Catching speeders is a personal mission
By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- Officer Fletch Warner straddles a Harley-Davidson, lowers his speed gun and aims it at cars hundreds of feet away. It's morning rush hour, and scores of potential clients are barrelling down First Avenue S.
Last year, Warner ticketed 904 motorists, more than any other officer in the St. Petersburg Police Department. And that doesn't include as many as 200 verbal warnings.
A 33-year department veteran, Warner is driven by something far deeper, and more personal, than a mere passion for nabbing speeders.
His 16-year-old son, William Fletcher Warner Jr., was killed eight years ago while riding in a car that crashed near Tyrone Square Mall. The driver, 16-year-old Melissa Fournier, also was killed after speeding through a stop sign.
Since then, Warner's approach to teenagers who drive recklessly is less forgiving.
"I will not give kids a break for stupid driving. I caught one 16-year-old doing 60 mph in a construction site with a 25 mph zone. I wrote a $520 ticket."
Warner's road to the police department began as a city lifeguard at North Shore pool in 1968, the same year he graduated from St. Petersburg High School. Two years later, he was hired as an officer.
He still makes it down to the pool almost daily. He jogs 2 miles from police headquarters, swims 40 laps and runs back. The regimen keeps him lean for the SWAT team; he's the sharpshooter.
"I wish some of the younger officers would take a look at him and try to work as hard as he does," Maj. Tom Carey wrote in a recent evaluation.
After working in the street narcotics squad for five years, Warner transferred to the traffic section's selective enforcement unit in 2000. His goal is written in black and white in his personnel file:
"Reduce traffic crashes through enforcement action."
He wrote 9 percent of last year's 9,643 speeding citations. One of those was written while he stopped to help a woman change a blown tire and saw someone speeding.
"If you figure the Sept. 11 death and destruction and multiply it by 10, that's traffic nationwide," Warner said. "It doesn't get any attention."
He keeps a reminder of his son in his wallet. It's a photograph taken three days before his death. The photo shows his son, who played tuba in the band at Northside Christian School, in a USO uniform during a Bands of America competition in Tennessee.
"You can't go unaffected," said Warner, choking back tears.
Every day, usually during morning and evening rush hour, Warner picks a city street that resembles a speedway -- places like First Avenue S, Country Club Way S and Fourth Street N -- and parks his unmarked police car or Harley motorcycle.
Last Thursday, Warner and his Harley were at 23rd Street and First Avenue S. The speed limit there is 35 mph.
Warner took a white tissue from his back pocket and wiped the smudge marks left on the chrome from his knee-high leather boots. He climbed on, fired up the engine and pulled to the edge of the street.
He pointed the Laser, which reaches 4,500 feet, at a Chevrolet Lumina.
"If I can see them, I can get them," he said before pausing and blurting out, "50!" He peeled off the corner with his siren on and pulled behind the Lumina.
Behind the wheel of the Lumina was Tamaria Green, a 30-year-old crisis counselor. She was smiling.
"There's no sense in me fighting it when you know you're speeding," she said. "He caught me red-handed."
Warner handed her a $145 ticket and told her about the driver improvement course that would save her from getting points on her license.
It wasn't Green's first encounter with Warner. He gave her a speeding ticket two years ago on 34th Street.
"He's a good cop," she said.
He gets frowns and grumbles. He also hears apologies.
"My real philosophy is you have to treat everybody like you've got to live next door to them because a lot of the time, you do," Warner said.
He spent two hours along First Avenue S and wrote 11 speeding tickets for speeds ranging from 50 to 57 mph.
A man who got a $154 ticket wanted a warning. No luck. Still, the motorist reached out, shook Warner's hand and thanked him before climbing into his van and driving away with the ticket.
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