Slain trooper's father follows cleansing ritual as wait for justice lengthens

Philip Sottile's broom sweeps across the gray marble, swiping dust from the bottom of the gravestone at Oak Hill Cemetery along U.S. 27 in Highlands County.

At the top of the gravestone, which he occasionally taps with his fingers to kiss, is an engraving of his son, Nicholas.  "Nicky," for short.

"I will never get over what happened to my son," Philip says as he finishes sprucing up the gravestone.

It is the third time he had been there that week.

It is a ritual he has followed for 11 years.

Trooper Nicholas Sottile was patrolling U.S. 27 for the Florida Highway Patrol in January of 2007 when he noticed a vehicle swerving through traffic.

"My dad used to tell Nicky all the time, 'If you see those cars doing stuff like that, just let them go. You are close to retirement. Just let them go,'" recalled Philip's other son, Jimmy.

Nicky ignored his father's words.

He pulled the vehicle over, driven by a young man named Joshua Lee Altersberger.

That decision marked the beginning of the end of his life.

"My brother did his job the last day of his career like he did his first day," said Jimmy Sottile.

Telling his passenger he was going to, "push it," Altersberger said he was going to shoot the trooper.


As Sottile approached the car, Altersberger put his hands up, putting Sottile at ease. 

Then he pulled his own gun, fired, and drove away. 

Sottile radioed for help, but died on the side of the road.

"The reason he comes there each time is because he has a connection with Nicky there," explained Jimmy. "Every day is a memorial."

Philip lived has lived in Sebring since 1957. He raised his family of four children while working at Georgia Pacific, stacking cardboard in between throat cancer treatments. 

The resulting surgery is why he can be more difficult to understand to those who don't know him well.

Before Philip got a feeding tube, Nicky would stop by to bring meals.

"He would cook special things every day and bring them here," said Jimmy. "That's one of the things he misses."


Philip thought he had endured the court process: A guilty plea from Altersberger, a death sentence, and several appeals.

"You see it on TV," continued Jimmy. "But when it is your own family, and you live it, this can't be real. He survived Miami. He survived Tampa. And then was gunned down in his hometown."

In April of 2017, courts found that because the jury sentenced Altersberger to death 9 to 3, and not unanimously, his sentence must be thrown out, along with dozens of other cases. 

All the while, Philip was cleaning the gravestone and roadside memorial, driving his pickup truck from his home several miles away.

He was watching his years slip by, his soul un-whole.

"Eight years later, we are no further than where we were," Jimmy Sottile lamented. "This is his second or third do-over. Our brother didn't get a do-over."

And again, a delay -- this time, by chance. 

One of the defense attorneys is battling a serious illness, and an Oct. 29 court date to begin resentencing has been postponed.

"He is waiting to see if this guy gets executed," said Jimmy. "I firmly believe that once this guy is executed, he will probably come to the house, go to bed, and pass away. That is all he is waiting on. That is what keeps him going, every day, to see justice carried out."


But Philip is 85, and as each day goes by, it's unavoidable to say that his not-quite-silent protest might end with a wish unfulfilled.

"He can't stop," offered Jimmy. "He can't stop until it is finished. It is not finished yet. That's what drives him, that's what brings him here every day."

Whichever happens first, Philip is proof that love never dies.

"I love him no matter what," he added.