SPRING HILL –
SPRING HILL – Like so many people before him, one day in Michael Stegner’s life forever altered his reputation.
It just happened to be his last.
Up until April 13, 2006, Stegner was just another sheriff’s deputy and, unless they crossed the law, he was just another cop in a squad car to the public.
But a year ago today, Stegner died off-duty when he crashed his department-issued car on Spring Hill Drive while driving drunk.
One day. One bad choice.
But there were also 10,215 days in Stegner’s life before that fateful night (his 28th birthday was the following Wednesday).
How did he spend those?
To get an idea, a Hernando Today reporter spent three hours talking with his parents, his family and friends.
The discussion obviously drew some tears, but there was far more laughter, hugs and good-natured ribbing as they conjured up the man who went by Mike, Mikey and Steggy.
Perhaps the best example of who Stegner was lies in the fact that he is in the center of every picture, surrounded by his friends.
“Mike wasn’t happy until everybody else was happy. That’s the truth,” said Louis Genovese, a patrol deputy and friend of Stegner’s from high school.
The fact he died with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit is not the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s acknowledged and lamented.
“But that shouldn’t be his legacy,” said property crimes Detective Dave Feger.
Before the question could be asked, Deputy Cliff Faulkingham chimed in:
“His legacy is turning friends into family.”
Tap dance lessons and football helmets
Stegner’s room has been kept largely the same, though he moved out years before his death.
It’s here that Mom, Peggy Stegner, begins to open up and introduce her son.
The closet is stuffed with pieces of Stegner’s life: His first communion suit, Boy Scout uniform, cap and gown, a fraternity paddle. He kept them here; Mom sees no reason to throw them away.
His formidable size even as a kid made him a natural fit for sports, but he also took jazz and tap dance class. One of his baseball coaches once yelled at him for practicing his steps in the outfield.
Stegner’s friends teased him for being a sissy until he wisely pointed out that all the girls were in the dance classes, too.
His younger sister, Michelle Eddy, can attest to her brother’s fierce competitive streak.
Even as a child, Stegner would “accidentally” tip over a board game if he was losing or peek at the Clue cards if Eddy went away for a minute.
That trait stuck with him for the rest of his life. He was so proud of his 60-inch flat-screen TV until his father outdid him with a 64-incher. Stegner excelled at video games, but even if he was crushing his opponent 75-0 in Madden he had to finish the game.
As Stegner and his sister grew up, Mom and Dad increasingly found themselves the nucleus of a growing circle of friends.
Much of that was by choice. They stayed heavily involved in their children’s lives and often volunteered to chaperone on what would be dubbed “field trips” to places like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.
More frequently, though, Stegner’s pals used their house as a place to hang out. Gradually, “Mr. and Mrs. Stegner” became simply Mom and Dad.
In a curious parallel to their adult lives, the frequent sleepovers entailed staying up late at night playing video games, listening to music and holding ping pong tourneys.
Gabe Fahey describes his childhood friend as a “big teddy bear.”
Anthony Smith remembers Stegner’s hilarious off-the-cuff remarks and facial expressions.
Smith was hard-pressed to point to any one thing he misses the most about Stegner.
“It was just him,” he said. “He would walk in the room and light it up.”
Stretching the apron strings
Stegner’s room is dominated by a large entertainment center on top of which sits a scuffed-up football helmet from his college days when he played defensive tackle. It’s flanked by two replica die-cast police cruisers emblazoned with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office’s decal.
The room’s powder-blue walls still bear some of Stegner’s personal touches: a small metal sign warns “Beware of Attack Cop”; a cowboy hat autographed by big names in country music hangs from the bed post.
On the right side of the bed are four posed photos of Stegner on the gridiron wearing shoulder pads and a serious expression.
Here he is in Powell Middle School, Springstead High School (his senior year they won the championship), at Culvert-Stockton College in Missouri.
“He lost his baby face by this one,” Mom says wistfully.
Stegner had a slot at Florida State University, but he opted for the small Christian college because, “I want to play, not be a practice dummy.”
Dad, James Stegner, sees it a little differently. It was time for his son to dip his toes in the real world.
“I stretched those apron strings as far as they would go,” he said.
Between mother and son, Mom felt the pain of separation more keenly. She cried all 17 hours of the journey home, despite her husband’s best efforts to cheer her up.
She still remembers the twinge of betrayal when he called her up to chat then abruptly had to go because his friends were headed out the door.
“I thought, ‘He has friends?'” she said.
