A Lion Among Men
Not a day goes by that Danyelle Madsen doesn’t think of her late husband, Jesse. Some of her memories of him will forever resonate, including the time she discovered how fascinated he was by a documentary about lions.
He was so impressed, she recalled, by the way they watched over and protected their pride, the name for a lion’s family.
“He was like a lion,” Danyelle says. “Except everyone was in his pride.”
Nearly six months have passed since Jesse Madsen, a Tampa Police Master Patrol
Officer and Danyelle’s husband of 18 years, sacrificed his life in the line of duty to save others.
Just before 1 a.m. on March 9, the Tampa Police Department received multiple calls about a vehicle that was both speeding and swerving while driving southbound in the northbound lanes of I-275. Jesse Madsen was on his way home to his wife and their three children when he heard the reports and made the decision to go to the rescue. Without any hesitation, Officer Madsen did what he had done so many times before; he turned toward the danger instead of away from it.
“He called me on his way home,” recalled TPD Master Officer Ryan Agostinis. “We often talked while driving home, sharing stories about the shift or talking about weekend plans. I was unable to answer the phone because I was still talking with my squad at the end of our shift. I was going to call Jesse back when I got in the car, but I didn’t get that chance.”
As Officer Madsen raced toward the wrong-way driver, Yarrellys Ruiz also was on I-275 after visiting with cousins in Brandon, completely unaware of exactly what was transpiring. Only after Madsen’s car passed hers did things start to come into focus.
“By the time I left it was very late, and no other cars were on the road,” Ruiz says. “Suddenly, there was a police car behind me. We drove together for a while. I looked in my rearview mirror and then in a few seconds, he was in front of me going toward a vehicle that was coming toward us that I hadn’t even seen before. He saved my life. Why? I don’t know.”
To save others, Madsen drove his vehicle head-first into the oncoming car that was traveling the wrong way. As Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan noted, “Madsen made the split-second decision to keep driving, to lead by example, to turn fear into courage, and to sacrifice his own life for others he would never know.”
As Agostinis wrapped up with his squad that night, his police radio lit up.
“I heard the radio calls about the crash involving a TPD car and immediately recognized the car number,” Agostinis says. “I rushed to the scene, but it was too late. My friend was gone.”
For Agostinis, the answer to Ruiz’s question of “why?” might be the easiest thing to understand about the tragedy. In fact, few who knew Jesse Madsen were surprised by his actions. The natural desire he had to shield others was simply part of his DNA.
“Jesse’s last moments were spent protecting others, just as he did his entire life,” Agostinis said. He will forever be my best friend, and he will forever be missed.”
A True Hero
Long before joining TPD, Madsen had dedicated his life to the safety and service of others as both a United States Marine combat veteran and as a police officer in Lyndhurst and Shaker Heights, Ohio. Madsen joined the Marines in 1994 and would become a sniper and firearms instructor. He served three tours of duty in Afghanistan — and once sustained a serious injury when an improvised explosive device detonated under his Humvee vehicle. Yet, he finished that tour and earned awards for his service.
The night of March 9, 2021 wasn’t the first time Madsen had saved someone’s life. During the course of his military and police career, he received seven life-saving awards, four excellent duty awards, one unit citation award, one military service award, 17 letters of appreciation, three certificates of appreciation, the Purple Shield and the Medal of Honor.
Following his death, Officer Madsen was given his eighth, and final, life-saving award, posthumously.
“Cops like Jesse are why we can sleep at night, send our kids to school and go out for a night of dinner. Jesse said, ‘Nothing is going to happen to you; not on my watch,’ ” Dugan said. “Whether it be rescuing a victim of domestic violence being held at knifepoint or providing first-aid to a robbery victim that had just been shot, he was there. He provided Narcan to people, bringing them back from death due to an opioid addiction — and now to his final act of bravery. He placed his car in front of another to protect someone he didn’t even know. This was not a car accident; this was done on purpose to save lives.”
When area riots began in May 2020 near University Mall in Tampa, Jesse was off duty and out fishing, but as soon as the call came in, “He dropped everything he was doing to be there for everyone,” said Officer Michael Strom, Jesse’s partner and friend. “Jesse noticed a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy had been knocked in the head and was unconscious. He ran into the riot to get the deputy, took him to his police car and took him to hospital. We found out later that if the deputy had gotten to the hospital a few hours later, he could have been paralyzed. No matter what kind of situation we were in, I knew we’d be OK because he was right there with me.”
