At about 3:50pm last Friday, we were driving back along US-27 towards our winter 'home' in Buttonwood Bay when we were passed by 3 police canine vehicles going south like proverbial bats out of hell. It was unusual enough to elicit a few comments about what might have been going on, but that was it.
As we approached the entrance to the park, we saw a few more police cars but again, thought nothing of it. A short while after that, while visiting with friends inside the park, we saw and heard police and tv station helicopters flying overhead and by then we'd learned that a Florida Highway Patrol officer, Sgt Nicholas Sottile, had been shot and killed after a routine traffic stop just a few miles down the road.
Over the next few days, the story naturally dominated local news and much was said about it any time residents gathered within the park. To quote the local news report...............Joshua Lee Altersberger, 19, allegedly shot 48-year-old Sottile in the neck Friday afternoon when the trooper pulled him over for reckless driving on U.S. 27 north near Cloverleaf Road.
Maybe it's because this was easily the closest I've been to a crime of any sort that it affected me so much. Maybe it was the absolute senselessness of the crime that's made it hard to shake from my mind. Maybe it's that this area seemed so safe and relatively crime free to me since I got here 3 months ago that's made this murder all the more disturbing. I guess all of these are reasons for me never to forget trooper Sottile and why hundreds of residents, me included, went out to the park entrance today just after 2pm to stand in line as the funeral procession drove by.
There was a wish, nay a need, to stand together and honour a man who put his life on the line for 24 years and who deserved to be with his wife and family for many happy years of retirement.
Instead he was killed by some 19 year old deadbeat who, as they were being pulled over, told his passenger that he was going to shoot the officer and this prompted the passenger to flee the scene before it happened. I'm sure family and friends of Sgt Sottile are asking the question.......why didn't this passenger shout a warning to the officer ??? I know I am.
In any case, events took their course and now a wife is a widow and a family is without a father - a man who by all accounts was a credit to his job and the community he served so faithfully till the end.
And so we got in our golf carts, climbed on our bikes or simply walked out to the edge of US-27 and waited for the procession to go past us taking the body of Sgt Sottile on his final 10 mile journey back to Lake Placid.
I once counted the number of 'lots' within the park and got a figure of 940. Some lots are, of course, vacant for one reason or another but if one says that most occupied residences have 2 occupants, then a rough estimate of the total number of residents would come to 1800.
It seemed to me that all of them were out lining US-27 this afternoon. There were a few signs being held up and although this one would seem to have been created by a Hallmark writer, no one could deny it summed up the mood today.
I don't know how many of those by the roadside had ever experienced such a procession before, but it was a first for me. I didn't know what to expect and if asked prior to seeing it, I'd have said I expected 20 or so police cars, maybe a couple of motorbikes and a few unmarked cars would be the sum total. Boy did I ever underestimate the turnout !!!
About 20 minutes before the main procession came over the hill and into sight, about 30 or more police cars and motorbikes had already gone past us with every possible combination of their lights flashing and strobing impressively.
Then came the start of a procession which took well over 40 minutes to pass us and I really hope someone somewhere counted the number of offical police vehicles that took part because I'd love to know that figure.
As usual my attention was mostly taken up with these photographs so I'd not like to even make a guess but it was certainly a very impressive number. think about it.......how many cars can go by in 40 minutes ? Many hundreds.
At the head of the main procession were the motorcyclists and there could have been 50 of them alone.
Just as I was composing a shot which would have shown most of them in an impressive line, the gentleman with the sign (from photo 2) decided to get it out as far as possible and blocked off most of the line.
This rushed photo of the cyclists was the best I could get as the procession wasn't hanging around and must've been travelling at 20-25mph.
After these cyclists came the hearse surrounded by it's own cordon of bikes.
By now every resident was eager to pay their respects and were inching further and further onto the road - and in doing so were getting in my line of sight.
I only had the opportunity to get this view of the hearse approaching and then the next shot as it sped away down the road.
At this point there was total silence from the residents who stood either saluting the coffin or had their right arms crossed onto their chests with the hand on heart. It was very moving and I'm sure was appreciated by the family, friends and colleagues of Sgt Sottile.
The sun was blazing down and the temp in the shade was 82F so heaven knows what it was out there on US-27. We'd been there for over an hour by this time but no one was leaving.
After the hearse had gone past, the mood changed slightly and we felt the need to let those officers following behind know how we felt.
Some clapping took place and most of the vehicles received a wave and we got appreciative waves back from them. There were a couple of amusing sights when one patrol car went past with the passenger fast asleep (well it was very hot and I'm sure it had been a long day for him......bless) and then another went by with an opened box of Dunkin Donuts on the dashboard. How typical !!!
We didn't expect the waves back and maybe the officers had been told to not make any gestures at all - but if they were, then thankfully many ignored that request and returned our simple gestures. Many drivers squawked their sirens for a nano second too.
I noticed that many of those in the back seats were taking photos of us which was understandable. Photos provide memories forever and who could deny a friend or family member a record of how many people had turned out to pay their respects.
The photo above gives some impression of the scale of this procession. The hearse had long gone ahead but we kept seeing these police vehicles streaming nose to tail down the road - representing every county in the state and many other states too. They came from Naples and Sarasota, from Miami and Orlando, from Louisiana and New Jersey.
There were vehicles representing every department and area of law enforcement imaginable from canine units to drug enforcement and even corrections.
The governor of Florida came too.
It was quite a sight and one I'll never forget.
The park administators had done an excellent job of letting everyone know about the procession and we were grateful to have been given the opportunity to show our feelings about this incredibly tragic event.
Buttonwood Bay prides itself on it's sense of being an active part of the local community and this turnout proved that when one 'of our own' is taken in this awful way, then we will show our solidarity and let those officers left behind know that we appreciate everything they do for us day in and day out.
In many ways this was a very American procession but it did let me see that even in a nation where the killing of a police officer is hardly news worthy anymore, that when that officer is a decent man who has served his community well for almost a quarter of a century, then his killing will not go unheralded or unnoticed by that community.
The murder of Sgt Sottile was tragic. It was pointless, senseless and totally unnecessary. In this gun crazy nation where 19yr old punks drive around with guns in their door pockets and decide, seemingly on a whim, to kill a police officer, then it might make me worry about the future here.
But if those feelings try and overwhelm me, I can think of the events today and realise that the vast majority of Americans are honest and lawabiding as well as kind and generous to a fault. They have an unswerving pride in, and love of, their country and will defend it and it's laws to the death.
Sgt Sottile was one such American and he died defending those laws.
I didn't know the man but his legacy to me is that I'll never forget him.
May he rest in peace.