Jail video catches 2 lives crossing, changing

Brian Sterner: Recently, the quadriplegic seems not to have been himself, a friend says.

By Abbie Vansickle, Times Staff Writer
Published February 15, 2008

TAMPA - After Stephen Servis broke his neck, quadriplegic Brian Sterner taught him how to begin a new life.

But Servis noticed at a recent rugby game that Sterner himself seemed in a slump, even incoherent. In October, deputies visited Sterner's house 10 times - three for reports of a "mentally ill person" at that address.

This week, Servis, 29, of Largo watched as his guide reclaimed the life of an outspoken advocate for the disabled, propelled into the national spotlight after a detention deputy tipped Sterner out of his wheelchair.

Sterner's lawyer saw the same passion.

"Of course, when you are the poster person for a situation of abuse of a disabled person, when you represent something of that importance, absolutely it's ignited his passion," said attorney John Trevena. "The positive side to what he went through is that it has given him new purpose."

Sterner, 32, could not be reached for this story.

After a wrestling injury forced him to navigate life from a wheelchair, the Maryland native embraced his disability.

He also found solace in strengthening his intellect, starting work on a doctorate in philosophy at the University of South Florida.

Professor Stephen Turner said Sterner, who worked as a teaching assistant, brought a unique perspective to philosophy by sharing his disability experience with other students.

"He's just one of the sweetest, most empathetic people around," Turner said.

Turner said Sterner left for a job helping others suffering spinal cord injuries. He then took a job selling wheelchair vans.

He also joined the Tampa Generals wheelchair rugby team.

"He was a good player, played intense and played hard," said Joe Soares, who coached Sterner in the 2004 season.

By 2007, though, there were signs of turmoil.

On July 17, police cited Sterner, who is paralyzed from the chest down and has limited use of his arms, with violating the terms of his driver's license by driving a minivan without a required steering wheel control.

On Oct. 1, deputies were called to his Riverview home for a report of a mentally ill person. They returned to the residence nine more times that month and twice in December.

One of those calls was Oct. 16, when his mother in Maryland reported her son missing. She told deputies Sterner left home in his wheelchair without telling her why he left or where he was going. She said she was concerned for his welfare.

On Oct. 25, police stopped Sterner driving a silver Mini Cooper. Police say he was waving his arms and shaking his head from side to side as if dancing. They took him to a hospital.

In January, he was laid off.

Servis last saw Sterner that month, sitting on the sidelines of a rugby game.

"He was just doing weird things," Servis said. "We're inside of a gym. He's lighting up incense. I was in the middle of playing a game, but I looked up and saw the incense. He would just shout out weird things. The stuff he would say just wouldn't make any sense."

On Jan. 29, he was arrested on a charge of fleeing and attempting to elude officers, which stemmed from the Oct. 25 stop. A jail video showed a deputy dumping Sterner out of his wheelchair in the booking area.

The next time Servis saw Sterner, he was on television, once again an advocate.

The clean-cut, well-spoken intellectual seemed to have found firmer ground.

"Now, he looks like the old Brian, and he sounds like the old Brian," Servis said.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at vansickle@sptimes.com or 813 226-3373.