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Bike ride honors fallen officer

A retired deputy has organized a memorial to a slain comrade.

By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published February 16, 2007


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RIDGE MANOR - Jeff Duval wants the people who are new to Hernando County to know the name Lonnie Coburn, and he wants those who were here the night of Feb. 21, 1978, to never forget.

A retired deputy, Duval is the main organizer of the Deputy Lonnie C. Coburn Memorial Bike Ride set for noon Saturday. The ride is free and open to anyone, and will go from the intersection of U.S. 301 and State Road 50 in Ridge Manor to Florida Hills Memorial Gardens on Spring Hill Drive. A service is planned for about 1 p.m. at the cemetery.

Coburn was 25 and a young father when he was shot dead outside the Stop 'n' Go convenience store on the eastern end of the county by two men from Webster who earlier that day had raped and killed a pregnant woman near Leesburg. No local deputy had been killed on duty in the roughly 30 years before then. No local deputy has been killed on duty in the 30 years since.

"It's like part of me died that night, and it's gone forever, and I can't get over it," Duval said this week at his home in Brooksville.

"People tend to forget, and every year I've thought about doing something like this, and when you get to a certain age you realize you're in the last quarter of the race. So I'm getting it done before it's too late."

"I'm happy that he's being remembered," said Frances Griffin, Coburn's mother, who still lives in Brooksville, "but I'll be glad when it's over because it's brought back so many memories that I've tried to push back."

Coburn was sixth-generation Hernando County and grew up in a different Brooksville, in a different time, when the area was much more rural, much less populated and the local kids had "orange wars" in the citrus groves. He played football and baseball, and the drums and the trumpet. He rode horses, and graduated from Hernando High School in 1970. He went to Gulf Ridge Park Baptist Church, the same church where his mother went, the same church where her mother was a charter member.

After high school, he worked at Brooksville Lumber for a short time, then the Brooksville Fire Department, and then he became a deputy. He was a promising, well-spoken, take-charge type, say the folks who knew him.

"He was what you wanted in a law enforcement officer," said Brooksville attorney Jimmy Brown, who in the late '70s worked in the State Attorney's Office and was one of the prosecutors in the case against Coburn's killers.

On Feb. 21, 1978, Coburn started his shift about 6 p.m. at the sheriff's substation at U.S. 301 and SR 50. He took over for Duval.

A bit after 7, he confronted the two men who were robbing the Stop 'n' Go across the street, and they wrestled away his Colt Python .357. He was shot through a side opening of his bulletproof vest near his armpit. The bullet ripped apart his left lung.

Duval heard the sirens, and then the phone rang, and he raced back out there. The dispatcher at that substation was outside.

"Nig Mills was a tough old man, tough as a keg of railroad iron, and when I saw him crying," Duval said this week, "I knew it wasn't good."

Coburn was taken to Lykes Memorial Hospital in Brooksville.

Sheriff Melvin Kelly's message came over deputies' radios at about 9:

"Hernando 1 to all Hernando units.

"No. 16 is Signal 7."

Coburn was gone.

He was the first county deputy to die on duty since Bill Langston was shot on a moonshine raid in the 1940s.

More than 800 people went to Coburn's funeral at the First Baptist Church of Brooksville. They stood in the aisles and on the stairs leading to the balcony and even outside on the sidewalk.

Back then, the county had about 40,000 people, there were only 20 or so deputies, and usually only three of them were on the night shift. Now, a generation later, the population is almost 170,000, and the deputy count is about 250.

"A lot of people's come here since '78 that didn't know that young boy," Duval said.

Today, the short stretch of SR 50 that runs from U.S. 301 to the Sumter County line through the Withlacoochee State Forest is called the Deputy Lonnie Coburn Memorial Highway.

A plaque with a picture is on the wall in the foyer by the records window at the sheriff's headquarters in Brooksville.

There's a 4-acre park on Oliver Street off U.S. 41 in Brooksville called the Lonnie C. Coburn Park.

At the intersection of U.S. 301 and SR 50, a small real estate office is where the substation was, and a restaurant and a fruit stand sits at the site of the Stop 'n' Go.

Coburn's mother won't go there. "Never," she said.

His killers, Freddie Lee Hall, who was 32 at the time of the crime, and Mack Ruffin Jr., who was 22, are in prison. Ruffin is serving a life sentence. Hall is on death row, still, nearly three decades later.

On Saturday, the ride will include motorcycle units from the sheriff's departments in Pasco, Citrus, Sumter and Hernando counties, and also the Florida Highway Patrol, Duval said. Local off-duty law enforcement officials also will be on their personal motorcycles.

The ride will start at the intersection at U.S. 301 and go west on SR 50 and south on U.S. 41 and then west again on Spring Hill Drive to the cemetery. Duval will speak at the service there. So might Coburn's mother.

Chris Coburn also will be there. He was 4 when his dad was killed and doesn't remember much about him or that night.

But this ride?

"Makes me feel good," he said the other day on the phone.

Chris Coburn and his wife just had a son. The boy was born in August. His name is Lonnie Coburn.

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or 352 848-1434.

[Last modified February 15, 2007, 23:18:47]


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