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Aug. 9, 2008 | Slain agent hailed as 'hero'

Donald J. Pettit spent most of his life in uniform -- as a military man, a government worker and a federal agent -- but it was his most civilian activities that his loved ones remembered Friday.

His widow reminisced about getting Frappuccinos together at Starbucks. His older daughter, 15, talked about the times they went ice skating together, and how he made it to all of her soccer games. And his younger daughter, 12, the one who saw Pettit in his last moments, wrote a letter about her dad, the hero.

"Almost every hero has special powers, " Gabriela Pettit wrote in a letter her mom read aloud. "Mine doesn't. Mine is a strong, athletic and funny man. And my dad, he was my best friend."

About 650 friends, relatives and law enforcement colleagues paid tribute to Pettit in a memorial service Friday in an auditorium at Broward Community College's Coconut Creek campus. The 52-year-old U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent was slain Tuesday in what's being described as an extreme road rage incident in Pembroke Pines.

"Mi vida, my life, you were taken away from me, even though we planned to grow old together with our daughters, " Ileana Pettit said, standing behind her husband's open casket. "What made us happy was being together as a family."

Said the Rev. Paul Vuturo of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Miramar: "It's not that all of life is dangerous, but that all of life is unpredictable."

Pettit's shooting death came after a confrontation on a roadway with a Miramar man. Investigators say Pettit was driving with Gabriela when the other man pulled in front of their car and slammed on the brakes. The men gave each other the finger, and when the first man pulled into the parking lot of the South Florida Mail Processing Center, Pettit pulled in soon after him.

Pettit was not in uniform or driving a marked car, and investigators did not say why Gabriela was with him. Pettit had a gun, but he left it in his car when he stepped out. The other man pulled a gun from his waistband and shot Pettit once in the head, killing him.

A massive manhunt ensued until police made an arrest on Wednesday at a kidney dialysis center in Davie.

Friday, a somber silence fell over the half-filled auditorium while Gov. Charlie Crist and other speakers directed their comments to Pettit's mourning family.

"We want to thank you for sharing him with us and letting him serve, " Crist said. "Law enforcement officers are among the bravest of us all."

Pettit was a chief warrant officer in the Army and worked as a polygraphic instructor in its Criminal Investigation Division before retiring in 1994. He spent 15 years working for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and he owned a granite-countertops business. In January, he joined Customs and Border Protection as a polygraph expert.

While Friday's memorial service for Pettit was getting under way, the man accused of shooting him had a hearing in Broward County court. A judge ordered James Wonder held without bail on a charge of first-degree murder.

Wonder, 65, of Miramar, appeared via closed-circuit television from jail, softly answering, "Yes, your honor, " before being led back to his cell. His hair was back to its natural silver-gray. Investigators say he used grease and oil to darken his hair and in an attempt to elude capture.

After the brief hearing, Wonder's attorney, Dohn Williams, had strong words.

"This is a tragic situation where two grown men engaged in stupid conduct, " said Williams, who was assigned the case from the public defender's office. "Their actions resulted in two families having to suffer."

Pettit's killing on Tuesday came near the one-year anniversaries of the shootings of two Broward Sheriff's Office members.

Deputy Maury Hernandez, 28, was shot in the head Aug. 6, 2007, after pulling over motorcyclist. Hernandez spent three months in a hospital, making what doctors called a miraculous recovery, before his release in October. The motorcyclist was charged with first-degree attempted murder.

Sgt. Chris Reyka, 51, was ambushed Aug. 10 in the parking lot of a Pompano Beach Walgreens while checking on a suspicious vehicle. Investigators continue to search for Reyka's killer or killers.

Miami Herald staff writer Todd Wright contributed to this report.