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Top stories of 2011: Deputy's widow lives in two worlds as she grieves

SPRING HILL

Penny Mecklenburg sat cross-legged on her living room carpet and pulled a tiny purple shirt over her daughter's head. It was covered in pink hearts and the words "I'm Cute and Loving." Penny's 5-year-old son, Andy, scrambled out of his room in jeans, a Spider-Man T-shirt and Lightning McQueen socks. He had dressed himself and was proud of that.

"Look, Mommy," said Andy, his wide grin revealing two absent front teeth.

"Good job," she said. "Gimme some."

They bumped fists.

Shelby, their 130-pound yellow Lab, plopped on the floor next to them. Two-year-old Jess gripped a half-eaten banana as Penny brushed the little girl's sunflower-blond hair into a ponytail. Andy, giggling, asked his sister how to say "Pop Tart."

"Top Part," she responded.

Behind the Mecklenburgs, family of three, a memorial to their fourth member sits atop a tall wooden cabinet standing against the wall. Two metal plates are attached to the glass encasing. One reads: "Deputy John C. Mecklenburg"; the other: "In Loving Memory 2/23/1976 — 7/3/2011."

The words bookend a picture of John, smiling in his white uniform. Above the photograph and behind a glass plate, the flag that draped over his coffin is folded into a triangle.

The Hernando County sheriff's deputy was killed in July after a chase in which he lost control of his cruiser and slammed into a tree along U.S. 41 in Pasco County. He was 35.

Penny, in certain moments, can't process the horror of the past six months or the reality that she's facing a new year — for the first time as an adult, alone.

Without her husband, and in many ways for him, the 35-year-old now leads two lives.

One of them revolves around cooking confetti pancake breakfasts and mediating arguments over toy trains and watching the same Mickey Mouse cartoon for the umpteenth time.

The other one is much different. It's spent at lecterns in front of county commissioners, at round tables with sheriff's officials and on phone calls with state senators. She exists between events, like court dates for a felon named Michael James Anthony, the man charged with murder and other offenses in John's death.

Sometimes, Penny Mecklenburg can't keep those two lives apart.

• • •

After breakfast that morning in mid December, Andy and Jess trotted into their bedrooms and grabbed their stuff for school. They each came back with pillows that were screen-printed with photographs of their father.

"My daddy," said Jess, holding hers overhead. "Daddy pillow."

Penny wonders if Jess thinks Daddy is just a picture. Sometimes the little girl hugs his photographs.

Andy, who sleeps with his pillow every night, pushed it into a Spider-Man backpack and slipped a green and yellow "Future Packer" hat on his head. Like John, Andy adores the Green Bay football team.

Penny walked the kids out to the car and buckled them in. They both slurped on chocolate milk as they rode to school.

"Guess what?" Andy said to no one in particular. "My daddy used to like strawberry milk."

Penny still hasn't thrown away the last box of John's strawberry milk mix or the five bottles of Mountain Dew — his favorite — that she bought for him the day before the crash.

"My daddy was a police officer," Andy continued, staring out the window. "Do you know what I want to be when I grow up?"

He looked down at the floor.

"A police officer," he said. "I'm going to drink Mountain Dew when I grow up."

His mom didn't respond, not right away. Tears welled behind her sunglasses. Moments like that happen every day, and Penny still is never quite ready for them, but she handles them better than she used to. Deep breaths, she says. "Swallow past it."

She paused and responded in a quiet voice: "I think you'd be a great police officer, baby."

• • •

Penny dropped off the kids, picked up a large Dunkin' Donuts coffee with cream and sugar and then drove to the Sheriff's Office.

This is her other life.

She met with sheriff's administrators, community leaders and others to discuss one of her most personal projects. Over the last few months, she designed a memorial that will honor all of the Hernando deputies who have been killed in the line of duty. Sheriff Al Nienhuis formed a committee to finalize the plan, and they hope to complete the project by May.

Penny also helped to formulate two bills that are progressing through the state Legislature.

One would designate a stretch of U.S. 41 as the John C. Mecklenburg Memorial Highway.

The other is more complicated. Under Florida law, if a person is committing one of a few select crimes, such as robbery or arson, and someone else is killed while the crime is being perpetrated, the defendant can be charged with first-degree felony murder. Right now, aggravated fleeing and eluding is not one of those crimes. Penny's bill, being championed by state Sen. Mike Fasano and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, would change that.

It's surreal for Penny that memorials and legislative bills and meetings with politicians have become part of her routine. It wasn't supposed to be this way. She knows none of this would have happened if, according to authorities, Anthony hadn't driven the wrong way through a red light in Brooksville; hadn't rammed Hernando Sgt. Brandon Ross, forcing him to crash into a pickup and a power pole in Masaryktown, causing minor injuries; hadn't continued to flee from authorities until John's patrol car struck that tree.

Friends have told her she shouldn't attend all of the court hearings that will likely stretch over the next two years. At Anthony's sentencing, they tell her, she can confront him.

