BRADENTON, Fla. - Three months ago, a DUI suspect was barreling through barricades and cones and one Florida trooper realized she was the last line of defense between the alleged intoxicated driver and nearly 7,000 runners participating in the Skyway 10K.
Using her patrol car, she put herself in harm's way, later on saying, "I was sworn to protect and that's what I felt I did." Tuesday, Trooper Toni Schuck officially returned to full-duty status. For the past few weeks, she has been on light duty, recovering from her injuries.
"It was at first hard. You have a lot of soreness. But physical therapy, doctor visits, and chiropractor visits have helped a lot," she told reporters Tuesday. "It’s been a little bumpy road for me, but the recovery has been good. That’s what I plan to do – go back to full duty. We’ll be doing commercial vehicle inspections, including hazmat. So, all my hazmat drivers, I’m back."
Later in March, just weeks after the driver collided with her patrol car and was arrested, Trooper Schuck was honored by Manatee County commissioners, who marked March 22, 2022, as Trooper Toni Schuck day.
"Trooper Schuck’s quick thinking and selfless decision to risk her life diverted a lethal disaster," said Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge.
On the morning of March 6, Schuck was working for the Skyway 10K. As nearly 7,000 runners crossed the bridge, she heard a radio call, saying a driver hadn’t stopped for the road closure.
"At that point, I was facing northbound. At that point I turned my car around and faced southbound," she told reporters in the days after the crash.
The car was a BMW. Troopers say 52-year-old Kristen Watts of Sarasota was behind the wheel and kept going through the barricades.
"In my mind, I’m thinking she’s going to stop. We have another checkpoint she will stop at," Schuck recalled.
But Watts didn’t – not until Trooper Schuck guided her Chevy Tahoe in the path. The impact crushed both vehicles, sending both Watts and Schuck to the hospital. Trooper Schuck said she was able to walk from her patrol vehicle to the ambulance before the pain kicked in. As she was transported over the Skyway, she became emotional seeing runners on the bridge.
"I saw people still there and it really overwhelmed me. It was just a situation where I knew there were people there and I’m thankful it was me. I’m thankful she didn’t get past me," Schuck said with tears in her eyes. "Of course in our jobs we are to protect and serve, and even on her behalf."
As she returns to patrol the roads, it won't be inside a Tahoe.
"It’s going to be a Charger, I don’t have a Tahoe right now," the trooper said. "Because it was a special unit, it has to be rebuilt."
Troopers say Watts was driving drunk. Her blood-alcohol level at the hospital registered at .271 -- over 3 times the legal limit of .08.
Six hours later at the Manatee County Jail it was still above the legal limit, registering at .094. Recently, Watts was found incompetent to stand trial and headed to a state hospital.
"So, I have mixed feelings, but obviously, it’s part of the judicial process," Schuck offered when asked about the judge's decision. "I’m glad it’s an inpatient process where she is going to get the helps she needs. I’m glad she’s inpatient and not out. She’s going to get the help that she needs."
Schuck credits her survival to two things: her department-issued Chevy Tahoe and a guardian angel.
In March, Schuck said she had every intention of returning to the Florida Highway Patrol. After all, it was a job she held for 26 years.
Tuesday, that promise to herself came true.
"It feels great. It really does. I’ve been really looking forward to this. The guys are running in and out, and I’m like, 'Take me!’ Again it’s all part of the process, and I’m glad I got to where I am to return to full duty," she said before hitting the road on Tuesday. "I didn’t know who was on the bridge. I didn’t matter what color, ethnicity. I was there to protect all of them."
Schuck said she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community and hopes her story has a positive impact.
"I’m just happy to have a positive light for law enforcement but also women in law enforcement," she explained. "For women in law enforcement, I hope there is a little girl who can see…I didn’t think I could do a full career. You’re going against people at the side of the road, and it’s scary at first, but you build that thick skin."