tampabay.com

Bumper sticker evokes road rage

Her Bush-Cheney sticker sent him into a tirade that led to a dangerous car chase through the streets of Tampa.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 10, 2005


TAMPA - Politics has always been divisive, splitting families and turning friend against friend.

This week, though, a Tampa woman learned that simple Bush-Cheney bumper sticker can bring trouble, if not danger, from a total stranger.

Police say Michelle Fernandez, 35, was chased for miles Tuesday by an irate 31-year-old Tampa man who cursed at her as he held up an anti-Bush sign and tried to run her off the road.

His sign, about the size of a business letter, read:

Never Forget Bush's Illegal Oil War Murdered Thousands in Iraq.

"I guess this was a disgruntled Democrat," Tampa Police spokesman Joe Durkin said. "Maybe he has that sign with him so he's prepared any time he comes up against a Republican."

Police arrested Nathan Alan Winkler at his home on N Cleveland Street near Hyde Park within an hour of the incident.

After finding the antiwar sign in his car, they booked him into the county jail on one count of aggravated stalking, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, Durkin said.

He posted his $2,000 bond and was released early Wednesday, jail records show. This was Winkler's first arrest in Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Winkler, listed in jail records as a contractor, could not be reached Wednesday. Durkin said Winkler told police officers he got upset with Fernandez because she "gave him the finger."

Fernandez told the Times Wednesday that "whatever gestures I made, I made them because I was trying to figure out why he was honking at me and pointing to his sign."

"At first I didn't know why he was screaming at me," she said. "Then it clicked."

In her frantic nine-minute call Tuesday to a 911 dispatcher, Fernandez said it was the Bush Cheney '04 bumper sticker on her green Ford Expedition that set the other driver off.

"I was just almost run off the road by a man," she told the dispatcher at 5:14 p.m. She was taking her son, 10, and daughter, 3, to a ballfield.

"He just ran me off because I have a Bush bumper sticker in my car. He had some type of - he drove up next to me with - he had a sign on it like hanging from his - from the passenger window, that said something about the war in Iraq. . . . I'm shaking like a leaf."

Durkin said Winkler started following Fernandez at the intersection of Columbus Drive and Armenia Avenue shortly after 5 p.m.

"He told our officers that he just got mad at her, so he went after her," Durkin said.

As Fernandez drove south on Armenia, the other driver pulled alongside her in his black 1996 Nissan, beeping his horn and "flailing his arms," according to a police report.

He held the antiwar sign up to his passenger-side window, she said, following her along busy streets in south and west Tampa and veering into her path, forcing her to swerve to avoid a collision. She pleaded with the dispatcher for help and tried to get away by running through stop signs and changing directions.

"Oh, now he's following me! I'm gonna get back on Kennedy now. I don't know what to do!" she told the dispatcher, her voice rising.

At one point the man pulled his car in front of Fernandez's, got out and started running toward her, Fernandez told police.

"He just pulled over next to me, he's stopping the car, it's ridiculous, this man!" she said. "He's running after my car. Oh my goodness, he's a fanatic, he's in the middle of the street!"

She drove along Arrawana Avenue and Habana Street, then back onto Kennedy Boulevard, but she couldn't shake him, Durkin said.

"He's trying to hurt us. Look at this, what a moron," she said. "Look at him! . . . Idiot!"

The dispatcher told Fernandez to drive to the Tampa police office near Raymond James Stadium, but she drove instead to the ballfield where she had been headed with her children before the chase. She met with a police officer and carefully described the Nissan and its tag number, Durkin said.

Officers traced the tag to Winkler, went to his home within an hour and arrested him.

"This could have been tragic, for her and her children and for other people on the road as this was going on," Durkin said. "But she did all the right things. She showed remarkable poise, she didn't engage him. She called us."

Tuesday's confrontation comes as authorities investigate two recent roadway incidents, one of which ended in the shooting death of a Wesley Chapel man on his way to the Strawberry Festival in Plant City.

David Neel, 49, was found dead in his gray and blue Ford F250 pickup truck Sunday after a bullet pierced his door and hit him in the chest.

The truck had veered off southbound I-75 at the ramp onto eastbound Interstate 4 and hit a tree, according to Hillsborough Sheriff's investigators. They believe he was shot as he drove along the highway, likely by someone in a moving vehicle.

Monday, a Zephyrhills woman driving south on Morris Bridge Road in Pasco County lost her rear passenger window to what Pasco investigators believe was a BB gun.

But Tuesday's incident had something different - a partisan political sting.

Janee Murphy, chairwoman of Hillsborough's Democratic Executive Committee, said bumper stickers and campaign signs attracted plenty of aggressive behavior during the election cycle, although nothing as scary as Tuesday's confrontation.

"A lot of our Democrats that had Kerry stickers came across people who got very aggressive," Murphy said. "They were having their cars keyed, having cars come up very close to them. We've had situations where people curse at them, give hand gestures because of what they have on their car.

"But it's just sad, no matter what your political beliefs are," she said. "We don't need people fighting with each other at home when we have so much going on in the Middle East."

Attempts to reach Al Higginbotham, Hillsborough Republican chairman, were unsuccessful.

Records show Winkler has been registered as a Democrat since 1996 and has lived in the Tampa Bay area for more than a decade. Calls to his home were not returned.

Winkler's father, John Winkler, 59, of Safety Harbor, didn't know about the incident until a St. Petersburg Times reporter called him. He said his son, a Web designer, is "kind of a laid back guy."

"That is so not like Nathan," he said. "I know that he is very anti-Bush. But I don't see him doing anything like that. He's certainly not aggressive. He's the least aggressive person I know."

Fernandez, too, is a Democrat. She has been a card-carrying party member since August 1988 - a few months before George W.'s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, was elected president.

Members of Fernandez's family said they don't necessarily vote along party lines. Fernandez voted for Bush in his recent re-election bid, they said.

"I'm registered as a Democrat," Fernandez's mother Marie Fernandez said. "And I voted for Bush, too. Party doesn't matter."

"I respect him for having his beliefs and feeling so strongly," Michelle Fernandez said Wednesday night, her nerves still frayed. "But here he is protesting the war and lost lives, and he is going to put me and my children in danger? This man has a serious problem."

Times staff researchers Kitty Bennett, Cathy Wos and Carolyn Edds and staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373.

THE 911 CALL

Highlights from Michelle Fernandez's call to 911 dispatchers:

DISPATCH: 911, what's your emergency?

FERNANDEZ: Um, I was just almost run off the road by a man. He just ran me off because I have a Bush bumper sticker in my car. He had some type of - he drove up next to me with - he had a sign on it like hanging from his - from the passenger window that said something about the war in Iraq. I mean, I am shaking like a leaf. Oh, now he's following me. I'm going to get back on Kennedy now. I don't know what to do!

DISPATCH: Where are you on Kennedy?

FERNANDEZ: Right now I'm on Kennedy and Arrawana. Look, he just pulled over next to me, he's stopping the car, it's ridiculous, this man! Look he's running after my car, Oh my goodness, he's a fanatic, he's in the middle of the street! Now he's following me. He's trying to hurt us. Look at this, what a moron. Look at him! Idiot.

DISPATCH: Is that him blowing his horn at you?

FERNANDEZ: No, I was blowing my horn at somebody 'cause I'm running stop lights and everything else to get away from him.

Source: Tampa Police, Tampa Bay's 10 News