TAMPA — A room packed with law enforcement officers from across the state and nation bade farewell Friday to a popular Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy who was killed in a wrong-way wreck while on duty last weekend. The funeral Mass at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Lutz was a somber, dignified ceremony that drew tears and left heads bowed in sorrow from many in the crowd.
Deputy John Robert Kotfila Jr., just 30 years old, lay in an open casket in the anteroom before the service as law enforcement officers and supporters expressed gratitude for his service and condolences to the deputy’s family, who stood and shook just about every hand and gave out nearly as many hugs.
The deputy’s sister, Katelyn, during the service said she had to overcome a fear of public speaking to have her say. She looked around the room of somber law enforcement officers, there to support her family.
“John would have been so proud,” she said, “to see that all of you came out today just for him.”
She said the Kotfila family’s ties are strong; that her brother called two, maybe three and four times a day, to chat with his mother and the rest of the family. Katelyn said that for her whole life, her big brother made sure she was safe in every situation.
“He was a protector long before he wore a badge,” she said. “We lost a guardian angel down on earth, but we gained one up in heaven.”
Kotfila, a six-year veteran of the department, was killed shortly before 3 a.m. on March 12 on the Selmon Expressway near Brandon.
He was eastbound on the elevated lanes and was struck head-on by a driver who was going the wrong way. The impact killed the wrong-way driver, identified as Erik McBeth, 31, of Hudson. Kotfila was rushed to Tampa General Hospital where he died.
A witness to the wreck said Kotfila was behind her as she was eastbound on the expressway and when she saw the wrong-way driver approaching, she moved to the right side of the highway. Kotfila pulled ahead of her, she said, getting between her and the errant driver and taking the brunt of the impact. She called him a hero and said he saved her life that night.
Kotfila comes from a long line of law enforcement officers. His father, John Robert Kotfila Sr., is a sergeant with the Massachusetts State Police and attended the funeral in uniform; his brother, Michael, is a police officer in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and an uncle is a deputy in Pinellas County. Both his grandfathers were law enforcement officers in Massachusetts.
Also attending the service were Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Les Miller.
More than 1,500 law enforcement officers came from around Florida and from Massachusetts, where flags were flown at half-staff this week to honor the family of officers and troopers, said Massachusetts State Police Major Chris Mason, who said he has known the Kotfila family for years.
“I watched those kids grow up,” Mason said after the service. He said it was important for a contingent of about a half-dozen state troopers and officers from Falmouth and Barnstable to travel to Florida to attend the funeral to support the family.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee was visibly shaken during his speech and at times paused to gather himself.
He recounted Kotfila’s shift before the fatal wreck, saying the deputy who was a traffic-accident investigator had responded to a number of wrecks in District 4, which covers the southern part of the county, and had gone to two hospitals to check on injured people.
“That final shift, he was busy,” Gee said. “He didn’t stop. He wore that badge with pride.
“We all could go to bed at night knowing there was a law enforcement officer like John out there,” Gee said.
And nodding to Kotfila’s family seated in the front row, next to the casket, Gee said: “He had law enforcement in his DNA.”
Kotfila was always smiling and became more than just a fellow employee to his colleagues, the sheriff said. The deputy would get involved in the lives of those he worked with, making those lives a little better.
“He was quick with a smile and a laugh,” the sheriff said, “and even quicker to lend a hand.”
In a hushed chapel, Gee said, “I’m proud to call John a hero today. He deserves it. He earned it. But he is not defined by one moment in time.”
The sheriff paused for a moment, overcome by emotion.
“The highest honor is a reputation as a solid troop,” he said. “One who is relied upon when the chips are down. John was a solid troop.”
Gee again glanced at the Kotfila family.
“You raised a good, honorable son,” he said. “He will be missed.”
The Rev. Ken Malley, pastor of St. Timothy Catholic Church in Lutz, celebrated the funeral Mass and marveled at the crowd of law enforcement officers in the pews that surrounded him on the altar in the center of the domed room.
“I have never seen anything like this,” he said. “I’ve been a priest for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this.
“Many here today are committed to protecting the rights and duties of others,” he said. “To you, I say, ‘Thank you.’”
Hillsborough sheriff’s Deputy Gary Herman Jr. said he and his wife had known Kotfila for years. The two became friends and Kotfila was a regular visitor at his home. Often Herman would come home to find his house empty except for Kotfila who was cooking supper for Herman and his wife.
“And he was a pretty good cook, too,” Herman said to measured laughter around the room.
“Before you knew it, he was a part of your life. He would just show up and help; whether you were burying your dog in the backyard or you had to pick up your wife from the airport at midnight.
“I never met anyone else like him.”
Because of his short stature — Kotfila was 5-foot-4 — he got the nickname Keebler, “like the elf,” Herman said. “I hope we all live our lives like John.
“For a little guy, he set the bar pretty high.”
Patrick Kotfila, the youngest of three children in the Falmouth, Massachusetts, family, said he thought the proudest he ever felt of his big brother was the day he graduated from the police academy.
“We flew down for his graduation and I looked at J. Rob and realized he was a great man,” Patrick Kotfila said. “I had nothing but respect for him on that day.“
Then came the call last weekend, and the family made the trip to Tampa. After chatting with friends and colleagues, Patrick Kotfila gained a deeper respect for his older brother.
“I’m more proud of him now,” he said. “I love you, J. Rob. I’m going to miss you.”
After the conclusion of the service, everyone crowded outside into the church’s courtyard. A 21-gun salute was offered, and the casket was carried to the waiting black Cadillac hearse with the word “Dignity” etched into the rear window, as the family looked on and as the 1,500-plus law enforcement officers stood at attention and saluted. Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” and four helicopters flew over, one peeling off to the east.
On a loudspeaker, a sheriff’s dispatcher made the final call:
“All units stand by ...
“Hillsborough Unit 4258 respond ...
“Hillsborough Unit 4258 ...
“Hillsborough Unit 4258 ...
“Hillsborough to all units, Unit 4258, John Robert Kotfila Jr., is not responding ...
“Hillsborough to all units, Deputy Kotfila Unit 4258 ... 10-7 (out of service)
“End of watch, March 12, 2016.
“May God bless him and the loved ones he leaves behind.”