DADE CITY — Seven years ago, two young men in a McDonald's drive through got into a brawl. One ended up dead. The other, a former soldier who put the man in what turned out to be a lethal choke hold, walked away. Authorities didn't charge him. Excusable homicide, they said.
Since then, the dead man's parents have refused to let the case go. Someone should pay, they insist, for the death of their only child, 21-year-old Anthony Makowski, a former high school football player they described as a gentleman who once sang the national anthem at a baseball game.
Cathy and Wayne Makowski have doggedly persevered in a quest for justice that they say has cost them their life savings and her health.
They say they have been denied at every turn. Three years ago, they received a $1 million jury verdict in their lawsuit against the owner of the McDonald's and the surrounding shopping center, only to have it tossed by the judge who said she made a mistake in the case. An appeals court upheld her decision. Several months ago a confidential settlement was reached.
Unsatisfied, the Makowskis published news releases that blamed everyone: the other man involved the fight, the deputies, the medical examiner, the prosecutors and the lawyers, both theirs and the restaurant's.
"Our commitment to our only child remains unshakable, even as many have told us to let it go and forget," they wrote.
On Wednesday, they were called into court for violating terms of the confidential agreement that was part of the $237,000 settlement. The Makowskis said the language was added after they agreed in principle to the settlement, which they say was pushed by their own attorneys who tried to "intimidate" them by telling them they might be on the hook for half a million dollars in fees. Mrs. Makowski said that she was on four medications the day she agreed to the settlement. She said the confidentiality requirement, which was scribbled in ink, was not in the original agreement.
Circuit Judge Linda Babb explained that the attorneys were merely disclosing the possible consequences of retrying the case. If they didn't, she said, they could be guilty of malpractice.
"They have to tell you the legal ramifications of what you do," she said. "How you take that, that's you."
After hearing testimony from attorney Tiffany McAuley, who said that Mrs. Makowski appeared to understand the settlement at the time she explained it and that the inked language was there when she signed the papers, Babb granted a motion by Brickman Management Co. and B & B Cash Grocery Stores Inc. to enforce the settlement and any sanctions that might apply to future violations.
The Makowskis said during the hearing that under the agreement they face $25,000 fine for each time they discuss the settlement. Stephen Ngo, the attorney for the restaurant owner and shopping center, said his clients aren't interested in punishing the Makowskis for the past but want to move forward and be done with the case.
"What if I refuse to sign it?" Mrs. Makowski said of the paperwork, which she said takes away her constitutional right to freedom of speech, a right her husband said he fought for in Vietnam.
"Ma'am, I don't want to hold you in contempt of court," Babb said. "I can enforce it without your signature, but frankly we'd prefer to have your signature."
Mrs. Makowski signed the papers "unwillingly" and promised to renew her fight for criminal charges against Martin Robles-Taylor, the other man involved in the 4 a.m. fight with her son.
The couple has been to 10 private investigators. The latest one did a frame-by-frame breakdown of the restaurant surveillance video that authorities said clearly showed Anthony Makowski was the aggressor.
"We are done with this case and will continue to be done," assistant state attorney Manuel Garcia said Wednesday. He said numerous prosecutors, including State Attorney Bernie McCabe, reviewed the case.
Pasco sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the Makowskis had visited the Sheriff's Office but deputies had not received any enhanced video.
Mrs. Makowski said they planned to leave a copy as soon as they get rid of any extraneous material. They don't want it to be too long and try anyone's patience. They say it clearly vindicates their son.
"We don't want them to be able to tell us 'no,'" she said.