The high-speed chase screeched to a halt just off Interstate 75, and Sheriff’s Deputy Dean Bardes rushed to subdue the man he’d been pursuing through Lee County, Fla.
But the man got to him first.
On that morning in November, officials said, Edward Strother got the jump on the 12-year veteran officer. Strother hit Bardes in the face, stunning the deputy, who crumpled to the ground, officials said. Then Strother straddled the dazed lawman, pinning him to the asphalt as cars whizzed by, according to the Lee County state attorney’s office, which reviewed the attack.
“Strother repeatedly delivered punches to Bardes’ head and torso,” according to the review, “and attempted to gain control of Bardes’ firearm.”
Kimberly Jenkinson, a Florida woman driving by at the time, told WINK News that the attacker “just started punching him and hitting and hitting and hitting. I was afraid for the police officer. I thought he was going to kill him.”
A few feet away, Ashad Russell, who had a concealed-carry permit, was also watching the attack unfold. Russell pulled his gun and approached, the review said. He told the attacker that “he would shoot Strother if he didn’t stop beating the deputy.”
On the ground, the deputy “pled for help and asked that Russell shoot Strother.”
The events had begun a few minutes earlier, about 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 14.
Bardes and a Florida Highway Patrol trooper were at the scene of a car crash when Strother’s Toyota Camry swerved and drove along the left shoulder at what seemed to be at least 100 miles per hour, nearly striking the officers, a witness told the News-Press.
Believing the near-crash was intentional, officials said, Bardes chased the Camry southbound on I-75 until the driver stopped and got out of his car at an off-ramp.
A photo taken by a passerby captured the officer’s perilous situation moments later. The deputy was a few feet from the open door of his patrol cruiser. Strother’s right hand was ready to deliver another punch.
The State Attorney’s office says Strother ignored Russell’s commands to stop beating the deputy. So Russell fired his gun three times, hitting Strother in the clavicle and the neck.
Strother was pronounced dead at a hospital a short time later.
On Tuesday, the state attorney’s office ruled that the shooting was legally justified. Russell had a legal right to stand his ground under Florida law. He also used “defensive force” because he had “a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” to the deputy, the state attorney’s office concluded. That makes Russell immune from criminal prosecution in the case.
Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott has hailed Russell as a hero, particularly as the nation has faced what he called “an increasingly alarming rise in attacks and killings perpetrated on cops.”
The sheriff’s office declined to comment about the state attorney’s ruling Wednesday, referring a Washington Post reporter to a Facebook post shortly after the incident.
“I thank the hero that recognized the imminent threat, rushed to Deputy Bardes’ aid, and ultimately stopped that threat,” Scott said on the department’s Facebook page. “In a day and age where race is a near instant focus for media and other pundits in police incidents, the fact is that this hero happens to be a man of color who stopped another man of color from further harming or killing a white cop; thereby reminding us that black lives matter, blue lives matter, and indeed all life matters.”
But Strother’s brother criticized the sheriff’s response to Strother’s death and questioned the details of the fight. “They are calling him a good Samaritan?” Louis Strother told the News-Press. “Was my brother armed?”
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 135 officers were killed in the line of duty in 2016, the highest number in five years. Of those, 64 were fatally shot in the line of duty, a 56 percent spike over the year before. Those include five officers killed in ambush attacks in Dallas and Baton Rouge last summer.
Overall, the number of officers killed in the line of duty has steadily declined since the early 1970s.