Witness: Fallen deputy ‘hero’ for being ‘human shield’ in wrong-way crash

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A woman who called 911 after seeing a wrong-way driver headed toward her on the Leroy Selmon Expressway believes Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy John Robert Kotfila Jr. intentionally drove into the path of the vehicle to prevent the wrong-way driver from hitting her.

Sarah Geren was returning home from work with her boyfriend early Saturday morning when she saw Erik McBeth, 31, barreling towards her, driving westbound in the eastbound lanes of the Leroy Selmon Expressway near Brandon.

Geren told WFLA the tragedy unfolded quickly.

“I started to pull over to the side of the road, but that hadn’t even occurred all the way when the officer rushed around me… one or two seconds after he passed me, he hit the car, instead of me,” said Geren.

She is sure HCSO Deputy John Robert Kotfila Jr. made the ultimate sacrifice and intentionally crashed into the vehicle, taking the hit and saving her life.

“This man put himself in front of us as a human shield. Absolutely. He definitely saw what was going on. When I take a step back and look at the way everything occurred, he absolutely was a human shield for us,” said Geren.

She will always remember HCSO Deputy Kotfila as her hero, as his colleagues at the sheriff’s office remember him as a friend with an infectious smile.

“John was selected because of his attitude. He was a well-rounded person that you wanted to be around,” said HCSO Sgt. Jeffery Massaro.

The legacy of HCSO Deputy Kotfila will live on as a founding member of the Safety Net Team, a program which helps find adults and children with special needs who have wandered away from home.

“John made us better. He made this program better. He makes this sheriff’s office better and he is going to be missed,” said HCSO Sgt. Massaro.

Now the agency will continue its work with one less deputy as the sheriff’s office prepares to add one more name to the Fallen Heroes Memorial. Wrong-way driver Erik McBeth died in the crash. Investigators are awaiting the results of toxicology test that will reveal if McBeth was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The sheriff’s office tells WFLA that all wrong-way signs and signals were up and running properly at the time of the crash.

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