Texas officer dies in car crash

By Tanya Eiserer, Brandon Formby and Marissa Alanis
The Dallas Morning News

Fort Worth Officer Dwayne Freeto was killed Sunday morning on Interstate 35W.
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FORT WORTH, Tex. – Fort Worth police officers and city officials gathered Sunday to mourn rookie officer Dwayne Freeto, a 34-year-old father of two young girls who was killed earlier in a fiery car accident.

"He loved being a police officer. He loved the Fort Worth Police Department," said Linda Freeto, his mother. "He talked about them being his brothers."

Officer Freeto's squad car burst into flames after it was rear-ended on Interstate 35W.

About 3:35 a.m. Sunday, the officer responded to a call about a woman stranded with a flat tire on the highway near Morningside Drive. Witnesses told police he was inside his squad car with his emergency lights on when a Lexus slammed into the back of his vehicle.

The impact triggered a chain reaction. The squad car hit the back of the stranded BMW, which then struck a pickup truck driven by a man who had pulled over to help the woman.

The squad car and the Lexus caught fire. Fort Worth police Lt. Dean Sullivan said the collision pinned Officer Freeto in his seat. He died at the scene.

The driver of the Lexus, a 21-year-old man whose name was not released Sunday, was taken by helicopter to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where he was in critical condition in the burn unit.

Lt. Sullivan said investigators believe speed and alcohol were factors in the crash. He said police will wait for the district attorney's office to review evidence before deciding whether to charge the Lexus driver.

An off-duty police officer who ran to the scene helped the Lexus driver extinguish flames on his body.

Officer Freeto's squad car was burned beyond recognition. It was mangled and the roof was gone, exposing the remnants of the charred interior. The Lexus was also badly burned, but still intact.

The woman and the off-duty police officer were not injured. The man who had pulled his pickup over to help the woman was treated and released at the scene for burns he received while trying to save Officer Freeto.

"He was the one who hurt himself trying to save the officer's life," Lt. Sullivan said of the man, whose identity was not released Sunday. "He broke the glass with his hands, and got injuries to his hands."

Officer Freeto is survived by his wife, Karen, and two daughters, ages 9 and 3.

"He loved them," said Karen Freeto, who said she met her husband when she was 18 and that they would have been married 11 years in January.

Linda Freeto told how her son met his future wife at a church outing to a Texas Rangers game.

"He said, "I just met your daughter-in-law,' " she recalled.

He was stationed at Fort Hood for four years and left the Army in 1999 after stints in Bosnia, Korea and Kuwait.

"He went to all the hot spots in the world," said his father, Carl Freeto, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Midlothian.

Sunday night, more than 100 church members met at Midlothian High School and were escorted a few blocks by police to the home of Carl and Linda Freeto for a private vigil.

The group gathered in silence outside the home, some holding candles and flashlights. Shortly after the vigil started, the officer's parents joined the group. The crowd formed a circle around the couple and recited the Lord's Prayer. Several stayed to hug the pastor and his wife.

Carl Freeto said earlier in the day that his son was a family man who loved his wife and daughters.

"All his time was taken up with family if he wasn't on the job," he said.

Fort Worth last lost an officer in the line of duty when Officer Hank Nava was shot in the head while serving a warrant at a house in November 2005.

"It's pretty trying for us to lose another officer," Police Chief Ralph Mendoza said. "You can't take all the risk away from what an officer does day in and day out."

Chief Mendoza and Mayor Mike Moncrief visited with Officer Freeto's family and said they were in shock.

"I ask for the city's prayers for the family, for their children and for his wife, all of whom will be struggling through this holiday season," Mr. Moncrief said.

Officer Freeto was driving a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria, a model favored by many officers because of its room, power and rear-wheel drive. Some departments have stopped purchasing them because of concerns about the cars igniting when rear-ended.

Most Crown Victorias, including Officer Freeto's, are outfitted with safety features to prevent the gas tanks from rupturing and igniting during a collision. Lt. Sullivan said he wouldn't speculate on what caused the cruiser and the Lexus to ignite.

"It's too soon to conclude much of anything," Lt. Sullivan said. "We'll wait for the analysis of the evidence we've collected."

Dallas police Officer Patrick Metzler died in 2002 after a speeding vehicle rear-ended his Crown Victoria patrol car on Central Expressway, causing it to catch fire.

Officer Freeto graduated from the department's police academy in March. Officer Clifton Miller, who was president of that class, described his colleague as a friendly guy who always put others before himself.

"You never saw him without a smile," Officer Miller said.

Four of the officer's police academy classmates were solemn-faced as a flag in front of the police and fire department training center was saluted at half-staff Sunday.

Officer Miller said his colleague's family had supported Officer Freeto's decision to become an officer.

"He was definitely a true servant," Officer Miller said. "He loved giving to his community."


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