Published August 05, 2008
Federal agent shot in road rage dispute
JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA, ANI MARTINEZ AND ADAM H. BEASLEY
By JENNIFER MOONEY PIEDRA, ANI MARTINEZ AND ADAM H. BEASLEY
Donald J. Pettit was a retired soldier who survived a long military career, including a terrorist bombing in Bangkok.
Tuesday morning, he lost his life in a traffic dispute.
As his daughter watched from inside the car, the federal agent was shot in the head by an angry motorist in front of the Pembroke Pines, Fla., post office.
Pettit was 52, married, the father of two children, a man who had spent a lifetime in government and military service - including a stint protecting former U.S. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.
Authorities would not confirm what preceded the shooting, but federal sources close to the investigation said an argument started between Pettit and a motorist while they were driving on Pines Boulevard near the post office.
Both drivers ended up pulling into the post office parking lot, where they confronted each other, the sources said.
Pettit, a polygrapher with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, was unarmed; his gun was found in his car.
A shot rang out, and Pettit slumped to the pavement. The gunman fled east on Pines Boulevard in a dark gray or green Chrysler 300 - coincidentally the make of Pettit's car.
The killer, described as six feet tall and in his 50s with a full head of slicked-back, gray hair and "saggy" cheeks, was wearing a short-sleeved, plaid green shirt.
Just after noon, roughly 200 federal and local agents, together with local police, gathered in the parking lot of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's office. There, they launched a dragnet to find the gunman.
"We're going to saturate the area," said Sgt. Bryan Davis, a Pembroke Pines police spokesman. "We're going to turn over every rock."
For hours Tuesday afternoon, a Homeland Security helicopter hovered over Pembroke Pines, and law enforcement officers from local, state and federal agencies were stationed at every major intersection, keeping an eye out for the getaway car.
Several cars matching the description of the suspect's were stopped, but no arrests had been made as of late Tuesday.
"It's a sickening thing," Pembroke Pines Deputy Police Chief Mike Segarra said. "He did have his child in the car at the time of the shooting, which makes this more heinous." Police would not divulge the child's age.
Pettit had a decorated government career. He saw the world as the principal staff assistant to Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr. in the 1980s. He was in charge of all matters related to Marsh's personal security, according to Ray Gall, a Department of the Army spokesman.
"I'm shocked that this guy was able to get the drop on Don," said Pettit's longtime friend and business partner, Rene Rodriguez. "He was a very bright, soft-spoken but tough individual. He didn't have an enemy in the world."
He also worked a security detail on Weinberger's trip to Thailand in April 1986, Rodriguez said.
During that trip, a nail bomb exploded at the entrance of a hotel where Weinberger was due to speak. The defense secretary, who was scheduled to meet with Thailand's prime minister, would have passed right by it. It killed no one but injured three.
Still, the incident was just one of many dangerous situations Pettit encountered in his life of government work.
Originally from Indiana, Pettit was a chief warrant officer for the Army and worked in its Criminal Investigation Division. He was stationed all over the country, from Fort Myer and Falls Church, Va., to Fort McClellan in Weaver, Ala. Before his retirement from the Army in 1994, he worked as a polygraphic instructor - a role he took up again with Customs and Border Protection's internal affairs. He also spent 15 years working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and owned a granite countertops business with Rodriguez.
On a personal level, Rodriguez served as best man when Pettit married his wife, Ileana Barreto, in Puerto Rico.
The couple and their daughters lived in a Mediterranean, one-story, cream-colored home in the gated community of Encantada in Pembroke Pines.
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Tuesday afternoon, a few relatives and co-workers gathered outside Pettit's home.
"He was a calm guy who never messed with anyone," said his brother-in-law, Eduardo Barreto.
When asked how the family was coping with news of Pettit's death, Barreto said, "It's difficult. They're doing as good as can be expected."
Agents from Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Florida Highway Patrol, the Secret Service, Postal Service and law enforcement officers from Pembroke Pines, Fort Lauderdale, Davie, Sunrise, Miramar, the Broward Sheriff's Office and Miami-Dade were among those aiding in the search.
But police say they need help from witnesses.
"We have information that witnesses saw something," said Segarra. "They're urged to come forward. We need to catch this guy."
(Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver, Walter Michot, David Ovalle and Ely Portillo contributed to this report.)