With Madsen, this heroic behavior was a pattern. And, so was his desire to assist and look after others.
“He was a designated long-range marksman for his platoon and was called upon numerous times to provide overwatch when his platoon mates were on the ground,” Agostinis said. “I know for a fact that his entire platoon felt better that Jesse was with them on missions. There were multiple missions when their platoon was engaged by the enemy when they had troops on the ground. Jesse’s leadership and tactical knowledge always led his troops back to the safety of the armored trucks.”
For Madsen’s third and final deployment with the military, he shook off a serious shoulder injury that occurred while on duty earlier in Afghanistan to once again answer the call for his country.
“He trained with 18- and 19-year-old kids,” Danyelle Madsen recalled. “He said, ‘I don’t have to go, I can get out of it because of my shoulder, but I want to make sure all of those kids get home.’ That’s who he was. He was a protector. Whenever he was around, I always felt protected. He loved taking care of people and helping people.”
A Family Man
Danyelle and Jesse met back in Ohio. At the time, they worked for police departments in neighboring cities. “Everyone congregated at one BP station after the midnight shift because nothing else was open,” Danyelle said. “I was new on the job and was just meeting a lot of the other officers. Jesse was by himself at the back of the store and at first, I thought he was kind of rude. But then when I went out to my car, he came running out to say hi. I found out later he was trying to decompress because there had been a gunshot victim that evening. The next night I was supposed to go out with co-workers and friends, and they decided to change the location of where we were going at the last minute. When we walked in, he was there with his friend and said he was telling his friend about me as I walked in. We talked all night.”
It was the first of many all-night talks the couple shared. For Danyelle and Jesse, a relationship was born, and things took off from there.
“We were together constantly. We never spent a day apart except when he was deployed,” Danyelle says. “Everything is surreal. I keep waiting for him to walk in the door.”
In addition to Danyelle, Jesse Madsen, 45, left behind three children: sons Carter and Kellan, ages 17 and 13, and 11-year-old daughter Kenley.
Making A Difference
Sadly, Hillsborough County has long been plagued by accidents and deaths resulting from wrong-way drivers. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, from July 2020 to June 2021, there were 72 wrong-way driving incidents in Hillsborough County alone.
A national study released by the American Automobile Association in March found that 2,008 people were killed between 2015 and 2018 in wrong-way driving crashes or collisions on divided highways. During that same period, 135 people in Florida lost their lives because of them.
In some cases, the accidents and fatalities occurred despite the presence of equipment and deterrents meant to stop and/or alert motorists that they were driving the wrong way. One of those intersections equipped with such safety features was where the wrong-way motorist involved in Officer Madsen’s incident first accessed the interstate.
In a quest to seek justice for her family — and to ensure no other families would have to endure a similar tragedy — Madsen wanted answers about the incident and hoped to honor her husband’s legacy. Chief Dugan recommended she contact Tampa attorney Steve Yerrid to represent her. In fact, he even walked her over to the Yerrid Law Firm to meet Yerrid in person. According to Yerrid, he and his firm have worked tirelessly to answer Danyelle’s questions and also to prevent others from experiencing the grief that has struck Danyelle and her children.
“The true tragedy of his death goes beyond the loss of his bright, shining light. The true tragedy is that Madsen never would have had to act without thinking if safeguards designed to prevent a wrong-way motorist from entering Interstate 275 at Busch Boulevard had been maintained and checked to ensure they were working as intended,” Yerrid said. “Why didn’t the system function? Whatever they put in there should have worked.”
A Lion’s Work Continues
Even in death, Officer Madsen continues to inspire.
“My life has changed in so many ways since that night,” says Ruiz, the motorist who never saw the wrong-way driver barreling toward her until the officer she never met drove directly into his path. “I want to be like Jesse. I want to help people, help the community.”
To that end, Ruiz has become an activist and a conduit for positive influence and change. Since March, Ruiz said, she has become involved with the Tampa chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as well as Latinos on the Go, a local organization dedicated to helping Latina women who own their own business or want to start one.
Additionally, Ruiz organized a team to walk in Officer Madsen’s honor at the 2021 Walk Like MADD 5K fundraiser, and said she plans to keep organizing events to help empower women.
“Life was good before, but I feel like Jesse changed my life forever. I feel like he is with me. He is my angel sent from God,” Ruiz said. “I just want to do good things like he used to.”
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