BROOKSVILLE — Seeing a tan Honda race south in a northbound lane on U.S. 41 in Brooksville, Sgt. Brandon Ross said, his instincts as a law enforcement officer took over.
Ross, of the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, said two Brooksville police cruisers chased the Honda, driven by Michael James Anthony.
Ross sped to catch up. He flashed his spotlight to warn oncoming traffic of the car heading its way. And when he saw an opportunity to try to bring the high-speed chase to a close, he took it. Maneuvering his patrol car alongside the Honda, Ross used his front bumper to force it into a spin.
"It became all or nothing," Ross told jurors Tuesday in the first day of testimony at Anthony's trial. Anthony, 37, faces charges for attempted felony murder, attempted second-degree murder and five other crimes.
He still faces a first-degree murder charge in Pasco County, for the death of Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg.
Although Ross was able to bring the Honda to a stop, Anthony sped away just as Ross and four other officers were about to pull him from his vehicle. Moments later, farther south on U.S. 41, Anthony's car violently rammed Ross' cruiser, sending it crashing into two vehicles parked at a shopping center on Ayers Road.
Ross, who was severely injured in the collision, was one of five law enforcement officers involved in the car chase on July 3, 2011, that began in downtown Brooksville and ended with Anthony's arrest in Pinellas County later that day. Mecklenburg died minutes after Ross' crash when his cruiser struck a tree on the side of U.S. 41 in Pasco.
Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto told jurors in his opening statement that Anthony created the reckless situation that endangered lives and left officers no other choice but to try to stop him.
However, Anthony's attorney, Pasco public defender Stephany Espinosa, used her opening statement to blame her client's actions that night on a relapse in his addiction to crack cocaine.
"The big question was one of intent," Espinosa said. "After two years of sobriety, he relapsed. He was embarrassed and didn't want to face his family. He didn't intend to hurt anyone. He just wanted to get away."
According to testimony, the incident began about 4 a.m. when Brooksville police Officer Sgt. Ed Serrano saw Anthony run a red light and drive the wrong way at the intersection of E Jefferson Street and Broad Street. Serrano spun his car around and chased, but Anthony never slowed. Instead, his car began veering between lanes and nearly clipped a line of divider poles in the road as it continued south.
Serrano's pursuit was captured on a video camera inside his cruiser. Jurors watched the four-minute video in disbelief as the Honda came within feet of slamming head-on into two oncoming cars.
Ross, who was nearing the end of his shift that night, was alerted by radio that Anthony's vehicle was approaching his location near Powell Road. Also in pursuit were Mecklenburg, who unsuccessfully tried to halt the Honda using spike sticks, Deputy Nicole Stevens and Brooksville police Officer Joseph Nelson.
Both Stevens and Nelson said that after Anthony's car was briefly stopped, they saw him light up what appeared to be a glass pipe.
The trial, which is being heard by Hernando Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr., will resume today.
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.