TAMPA — Sarah Geren is convinced the deputy killed in a wrong-way crash Saturday on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway sacrificed himself to save her life.
Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy John Kotfila was driving behind Geren about 2:45 a.m. when he suddenly accelerated and pulled in front of her, putting himself in the path of a sport utility vehicle barreling down the expressway toward the two cars.
"I feel like he was trying to be a human shield," Geren, 42, said Monday outside the Sheriff's Fallen Heroes Memorial.
Geren watched the two collide, scattering dust and debris over the hood of her car. The impact was so great, the sound so loud, she was convinced no one could have survived. Hands shaking, she dialed 911.
"It was hard to understand first what exactly happened," Geren said. "Until he passed me, I wasn't even aware there was an officer behind me."
It all happened so fast, Geren recalled. She was driving home from Ybor City to Valrico, traveling a route she had driven countless times before. As she neared Falkenburg Road, she saw headlights approaching. At first, she figured her eyes were fooling her.
"Is that really a car driving on this side of the road?" she thought. "No, that couldn't be."
She started to panic, flashing her lights in attempts to warn the driver. But the car kept coming, seemingly moving faster and faster. She turned her wheel to the side and attempted to pull off the road. That's when Kotfila's cruiser sped past her.
"I feel certain in my heart that he knew exactly what was about to happen to me," Geren said, "and that he sacrificed himself instead."
The SUV's driver, Erik Thomas McBeth, 31, of Hudson, died at the scene, which was just west of Interstate 75. Kotfila, 30, died at Tampa General Hospital.
Hillsborough deputies took time Monday to share memories of Kotfila, 30, a positive, high-energy colleague with a contagious smile whom they thought of as a little brother.
"I want the people to know he did his job and he did his job with pride," Sgt. Jeff Massaro said about the deputy lovingly known "Little John." "John made us better. He made this program better. He makes this Sheriff's Office better. He's going to be missed."
His co-workers fluctuated between laughter and tears as they remembered the man whom they admired as a law enforcement officer, but also loved to tease. Kotfila always took it in stride, a smile on his face. Even when Detective Danielle Spencer put a "Baby on Board" sticker on his car — a friendly jab at Kotfila's tendency to drink a couple of gallons of milk in just a few days.
"He had a very infectious smile and a great personality," Spencer said. "When he finally realized it, he was just laughing at us, shaking his head and smiling."
Kotfila worked evening shifts, 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. He specialized in traffic crash investigations and was preparing to take leave to attend accident investigation training, his father, John Kotfila Sr., said.
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Traffic homicide investigators believe McBeth might have driven up the Brandon express ramp, where the expressway ends at Town Center Boulevard, said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
The reversible express lanes have several iron gates blocking the north side of the intersection at night. A metal sign warning "Do Not Enter" and a pair of flashing yellow lights are meant to deter drivers from entering at the wrong point.
Investigators are still awaiting the results of a toxicology report to determine if alcohol was a factor in the crash.
McBeth worked as a branch banker for BB&T and lived in Hudson with an Australian shepherd named Ruger. He had no criminal record in Florida, records show.
The fatal crash came exactly one month after a collision on Interstate 275 near downtown Tampa killed two men, both fathers and Air Force veterans.
A 2014 Tampa Bay Times review of Florida Highway Patrol crash data showed that wrong-way crashes are surprisingly common and that drunken driving is often a factor. That year, a spate of horrific wrong-way crashes on highways in the area killed 16 people and drew national headlines.
On Tuesday, Hillsborough deputies stopped a wrong-way driver on U.S. 301 after the driver's truck hit a patrol car. No one was injured in that incident.
A couple of days after the crash, Geren is still in shock over what happened. Not only over the fact that she is still alive, but that someone could act so selflessly, giving their life to save another.
"I was a random person on a random road on a random time," Geren said. "I didn't know him. And I love him for saving me."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.