Florida trooper killed in 1961 ambush is memorialized with signs on U.S. 301

Staff Writer
Walton Sun
Walton Sun

Katherine Gasque was only 9 on Oct. 26, 1961, when a Florida Highway Patrol trooper showed up at her Jacksonville home to tell her mother the tragic news.

The 9-year-old girl’s father, Trooper Edwin J. Gasque, had been ambushed and killed as he and a prison dog handler tracked two fugitives wanted for abducting a Duval County sheriff’s deputy on U.S. 301 near Baldwin.

On Friday afternoon, 58 years after that news, a plaque honoring her father was unveiled at Highway Patrol Jacksonville’s headquarters. Two will be placed at each end of a 5-mile stretch of U.S. 301.

Dabbing at tears she apologized for, Gasque thanked all troopers for “putting your life on the line” every day, as well as how kind the Highway Patrol has been to her family for all these years.

“You just made us always feel part of the Florida troopers’ families,” she said. “Would you all please stay safe, because I know there are no guarantees when you go out.”

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A total of 48 Highway Patrol troopers have been killed in the line of duty statewide since the department was formed in 1939, but some had not been memorialized yet. That was rectified with a bill last year filed by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Hollywood, and Rep. Chuck Brannan, R-Macclenny.

Brannan, who was a Jacksonville police officer and U.S. deputy marshal, said this was the first bill he filed when he was elected last year. He told Gasque that time does not diminish respect for any of these troopers memorialized now.

“We respect your father and I just hope all the troopers we honor, as the motoring public pass these signs, they will remember,” he said. “It was not how your dad or these other officers died that made them heroes. It was how they lived and how they served.”

Gasque had been a trooper for two years and was stationed in Jacksonville in 1961. He was called to help search for two suspects who had abducted a Duval County sheriff’s deputy.

Melvin Farmer was the Highway Patrol dispatcher on duty and said Friday that the memorial signs are “58 years too late” for Gasque, but happy it finally happened. He said he can never forget that day.

He said a deputy was checking a suspicious car on West Beaver Street when he opened the trunk.

“When he looked up, he was facing a rifle,” Farmer said of the deputy. “They disarmed him and handcuffed him to the tree.”

The deputy got free and chased the suspects, and the county radioed the Highway Patrol for backup. Gasque went to help, then his lieutenant radioed in the news to Farmer.

“He said Trooper Edward J. Gasque was a fatality, result of a gunshot wound while on a manhunt. Fifty-eight years later, I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Farmer said. “I couldn’t cry, but I wanted to. It was hard to take.”

He went to the morgue to identify Gasque’s body, something he had never had to do before.

One of the two memorial signs has already been placed on U.S. 301, the other to be placed soon. This is the third time in recent weeks that the Highway Patrol has placed memorial signs on Northeast Florida roads in memory of slain troopers.

A week ago, part of Interstate 95 in St. Augustine received signs honoring Trooper Wilburn A. Kelly, killed on March 23, 1974, in St. Augustine when another vehicle rear-ended his. And two weeks ago part of U.S. 1 in St. Johns County was named in the memory of Troopers Merle J. Cook and Robert L. Pruitt and Cpl. Cleo L. Tomlinson Jr. The three men were killed July 13, 1981, while assisting in the search for two suspects wanted for breaking and entering.

In closing Friday’s ceremony for Gasque, Col. Gene Spaulding, the state’s Highway Patrol director, thanked everyone who helped get these final 29 troopers recognized. He said he hopes people who drive past these signs remember their “ultimate sacrifice” and "slow down a bit.“

“But we also hope it will cause a moment of pause about how they are driving” Spaulding said. “... Quite a few were killed in car crashes as well, struck on the side of the road while writing a ticket and someone wasn’t paying attention to the blue lights.”

Gasque’s widow, Kate, who is 90, could not attend Friday’s ceremony. But her daughter made sure to shoot video of all the troopers and people who attended to show her mother.

Dan Scanlan: (904) 359-4549

This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.