YULEE, Fla. – The flag outside the Nassau County Sheriff's Office was lowered to half staff Tuesday, just feet above a memorial surrounding the patrol car of a deputy who was killed earlier in the day while chasing a man on foot across State Road 200 in Yulee.
Deputy Eric Oliver, who joined the Sheriff's Office in 2009 after serving five years in the U.S. Navy, will be remembered as a "hero," Sheriff Bill Leeper said.
"He has a history of serving our country and our community," Leeper said.
Oliver, another Nassau County sheriff's deputy and a U.S. Border Patrol agent had approached a pickup truck with six people inside that was parked at a Gate gas station on S.R. 200 at Chester Road about 7:30 a.m., according to Border Patrol Division Chief Todd Bryant.
The Border Patrol agent identified that at least three of the truck's occupants were citizens of a foreign country and did not have authorization to be in the U.S., Bryant said.
As those three were being arrested, Bryant said, one man still in the truck exited the vehicle, running across S.R. 200, and the two deputies followed him.
The first deputy made it across the road, but Oliver was hit by an SUV. He died at the scene.
"When the individual bolted, their instinct was to go after them, and they did that. It's unfortunate what happened," Leeper said.
Speaking through tears, Leeper made the tragic announcement that his agency had lost one of its own.
"He died doing what he loved to do. He was a good police officer," Leeper said. "We were blessed to have him for the last seven years."
Leeper said he promoted Oliver from corrections officer to patrol deputy in March 2014.
"Law enforcement is a tough job," Leeper said. "We just want to protect our community ... and tragic things happen and it's unfortunate, but that's the risk we take when we take the oath of office to serve and protect the community, and Eric died doing his job."
Oliver, 32, leaves behind a 6-year-old daughter.
"I told her that her daddy died doing what he loved to do, protecting our community. And he is a hero and he's looking down on her, protecting her and watching over her," Leeper said. "And hopefully she'll take some gratification in that."
Leeper said Oliver recently got divorced and both he and his ex-wife have family in Nassau County. He said the Sheriff's Office has received an outpouring of love and support from people and local businesses have dropped off food for deputies and other law enforcement personnel working the case.
The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating the accident that caused Oliver's death. The 45-year-old Yulee woman driving the Kia that struck the deputy stopped and cooperated with troopers.
"(It) looked like there was nothing she could do," Leeper said. "Very tragic."
Other Nassau County deputies, K-9 teams and federal agents with the assistance of the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office were involved with a manhunt for the man who ran from the scene. The search came to an end about 7:45 p.m. in Jacksonville where Francisco Obbidio Portillo-Fuentes was captured, Leeper said.
The two who weren't arrested at the gas station drove away in the truck during the aftermath of the deadly crash, but were later caught and arrested, Bryant said.
Oliver is the sixth Nassau County deputy killed in the history of the department, which was formed in 1827. Chief Bailiff Lewis Hailey died in a crash 24 years ago in 1992.
Community pauses for procession of fallen deputy
The Nassau County community stopped for nearly an hour Tuesday afternoon as a procession of officers from agencies across Northeast Florida accompanied Oliver's body as it was taken to the Oxley-Heard Funeral Home in Fernandina Beach.
Hundreds of residents and families of all ages lined the streets to wave American flags and drivers stopped in the street to get out of the vehicles and stand to show support for the fallen deputy -- creating a powerful sight.
First responders saluted as the casket draped with an American flag was taken out of a blue SUV and into the funeral home at the end of the procession that consisted of at least 50 vehicles from the Nassau County Sheriff's Office, Fernandina Beach Police Department, Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, Jacksonville Beach Police Department, Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
The Fraternal Order of Police chapter in Jacksonville tweeted: "The Thin Blue Line in NE Florida just got thinner as we've lost a Brother from the Nassau County Sheriff's..."
Though Leeper acknowledged there's a little closure that accompanies the capture of the man Oliver was chasing, he said, the heartache continues for his entire agency.
"The grief and the pain that our officers and employees feel from losing someone that they know and that they care about that had dedicated his young life to his community, that's going to continue. But we'll have to deal with that in the coming days and months but we'll get through it," Leeper said.
The sheriff added that the support of the community has been very meaningful to him, saying it makes him proud to have grown up and now serve in Nassau County.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott also released a statement, expressing his sadness over the loss of the Navy veteran and law enforcement officer.
“Our prayers and deepest condolences are with his family. The brave men and women of law enforcement choose to dedicate their lives every day to keep our communities safe and we owe them our sincerest gratitude for all they do. We will forever honor the service, courage and sacrifice of Deputy Oliver and pray that his family and loved ones find peace and healing during this very difficult time," Scott said, in part.
With Thanksgiving just days away, the director of the Oxley-Heard Funeral Home said Oliver's funeral will likely be held at the end of the week.
Though the growing bouquets of flowers covering Oliver's cruiser outside the Sheriff's Office will eventually wither and fade, the deputy's memory will last forever.
Nassau County community provides support for Oliver's daughter
Within hours after Oliver's death, the Nassau County community began coming together to help provide support for the fallen deputy's daughter.
The idea to make sure the 6-year-old girl has special Christmas was sparked by Evelyn Horky.
Horky said she wants to deliver gifts to the Nassau County Sheriff's Office for Oliver's daughter, who now has to go through the holiday season without her father.
So Horky posted in the Facebook group "Nassau County, FL Rants, Raves, & Reviews Group" to enlist the help of her fellow Nassau County residents.
"I decided to write a post on Facebook ... and try to get the community to pull together to try and give her a spectacular Christmas," Horky said.
As of 11 p.m. Tuesday, Horky's post already had more than 400 likes and hundreds of comments from people wanting to help.
"I have people from out of state contacting me, wanting to know where to send a check to," Horky said. "People are wanting to know if they can give gift cards, money, a college fund, clothes. You can give anything."
Though Horky knows the gifts won't bring the little girl's father back, she hopes they will show her that she has the support of her community.
"This is where the community needs to pull together and just step up for a little girl who's lost everything in her life," Horky said. "It's just to ease some of the pain."
Anyone wishing to send Oliver's daughter a Christmas gift can send it straight to the Nassau County Sheriff's Office at 76001 Bobby Moore Circle, Yulee, FL 32097.