[PHOTO CREDITS: Provided]
(This Article was First Published in LLN in August, 2016 — Issue No. 27.)
(LAKE LEGAL NEWS EDITOR’S PROLOGUE: Our LLN associate editor, Marilyn M. Aciego, worked for a local newspaper in 2006. Just a few months after she was promoted to the Lake County, Florida, police beat, the county experienced a year its citizens would never forget. On an August day in 2006, Marilyn found out she was pregnant with her only child on the very same day that little Trenton Duckett was reported missing. Marilyn would become a frequent guest on Nancy Grace to discuss the nationwide story and just a few months later — in October of 2006 — she would also cover the death of Lake’s beloved Sheriff Chris Daniels. The following is an account of both tragic stories from her personal point of view.)
October 14, 2006 was a Saturday night and my roommates and I were playing Monopoly. Granted, there isn’t much for a single, pregnant girl to do on a Saturday night in Lake County, Florida. I was still writing almost daily stories on the Trenton Duckett case and I was sick all the time and exhausted. Being the police reporter at a local newspaper, I knew that the annual Battle of the Badges charity bus race was scheduled for this same evening in nearby Volusia County, but I had decided not to cover it. It was a great networking event, but no “real” news ever happened, so I decided to skip it. My instincts failed me that day.
It was around 10:15 p.m. and we were well into our game. My phone rang and it was one of my better sources. As soon as I saw his name on the screen I knew it must be something important. He didn’t call that late often, so I immediately turned on my reporter brain
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“Well, get up, you’re going to work.”
“Ha, I’m not going to work at 11 o’clock
on a Saturday night.”
“Yes, you are. Chris Daniels is dead.”
I honestly couldn’t believe what I heard. A million thoughts ran through my head. Could this really be true? What happened? Was he shot? Heart attack? Car crash? I was dumbfounded. My source told me he had been run over by a bus at the Battle of the Badges. That was even more unbelievable. I quickly hung up with him and called the Lake County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer, Sergeant Christie Mysinger. (Mysinger is now a lieutenant in the Road Patrol Division.)
Mysinger answered the phone and she was very subdued. If you have ever met Mysinger, you know she has a bubbly, happy personality. When she answered, I only asked her this: “Is it true?” And she burst into tears. That was all the confirmation I needed. By this time, it’s nearing 11 p.m. and the paper will be going to press within the hour. I called the copy desk and said words I never thought I’d say — “Stop the presses!”
The next call I made was to our newspaper photographer, David Manning. David knew when he saw my number, especially that time of time of night, it was something serious. I told him to meet me at the Lake County Jail in Tavares, Florida — and there began a very long night.
The Battle of the Badges was a charity fundraiser hosted by Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson to benefit the Florida Sheriff’s Youth Ranches. Participants drove retired school buses in vibrant colors with painted windshields in a short race that was in its fifth year. In the 12th lap of the 15-lap race, Daniels’ blue bus was struck by a bus being driven by Seminole County, Florida, Sheriff Don Eslinger. The impact threw Daniels from the bus and he was run over by his own bus (and Eslinger’s). Daniels’ wife Michelle was in the stands along with numerous Lake County Sheriff’s Office employees. (Also in attendance that night was Lake County Jail Operations Chief Gary Borders. Within hours of Daniel’s death, Borders would be appointed as Lake County’s new sheriff by then-Governor Jeb Bush.)
I arrived at the jail before any of the other media outlets. I had never been there that late and it was dark and eerie. I sat in my car and waited for Mysinger. She pulled up about 10 minutes later and though I am not a touchy-feely person, I extended my arms to her. (That was the beginning of a long friendship, lasting to this day.) She looked broken; there is really no other word for it. Every time I saw her, she was so well put-together and that night she was a mess. We waited for hours outside the jail. Early Sunday morning Mysinger called a press conference and made the official announcement. Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels was dead. On his 47th birthday.
As things unfolded, the Florida Highway Patrol began investigating and Lake County began to mourn. Everywhere you went, flags were at half-staff, law enforcement officers wore black bands around their badges and local businesses changed their signs to reflect their sorrow. Daniels was very well-liked and you’d be hard-pressed to find a longtime LCSO employee that doesn’t have a fond “Chris” story.
The mood around the county — especially in the Golden Triangle area — was somber for many, many months following Daniels loss in 2006. People were sad and hurt, but most of all I think they were in shock. Our young, vibrant, newly-married sheriff had been taken away from us and it was hard to accept. FHP released its findings and we found out Daniels was not wearing his seat belt.
(EPILOGUE: When recently asked to reflect back and provide her thoughts about that fateful night a decade ago, Lieutenant Christie Mysinger recalls, “I had conducted a lot of press conferences as the Sheriff’s Office Spokesperson, but that night was different, that night it was family.” She adds, “I think we were all in shock. We had just had cake and sung ‘Happy Birthday’ to him hours earlier at a D.A.R.E charity golf tournament and then, he was gone.”
Lake County’s current (and third longest serving) sheriff, Gary Borders, told LLN back in a 2009 interview about having suddenly become Lake County’s top-cop: “I would give it all back to have Chris Daniels here.” For this current article Sheriff Borders adds: “Chris had so much vision and was very passionate about leading the Sheriff’s Office. But he wasn’t only a great leader, he was also a great friend to our community. He was well respected and just an all-around great guy. He’s still missed to this day.”
In an extremely rare public statement, Chris White — who took Daniels in as a boy, following Daniels’ father’s death — shared the following exclusively with LLN: “Chris was special as both a child and a man. His father was my best friend. On his deathbed he asked two favors of me, ‛Please promise me you will see my child gets a high school diploma,’ and ‘When you think he is old enough to appreciate it, please give him my First American Edition of Don Quixote.’ I felt honored to achieve both of his wishes. It was many years later before I discovered the significance of his last wish. George Washington purchased a copy of Don Quixote just hours after signing the Constitution, signaling that the responsibility of upholding the document was now in the hands of the nation. People like Chris are the ones who live in memory forever.”)
Our Editor-in-Chief, Marilyn M. Aciego, began writing for Lake Legal News in 2010. In addition, she has made more than two dozen appearances on live national television, including Nancy Grace and the Greta Van Susteren show, along with her appearance on Evil Twins. Contact her with breaking news, tips, and feedback by sending an e-mail to 352Tips@gmail.com. You can also contact us on our Facebook page — and make sure you “Like” and “Follow us” there. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]