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Foot was on gas, mind was on cat

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published February 21, 2007


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SPRING HILL - A reckless driver was pulled over Monday after hitting 19 mailboxes and dragging a few trash cans into the street.

Deputies gave the 42-year-old woman a sobriety test, which she passed.

But she couldn't stop crying.

The reason for the tears and the errant driving?

Her cat Monty died that morning.

"He was my life," said Tracy Chadwell on Tuesday, standing in front of her house in a teal bathrobe and padded slippers. "He was my baby."

The tears were still running down her round cheeks.

Her three children and four grandchildren are scattered around the country. Her husband has taken a job in Key West. Her four herniated discs leave her in tremendous pain.

Four cats and one dog filled the void.

But then Monday morning she found the orange-and-white, long-haired tabby dead in the house.

He'd been with her through her move from New Orleans, through her separation from her husband, through their reunification.

Monday morning the only thing she could think to do was to get in her red Jeep Wrangler and head to work, hoping that she could somehow take her mind off the loss.

It was 8:30 a.m.

Deputy P.L. Flinn was the only traffic deputy working at the time the call went out.

The dispatcher told him someone was driving into mailboxes and going all over the road on Horizon Drive.

Flinn started looking up the addresses to get his bearings, which is when he ran across a familiar one: his own.

He drove to the scene along the 9000 block of Horizon Drive and surveyed the damage.

No one was hurt, but the path of battered mailboxes stretched along three blocks.

"To go six-tenths of a mile hitting mailbox after mailbox and trash can after trash can - this is a problem," Flinn said Tuesday on his front porch, as neighbors came up to ask him what had happened. "If someone would have been out here, someone would have been hurt."

When Flinn realized he was one of the victims, he gave the lead in the case over to another deputy. Together, the deputies gave Chadwell a sobriety test, even though she didn't have any alcohol on her breath.

It turned out, Flinn said, that she was taking medication for back and leg pain. Chadwell told him she was used to driving under the medication.

Then the deputies looked at her license. She gave them a Louisiana license that was suspended and expired.

Chadwell says it was suspended for a speeding ticket, which she paid. But she has no record of it because shortly after she paid off the ticket, her New Orleans home was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

That's the same reason, she said, that she couldn't get a new driver's license: all her paperwork had been destroyed.

The deputies charged her with reckless driving and with leaving the scene of an accident with damage.

Chadwell said she didn't even realize she had taken down all those mailboxes. She thought it was just a garbage can stuck underneath her truck.

But once she turned onto Spring Hill Drive, she decided she shouldn't be driving and turned the car around to come home.

Deputies soon caught up to her.

On Tuesday, most of the mailboxes had been replaced and the neighborhood was abuzz with the tale of their demolition.

"This was absurd," Flinn said. "It's just not something you see every day."

Researcher Catherine Wos contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.

[Last modified February 20, 2007, 21:22:26]


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