‘His soul was good.’ Pinellas Deputy Michael Magli is mourned

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Jack Evans, Tampa Bay Times
·6 min read
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LUTZ — The mourners at Tuesday’s funeral at Idlewild Baptist Church had many names for the deceased. They called him Mike, Mags, The Little Prince. They referred to him as son and brother and, though the 5-year-old and the 9-month-old were too young to speak at such a thing, everyone knew that to them, he was daddy.

His boss, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, used the title that the man went by when he died in the line of duty on Feb. 17: Deputy Michael J. Magli.

His wife Stephanie Magli — who said through tears that she’d tried to write down a speech but couldn’t because nothing felt real — called her husband her best friend and partner.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” she said. “I’m not ready. Eleven years was not long enough.”

Hundreds gathered for the funeral service for the 30-year-old deputy, husband and father of two, who sheriff’s officials say was killed attempting to stop an impaired driver fleeing from other deputies.

Michael Magli, the first deputy to die in the line of duty in the 109-year history of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, received a state funeral with all the traditions accorded a fallen law enforcement officer: The 21-gun salute, a riderless horse, helicopters flying in formation above and hundreds of others lined up along the procession route.

Inside the church, those who spoke about Magli admitted they, too, struggled to find the words that could capture the spirit of the deputy, a man so humble they were sure he wouldn’t have approved of the big deal they made out of him.

Some had been thinking about what to say since last week, when the Sheriff’s Office said the driver — driving drunk and recklessly — slammed into the deputy as he tried to lay a tire-deflation device onto the roadway to stop him.

For an observer who didn’t know Magli, comrades, friends and loved ones painted a picture of him through their stories and details. How becoming a dad of two daughters turned him into someone who didn’t just indulge in tea parties and cartoonish Halloween costumes but loved them, too.

“As tough as Michael is, he cares so much about his girls (and wanted) to make them happy,” said Pinellas sheriff’s Sgt. Kevin Boulton, a friend and fellow father. “He didn’t care what others thought.”

Deputy Chris Russell, Magli’s close friend of 20 years, recalled how angry Magli got when Russell left home to join the Marine. Then, when Russell returned home and was floundering, Magli recruited him to the Sheriff’s Office.

“I will remember this moment for the rest of my life: Mike, sitting on my couch, looks over at me and says, ‘God dammit, we’re best friends again, aren’t we,’” Russell said. “I said ‘Yeah, I think you’re stuck with me, buddy.’”

A pastor talked about how Michael Magli met Stephanie first met in the middle of a terrible day for her — she’d locked her keys in her car and spilled ketchup all over herself — and how the first words he ever spoke to her were, “Do you need a hug?”

“His soul was good,” Stephanie Magli said. “And everybody that knew him knew that.”

Magli was born in Ozone Park, N.Y., and came to the Tampa Bay area as a young child. He grew up in a big Italian-American family: “You throw a rock and you hit Anthony, Pete and Joey,” his uncle Sal Gallo said, “but we didn’t have a Michael.”

He attended Hudson High School in Pasco County and played football there. As his father, Frank Magli, recalled, Michael lined up at defensive end across from guys twice his size but was determined to play the game fearlessly. He led the conference in sacks his senior year.

A few years after graduating, in 2013, he was working at a golf course when he heard the Sheriff’s Office had a civilian job at the Pinellas County courthouse. He saw it as a foot in the door. The next year, he became a patrol deputy, eventually settling into a position working days in East Lake, closer to his family’s Land O’ Lakes home.

Magli loved his job, Gualtieri said; he also loved getting home early enough to spend time with his daughters. His family was unsurprised that he was great at being both a cop and a dad: He was immediately friendly and content to hang in the background but, as his father said, could “defuse any situation.”

“From the time my children were born, I told each of them that, no matter what they did or what happened in life, I will love them unconditionally,” Magli’s mother, Angela, said in a statement read by a pastor. “What they should hope for even more than that is that I not only love them, I like them … I want you all to know, I truly liked Michael James Magli.”

When Magli heard the call about a reckless and possibly intoxicated driver on East Lake Road, Gualtieri said he knew it could be the beginning of something horrific: rush hour was approaching, and the road was already backed up, meaning a lot of people were in harm’s way.

“Mike knew that guy had to be stopped, because he was going to seriously hurt or kill someone,” Gualtieri said. “Mike did everything right and acted consistent with his training. While Mike tragically lost his life, he was a hero who undoubtedly saved many lives.”

His death is a grim milestone for the sheriff, and his agency.

“This is a day that we feared would come and hoped it never would,” Gualtieri said. “We now join a club that we wanted no part of but are forced to join. We will do our best, Mike, to honor you.”

After the service, in front of the church, came the set of tributes dubbed final honors. Family members sat in folding chairs under white tents, while hundreds of law enforcement officers stood in orderly rows. A near-black riderless horse strode past the flag-draped casket.

A septet of helicopters flew overhead in the “missing man” formation — one aircraft missing. A reverent silence hung over the crowd, nothing but birdsong and breeze in the palms, before it was broken by the shocking volume of the 21-gun salute.

It ended with bagpipes. The notes of “Amazing Grace” rose from a solitary player, one time through the familiar melody. Then the drums joined in and more bagpipes, impossible to tell by sound how many, weeping in unison.

During the ceremony inside, Senior Pastor Ken Whitten had invoked the Biblical story of Lazarus’s death and Jesus’s tears, the idea of one life sacrificed in place of another.

“He gave his life so somebody else could have theirs,” he said, speaking this time of Magli. “What a hero. What a savior. What a friend.”