Stegner’s sister joined him later at the school and Stegner, ever protective, made it clear from day one to his football team that she was off limits.
“A girl couldn’t ask for a better brother,” Eddy said.
‘He was born to do the job’
When Stegner finished college, he earned certification through the police academy and sent in an application to the sheriff’s office. Growing up he had toyed briefly with becoming a pediatrician and even interned at a blood bank to get a feel for the medical field. But he came home one day and asked his Mom:
“How do you tell someone their child isn’t going to make it?”
That changed his mind about the profession, Peggy recalls.
His end goal was to be a detective like his father, but Jimmy asked him to hold off on that and try patrol for five years. Stegner began in District II, which covers a majority of Spring Hill.
Deputy Rob Santoro remembers Stegner as a rookie on the force.
“He was born to do the job,” he said. “He was an awesome cop.”
Stegner was a big guy with 22-inch arms. It wasn’t unusual for him to lift weights for an hour then head out for a three-mile run. Understandably, this often left him with a shortage of partners.
“You only worked out with Mike once,” said his longtime friend, an undercover detective who will be named “Bill” for this story.
Deputy Kenneth Devaney neatly sums it up: “He was a horse.”
A big size could hold an advantage for a deputy who wanted to defuse a situation with intimidation. But grandfather Eldon “Bud” Qualls never saw that side of Stegner.
“He was strong, but never a bully,” he said.
What Santoro witnessed was Stegner using his easy-going ways to establish a rapport with people.
“He was gifted in his ability to talk with people,” Santoro said.
Just as he was a magnet for friends in high school, Stegner’s charm built a new circle of companions at the sheriff’s office. By the time of his death, they were closer than brothers.
As Faulkingham said, a majority of the 25 people or so who came out to speak about Stegner didn’t know each other or the Stegner family before he joined the force.
That bond was forged during the odd hours that come along with a law enforcement schedule. Peggy Stegner was only too happy to accommodate her new sons, be it hot dogs and hamburgers at 2 a.m. or pancakes Sunday mornings.
Bill fell asleep in Stegner’s room so often that he was eventually given a permanent spot on the day bed in the computer room.
Off-duty, the deputies continued watching movies and playing video games. Devaney had the group in stitches when he told the story about a round of golf with Stegner.
Stegner swung his clubs like a baseball bat and consequently hit a house belonging to somebody that works in property and evidence at the sheriff’s office.
Stegner felt it was probably in his best interest to keep going.
“He said, ‘We don’t need this hole,'” Devaney said laughing, “and we just whizzed by with our hands over our faces.”
Karaoke was also popular. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil went down to Georgia” were Stegner’s favorites.
If someone ran out of gas, one of the deputies would show up with a gallon jug. Everyone turned out for moving day.
“We were like brothers,” Devaney said.
Stegner’s end of watch
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 13, Stegner was returning home with some sandwiches he had just bought at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Spring Hill Drive and Kenlake Avenue.
He had spent much of the night drinking with some rookies on the force at a Hernando Beach restaurant. One of them accompanied him home and parked behind Stegner’s pickup, blocking it in. So Stegner opted for the Camry issued to him as a member of the selective enforcement unit. Besides, it was just a quick jaunt to the store.
At the “third” Pinehurst Drive, near Spring Hill Plaza, the light had just turned green and two tow trucks were picking up speed. Stegner crashed into the long, metal bed of the last tow truck. There were no skid marks. He died instantly.
It was standing room only at his funeral at St. Frances Cabrini, the largest church in Hernando County. The procession was so long that he hearse was pulling in the cemetery by the time the last car left the church parking lot.
The newspapers broke the news first.
Autopsy results revealed a blood-alcohol level of .223; Florida law presumes impairment at .08. The sheriff’s office kept mum, as per policy, until their investigation was closed.
All of the deputies and civilian friends with him that night said Stegner never appeared intoxicated that night. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper who knew Stegner coincidently saw him at the 7-Eleven, minutes before he died. That trooper also said Stegner did not seem drunk.
Looking back on a year
A year has not diminished the pain. Devaney thinks of his best bud four to five times a day and dreams about him several times a week.
The band of deputies planned to be the old guys at the office one day. They had a lengthy list of places they wanted to go together.
Bill still struggles with survivor’s guilt whenever they go to a sports game or tick another item off that list.
“I don’t know if I should feel happy. It’s what Mike would want I guess.” He pauses. “It’s bittersweet.”