Lt. Harold Hutchinson stood helplessly in the dark next to his bed as he listened to dispatchers scream on the phone. This was the start of the worst day in his 17-year career.
He'd been awakened by a frantic phone call just before 5 a.m. He was told Sgt. Brandon Ross had just been injured in a crash as he chased 35-year-old Michael James Anthony down U.S. 41.
Hutchinson could hear yelling in the background. The dispatchers were frantic. Deputy John Mecklenburg had lost control of his patrol car. He'd hit a tree, and his vehicle had caught fire. He was unresponsive.
For Hutchinson, Mecklenburg wasn't just a deputy who worked in his district at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
The 35-year-old was his friend and neighbor. He was the guy who once mowed Hutchinson's lawn and ran errands for him when the lieutenant was sick with the flu. The one whose wide smile could lift Hutchinson's spirits in even the worst moments. The devoted father who worked the 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift so he could spend days with his kids, Jessica, 18 months, and Andrew, 5.
Hutchinson stood next to Mecklenburg's wife, Penny, as a doctor approached them midday Sunday. After the crash, Mecklenburg had been flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.
He'd undergone three blood transfusions. He'd battled hard for his life.
But, the doctor told them, the deputy hadn't made it.
Mecklenburg's family, friends say, was his life. He often organized neighborhood softball and kickball games at a park.
His boy, Andrew, loved trains, so once a week Mecklenburg would take him to a train depot. As the birth of his second child approached, all he talked about was his soon-to-be little girl.
"Pure happiness," Hutchinson remembered of him. "He loved his boy so much that he couldn't wait to have his second."
More than a father to his children, friends say, Mecklenburg was a "daddy."
At the center of it all, though, was Penny, a popular science teacher at Hernando High School where she's worked for the last eight years.
The couple fell in love as teenagers at Springstead High School.
"They were high school sweethearts," Hutchinson, in tears, said of the couple. "I'm sure their plan was to grow old together and, now, that's not going to happen."
Mecklenburg had discovered a career in law enforcement later than most.
He had worked as a truck driver but quit because it kept him away from his family for too long. Mecklenburg had a job with a cable company when Hutchinson met him.
He would often come over to Hutchinson's house and ask what it was like to be a deputy. It had always been his dream. He wanted to hear the stories.
Finally, Hutchinson told his friend to go to the police academy. So he did, and in January 2009, Mecklenburg became a deputy with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
From the start, his co-workers loved him. He wasn't so much a joke teller as he was just a guy who made people feel good. He offered to cut vacations short to fill in for other people. He was the one who always played the good cop during interrogations. His most well-known catchphrase: "I got it."
"It was always anticipation of the next happy moment with him," said Sgt. Brian McGinnis, Mecklenburg's supervisor in the patrol division. "I was blessed to have a guy who just didn't have bad days."
Saturday night was McGinnis' last night supervising Mecklenburg because of a transfer within the agency. In the briefing at the beginning of the shift, McGinnis and the other deputies reminisced about the years they'd worked together. They laughed and teased and told stories.
On one night, McGinnis recalled, he and Mecklenburg and about five other deputies were in south Brooksville where hundreds of people were congregated in a parking lot being loud and playing music.
McGinnis, as a joke, told Mecklenburg and another deputy to disperse the crowd by themselves.
"Got it," said Mecklenburg, on queue.
"John, there's 300 people. Why don't we wait?" McGinnis said, laughing. "At 3 o'clock in the morning, some of those people might not want you over there."
At the end of Saturday's meeting, he and Mecklenburg parted ways with a smile.
"Saying goodbye," he said of those final moments, "without really knowing I was saying goodbye."
Times Staff Writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or email@example.com.