life and career weren’t immediately available Thursday. A spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office said funeral arrangements were in the works, and that Magli’s family was working with a liaison for the Sheriff’s Office but wasn’t ready to speak publicly. Thursday afternoon, the Sheriff’s Office organized a procession to transport Magli’s body to a funeral home, with a site near U.S. 19 for the public to watch.

Jonathan Vazquez, president of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents most Pinellas law enforcement officers, said sorrow hung over the law enforcement community Thursday.

“We are angry,” he said in an email. “We are hurting. There aren’t words for this kind of death. No one should die this way — especially not a young father and husband like Deputy Magli.”

Pinellas County Deputy Michael Magli, 30, is seen in this undated photo. Deputy Magli was killed while attempting to stop a suspect along East Lake Road, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021.
Pinellas County Deputy Michael Magli, 30, is seen in this undated photo. Deputy Magli was killed while attempting to stop a suspect along East Lake Road, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. [ PCSO ]

The union will give $50,000 to Magli’s family in the coming days, Vazquez added, and will continue fundraising. The Sheriff’s Office also planned to announce an official way for people to make donations to the family.

On the Sheriff’s Office’s social media pages Thursday, thousands sent their condolences. Among them was Cassandra Sampson, who knew Magli years ago, just before he became a deputy. The two had started work at the courthouse on the same day in 2013, going through training together, working the security station at the entrance.

Both were trying to get their foot in the door at the Sheriff’s Office — Sampson later worked in the child protection division for a time, she said — and though he clearly wanted to move up and become a deputy, Magli also took his job at the courthouse seriously, she said. She also remembered how he constantly gushed about his wife.

“He’s just one of those people you don’t forget,” she said.

“One thing that stuck out the most about him was that he always had a smile on his face, and he had a good sense of humor,” recalled Rob Hellinger, who worked with Magli around the same time. “Most of all, he was proud to be working for PCSO. He was always very friendly to people, even when they were short with him.”

Kevin Bryant met Magli only recently and briefly, but he said the deputy lodged in his memory, too. Bryant and his wife moved to Pinellas County in December from rural Kentucky. They’d been here less than 12 hours, he said, when a man jumped from the bushes near their apartment and rushed at his wife’s car, apparently in an attempt to carjack it.

Bryant’s wife got away and the man fled, he said. When the couple called 911, Magli was among the deputies who responded. He didn’t just take a report, Bryant said — he was personable, talking about his daughters and letting Bryant’s son check out the inside of his cruiser. And he kept apologizing, seemingly on behalf of the whole state: He wanted the Bryants to know they hadn’t made a mistake in moving here.

“For him to be somebody, just a normal person, that made me feel good,” Bryant said.

Holzaepfel, the driver accused of killing Magli, has been charged with first degree felony murder, DUI manslaughter, driving without a valid license resulting in death and aggravated fleeing and eluding law enforcement.

It wasn’t Holzaepfel’s first involvement with the law. The 33-year-old was on probation until June 4, 2022.

In 2014, he was convicted of driving under the Influence with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or higher, as well as driving with a cancelled, suspended or revoked license.

Holzaepfel was also convicted of 16 felonies, for dealing in stolen property and defrauding a pawnbroker. The convictions stemmed from a series of incidents spanning about five weeks in 2016, in which Holzaepfel stole and pawned laptops from Walmart.

Christopher Pratt, a Palmetto-based attorney, represented Holzaepfel through many of his encounters with the legal system. When they last interacted, in November of 2018, Holzaepfel seemed to have gotten his life back on track and was working in a machine shop, Pratt said.

“He really appeared to have put most of the youthful indiscretions behind him, and really just appeared to be in a good direction,” Pratt said. “It’s sad for Mr. Holzaepfel, 10 times more sad for the victim’s family.”

On Thursday afternoon, a procession took Magli’s body from the Medical Examiner’s Office in Largo to the Thomas B. Dobies Funeral Home in Holiday. Gualtieri and other sheriff’s officials saluted as it arrived.

Here there were at least three more American flags. One, hanging from a pair of bucket trucks, greeted the procession. Another covered Magli’s body as it was carried from a hearse. And a third, outside the funeral home, flew at half staff.