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Widow discovers who struck, killed her husband on bike: former Rep. Robert Schenck

Sharon Swanson holds a photo of her late husband, Lyle Swanson, who was hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle in Spring Hill in September 2014. Swanson lived six months after the crash.
Sharon Swanson holds a photo of her late husband, Lyle Swanson, who was hit by a vehicle while riding his bicycle in Spring Hill in September 2014. Swanson lived six months after the crash.
Published Apr. 13, 2016

SPRING HILL — On a clear morning in September 2014, Lyle Swanson's happy life as a retiree ended when a black Lincoln MKZ cut a corner on a left turn in Spring Hill, crashing into Swanson's bicycle.

The 74-year-old Swanson had severe injuries that sent him from one health care facility to another over the next six months. Those injuries cost him his life in March 2015.

What few people knew, including Swanson's wife of 53 years, Sharon, was that the driver of the vehicle was Robert Schenck.

A former Hernando County commissioner from Spring Hill, Schenck was finishing his final term in the Florida House of Representatives when he collided with Swanson's bicycle.

Sharon Swanson expressed surprise and then anger when the Tampa Bay Times told her who had hit her husband's bike and caused his death. Now saddled with about $1 million in medical bills she cannot pay, she said she feels as if there was a cover-up and that politicians do not understand that whatever they try to hide will eventually become known.

"He killed someone,'' she said. "The truth needs to come out.''

The Florida Highway Patrol investigated the crash. A trooper arrived after Lyle Swanson, who had broken his back and neck and suffered a severe brain injury, had already had a tube inserted in his throat on the roadway to help him breathe. The trooper, who categorized the injuries as "incapacitating," cited Schenck for being at fault. He issued him a citation for making an improper turn for cutting the corner while turning left from Eldridge Road onto Vicksburg Road.

While the FHP routinely issues news releases on serious-injury crashes, bicycle wrecks and delayed fatal outcomes, no releases were ever sent out regarding this crash.

FHP spokesman Steve Gaskins said everything was done by the book.

"The driver was ticketed for the traffic violation, which resulted in the crash occurring,'' Gaskins said in an email. "Not every crash that FHP investigates results in a press release being issued.''

In addition, Swanson's death the following March was "outside of the time frame to be considered a traffic fatality by crash report or FHP policy standards,'' he wrote. "Thus, no favoritism was shown to either party, rather policy was followed with this incident.''

Schenck's role in the wreck would also not be apparent on the Hernando County clerk of court's website. A search of his name turns up a number of listings, but nothing regarding the wreck.

A search of Lyle Swanson's name, however, does bring up the traffic citation against Schenck. It shows it was filed with a misspelling of Schenck's name — "Schenek." His name was spelled correctly on the FHP report.

"I don't know why it hasn't been made public before now,'' Schenck said when contacted by the Times this week.

He said he didn't do anything to keep his political identity out of the equation. "I don't know anything about that, nor do I care about that at all,'' he said.

In talking about the morning of the wreck, Schenck, 40, said "it was just a horrific incident that took me out of the blue. . . . Not a day goes by when I don't think about it.''

Asked whether he was thinking about how the wreck would make him look as he ended his legislative tenure, he said, "Mostly I was just concerned about the welfare of the man.''

Schenck said he found out that Swanson had died about a month after he passed away, when his insurance company informed him.

While Schenck noted that he was out of active politics now, he did not deny that he still is involved in Republican Party politics.

"Almost two years later, because I'm involved in politics in some capacity, this comes out,'' he said. "All it's doing is bringing up a bunch of bad memories that are going to hurt all the people involved.''

Sharon Swanson said her husband was ''such a decent guy, a law-abiding citizen.'' Together they raised five children. They had 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, the last one named for her late husband.

For 40 years, Lyle Swanson did shift work at the steel mills in Chicago, helping his wife work through school and obtain her master's degree.

In good health, he was an avid bike rider in his retirement.

"He wanted to stay well in case I got sick so he could take care of me,'' she said. "It's ironic.''

For months after the wreck, Sharon Swanson had the grueling task of changing medical facilities with her husband, finally landing at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa. For nearly the entire time, his severe brain injury kept him from communicating. In the last two weeks before his body gave out, he finally began to talk.

"He thought I was our daughter,'' Sharon Swanson said.

Schenck's insurance company settled for $25,000 on the accident, and Schenck gave Swanson an additional $25,000. But Medicare still wants reimbursement, and her lawyer is fighting that.

"They wanted to know what are my savings,'' she said. "I cried so hard that day. After losing him, they will come after me for the money.''

Although Schenck said he often thought about contacting Swanson about the wreck, he said he couldn't say why he never did. Asked what he might say to her, he replied, "I'd say the same thing I said to the officer at the scene. The sorrow about the accident doesn't even begin to describe it. It was horrific.''

When Schenck's citation came up in court, the Swanson family was there, but Schenck did not appear. County Judge Kurt Hitzemann withheld adjudication, a sentencing option that allows defendants with good records to avoid conviction. So Schenck has no official mark on his record indicating he caused a wreck that took a man's life.

Such a ruling is not unusual in this kind of case, Brooksville lawyer and former Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop said.

"The law is not always fair, but that's the law,'' said Hyslop, adding that he had no doubt Hitzemann treated Schenck no differently than he would others.

Sharon Swanson said it would have made all the difference in the world if, in court or at some other time since the wreck, Schenck had come to her and apologized.

"You have no idea how it would have eased all our pain,'' she said.

"I can't tell you what a tragedy this has been. To meet someone when you're 17 years old and lose them when you're 70, it's hard.''

News researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Barbara Behrendt at bbehrendt@tampabay.com.

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