Polk County deputy dies after being hit by vehicle
WINTER HAVEN – A Polk County deputy was killed Sunday in a convenience store parking lot after being hit by a Cadillac Escalade careening out of control.
Sgt. Wesley Whitmore, 60, a 15-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, died after the crash in the 7-Eleven parking lot at Spirit Lake Road and Recker Highway, according to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.
“Our hearts are broken today at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office as we mourn the passing of a great friend and a great supervisor,” said Polk Sheriff Grady Judd.
Deputies aren’t sure why Whitmore pulled into the store — whether he was making a traffic stop and followed the car into the parking lot or had just stopped for a morning coffee.
After the Lakeland deputy got out of his patrol car, the Escalade, driven by 79-year-old Leo John Saunders of Winter Haven, veered off the road, struck the corner of an adjacent business, Wanda’s Collectibles, and then hit the owner of the business, Wanda Perez.
The Escalade hit Whitmore’s patrol car, which hit the deputy. The Escalade then struck the deputy before plowing through a row of shrubs, down an embankment and into a retention pond, finally stopping about 150 yards away.
Judd said there was no indication Saunders had hit the brakes, and investigators don’t know why he lost control. Saunders is cooperating with investigators and has not been arrested, though Judd said the investigation is continuing.
“We don’t know why he left the roadway,” the sheriff said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. “We don’t know why he ran through the parking lot, striking Deputy Whitmore.”
Whitmore died at Winter Haven Hospital, becoming the second Polk County deputy to die in the line of duty in 15 months. In September 2009, Sgt. Ronnie O’Neal Brown died after responding to a call inside an unruly prisoner’s cell.
Perez also was taken to the hospital with serious injuries and was set to be released Sunday night, according to the sheriff’s office. Saunders suffered minor injuries and was admitted to the hospital.
Whitmore was married to his wife Sherry for 43 years and had four grown children. He retired from the U.S. Air Force after 20 years of service and joined the sheriff’s office in 1995 as a corrections deputy. He later moved up to the patrol division and, in 2008, was promoted to sergeant, Judd said.
“He was an outstanding deputy, an outstanding supervisor,” Judd said. “Our respect and admiration was incredible for this man.
“He had a long illustrious career with us. We are asking that thoughts and prayers go out for the Whitmore family.”
Whimore’s son, Wesley Whitmore III, said his father’s service as a deputy and in the Air Force were natural choices for a man who couldn’t stand to see people or animals suffering.
“If my dad knew you, you didn’t want for a place to stay or food in your belly,” he said. “That’s just the way he was.”
Whitmore recalled how his father often accepted his children’s friends into his home, giving them a place to stay during tough times. He also owned six dogs, two of which were strays he couldn’t resist helping.
Sunday night, Whitmore was at his father’s house, caring for the pets his dad held so dear.
“This would be his chief concern,” Whitmore III said.