PALMETTO, Fla. - Dramatic dashcam footage from a Florida Highway Patrol SUV shows the moment a trooper put herself in harm's way in order to protect thousands of runners from a suspected DUI driver who plowed through a series of roadblocks.
FHP said 52-year-old Kristen Kay Watts of Sarasota slammed into Master Trooper Toni Schuck's SUV on Sunday morning, leaving Schuck, 47, with serious injuries, after ignoring a series of roadblocks in place for the annual Skyway 10K.
"There was no time to think. You have to act. Without question, she was the last line of defense," said Trooper Ken Watson on Monday afternoon.
Investigators said Watts was driving in a BMW while intoxicated and was arrested on suspicion of DUI. They said she was speeding on Interstate 275 while the race was underway around 8:45 a.m. Sunday. Troopers said she sped toward the road closure at U.S. Highway 41, but ignored the detour set up to direct drivers away from the race.
Troopers said Watts drove through traffic cones and weaved around barricades, and passed troopers guarding the toll plaza. Troopers stationed at the south rest area were alerted to the oncoming vehicle.
"This driver had blown past several check points, going around traffic cones, going around other officers and had engaged in high speeds," said Watson.
Troopers prevent possible tragedy during charity race
Two troopers maneuvered their patrol vehicles on both northbound lanes to prevent Watts from getting any closer to the runners. That's when she and the trooper collided head-on.
Dashcam video showed Schuck apparently aiming her patrol vehicle right at the BMW in order to prevent Watts from going any further and reaching the thousands of runners in the race.
"There’s no telling what would have happened had that vehicle actually reached all of those runners. The bottom line is these troopers saved dozens upon dozens of lives and saved even more people from serious bodily harm injury," said Trooper Watson.
FHP said Schuck prevented a tragedy by directly putting herself in harm's way in order to prevent others from getting hurt or killed.
"Thank you for your bravery and self-sacrifice, Trooper Schuck," the agency wrote.
Photos released by FHP showed the aftermath of the collision. Watts' gray sedan had front-end damage.
Courtesy: Florida Highway Patrol
The front of the trooper's Chevy Tahoe was crushed halfway back to its windshield.
The 47-year-old female trooper and Watts were taken to the hospital with serious injuries.
"This trooper today faced something that’s maybe, hopefully, something once or twice in a career where she truly had to put herself in harm's way to protect others. Had that car gotten past her SUV the only thing left in the way was going to be the volunteers, the runners, the workers," said Bill Wade, a Skyway 10K runner and retired first responder.
Suspect laughs, quips during first court appearance
Watts was wheeled into the Manatee County jail on Monday afternoon.
"I'll need the public defender," she said.
As Watts made her first appearance, she told a judge she is unemployed and is living off money from a lawsuit.
As she faced multiple charges, including DUI, she laughed.
"Would you have any trouble coming to court?" asked the public defender.
She responded with a laugh saying, "Considering I don't have a car. I'll have to fix that, I guess."
Troopers said they do not believe Watts was targeting the race. She was booked into Manatee County Jail with a $52,000 bond.
She faces DUI-serious injury, two counts of DUI-property damage and two counts of reckless driving involving injury and property damage.
No runners were injured in the incident, troopers said.
Hero trooper recovering at home
Trooper Schuck is back home and resting with her family.
In court, the state attorney said Trooper Schuck is recovering from a head wound and concussion.
With 26 years in state law enforcement, her instincts went above the call of duty.
"For this trooper to risk her life to make sure that others will be okay is the epitome of what service is all about," said Trooper Watson.
The FHP said those wishing to contact Trooper Schuck, may send their thoughts to her attention at Florida Highway Patrol, 11305 North McKinley Drive, Tampa, FL 33612.