ORLANDO, Fla. – Lake County Sheriff Chris Daniels Sr. was killed Saturday night at New Smyrna Speedway while taking part in a school-bus race to raise money for charity.

Daniels was celebrating his 47th birthday by competing with other area sheriffs in the fifth annual Battle of the Badges, a fundraiser for the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches hosted by Volusia County Sheriff Ben Johnson.

Daniels is thought to have died when his bus spun out of control during the 15-lap bus race, which is normally open only to sheriffs but this year included Daytona Beach police Chief Mike Chitwood. He is not the same Chitwood who served as Portland police chief.

Lake County Jail Operations Chief Gary Borders was in the stands when Daniels was thrown from the bus. He would not discuss the details of the accident but said that “a lot” of Sheriff’s Office employees were watching.

“It’s devastating and unbelievable,” Borders said.

The death stunned Lake County, where Daniels had a reputation for being an innovative and compassionate sheriff. Chaplains and Sheriff’s Office employees were trying to contact all 700 members of the department late Saturday night to inform them of Daniels’ death.

“We’re going to come together as a Sheriff’s Office and a family,” Borders said. “We want our employees to learn about it from us.”

He said the immediate priority was to take care of Daniels’ family, to make sure they had been notified.

“He was a loyal friend, a wonderful guy,” said Tax Collector Bob McKee, who was one of Daniels’ closest friends. “Great for Lake County. He was the homegrown guy who also had everything else going for him.”

Sheriff Grady Judd of neighboring Polk County said he was shocked to learn of Daniels’ death. “He’s wonderful, a consummate professional law-enforcement officer and an absolute gentleman,” Judd said. “I’m just devastated by this, and I know the people of Lake County will be, too.”

Daniels, a Republican, was sworn in as sheriff in January 2005, watched by his mother, Shirley “Jena” Daniels, and then-fiancee, Michelle Outlaw. The couple were married July 27 in a private ceremony and lived in Howey-in-the-Hills. Daniels had three children from a previous marriage and a stepdaughter.

Daniels first joined the Sheriff’s Office as a dispatcher when he was 17. He received a bachelor’s degree in criminology from St. Leo College and started working for the Sheriff’s Office in 1982 as a lieutenant after stints with the Eustis and Tavares police departments.

Daniels’ death is another blow to the Sheriff’s Office, which only last month got some closure in the ambush slaying of Deputy Wayne Koester when Jason Wheeler was convicted of the 2005 killing. He is awaiting sentencing.

Leesburg police Maj. Steve Rockefeller said he knew Daniels for many years as they worked their way through the ranks together at their respective agencies.

“Lake County has lost a dedicated law-enforcement professional, dedicated to the community, dedicated to service,” Rockefeller said. “That’s what he was about. That’s why he was out there on his birthday, raising money for a charitable event.”

Rockefeller said his department was offering patrols and dispatch services to the Sheriff’s Office.

Welton Cadwell, a Lake County commissioner and longtime friend, said Daniels was “in the job that he was meant to do.”

Cadwell said that every day for the past year and a half, Daniels wore his uniform to work, hoping to inspire detectives to dress like law-enforcement officers. Daniels even made a traffic stop himself last week.

Cadwell said that on Thursday, Daniels was joking about entering the demolition derby against sheriffs with longer tenures.

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