That's not enough for her. Penny wants him to know she's there. "I want to be haunting to him," she said, "like this is haunting to me."

Two months ago, Penny saw Anthony in person for the first time. When he came into the courtroom, she sobbed.

"I couldn't not look at him," she said. "I'm sitting there in the room with the man who killed my husband."

He wore an orange jumpsuit and was smaller than she anticipated. She thought he looked powerless.

"You expect a monster to look like a monster," she said. "He just looked like a regular guy. Like a cowardly guy."

Penny can't imagine forgiving him. She realizes that might not sound right to some people, but that's how she feels.

Without their dad, Penny knows, Andy and Jess will grow up, get their driver's licenses, graduate from school, get married, have kids. John will never see any of that.

"My kids have been given a life sentence. They have to spend their entire lives without their dad," she said. "Forever is a long time."

• • •

A year and seven days ago, Penny and John lay in bed, waiting. The sun had barely risen, but they were wide awake.

It was the first Christmas that Andy understood who Santa Claus was. The couple couldn't wait for Andy to find the presents under the tree. John, whom Penny often called a "big kid," almost wanted to go get him.

"That was John," she said. "Too excited to sleep."

She thought back on that morning a year ago as she squatted on her living room floor and wrapped presents by herself a few weeks ago. To hide them from the kids, she kept some in a green Sheriff's Office duffel bag.

"This is all Santa," she said, pointing to a pile of about a dozen on the floor.

She and her husband used to share that tradition. They would sit in their bedroom and lock the door and talk about nothing. John only liked to wrap the square toys. They were easier.

She planned to spend most of this Christmas with friends and family, but she still dreaded it. Christmas Eve, she thought, would be just as hard. "Anticipation," she said. "You're going to be Santa Claus by yourself."

Penny has faced so many hard days in the last few months: Thanksgiving, Jess' second birthday, Andy's fifth and, worst of all, Oct. 20 — the date she and John would have celebrated a decade of marriage together.

"I kept thinking about what we were doing, like 10 years ago today. I did that all day long," she said. "It was overwhelming."

The photographer at their ceremony in Long Island, she remembered, called her "Pam" all day. She thought back to posing for a picture on a rickety wooden dock over the water. Penny, in her 40-pound dress, whispered in John's ear: "If we fall off, you'd better run."

Back in their hotel room at the end of the night, she looked at her new husband, the man she had dated since age 16. John looked back at her, and he knew. She was exhausted.

"I'll see you in the morning." John tucked her in bed and met his best man at the hotel bar.

• • •

Penny, a teacher at Hernando High School for the past six years, thought going back to her job would help. The students needed her, she felt, and maybe she needed them.

She returned to school just before Thanksgiving. It didn't start the way she expected. No one had left her a student roster or instructions on what the class had covered. Only one teacher, she said, stopped by to ask how she was doing. No one left her a note or asked her to lunch or to even catch up over coffee.

Then came sixth period.

A student in the sophomore science class asked what her rules were. When she explained that only one person could use the restroom at a time, a 17-year-old student objected.

"This s--- doesn't work for me," he said.

She told him he couldn't use language like that in her class, but he swore at her again.

"Well," she said, "what are you going to do about it? These are the rules."

The student, who was much larger than the 5-foot-4 teacher, stood up and stepped toward her desk.

"I'm going to call you a b----," he said.

"I'm thinking, 'Does this kid have a gun?' " she recalled. "That's a terrifying thought for someone who's now a single mom."

She stared at him in disbelief that this, on her first day back, was happening.

"Don't look at me with those eyes," he told her.

Penny asked him to leave the class and tell the principal about her eyes.

When she later told an administrator what had happened, that she felt threatened and that she needed the student removed from her class, she couldn't believe the response.

"I was told," she remembered, " 'I don't know if we can do that.' "

The next day, another student screamed at her when she asked him to stop coloring on his desk with a marker.

That was enough. To stay, she thought, wouldn't have been healthy for her or her children.

"What are you doing?" she thought to herself. "You don't need this. What are you going to have left for the kids?"

Penny went on long-term leave, but she doesn't plan to go back. Now, she's certain what happened was meant to happen. If things hadn't gone as badly as they did, she might have stayed. She thinks that would have taken away from her recovery and her kids and all of the projects she has undertaken since John's death.

• • •

About 4:30 that afternoon last month, Penny finished wrapping presents and then picked Andy and Jess up from school.

They each reacted the same way: Heads whipped around. Eyebrows raised. A single scream: "Mommy!" They sprinted toward her and tackled her legs.

Back to the other life.

In the car, Penny asked Andy if he was buckled in.

"No."

"Buckled?"

"No."

"Buckled?"

"No."

They both laughed.

Penny asked her son what he did that day.

Andy told her he worked on his letter to Santa, but he didn't finish. He was worried it wouldn't make it to the North Pole in time.

Penny reassured him. Santa gets text messages. She would make sure he got Andy's letter.

Andy, as he often does, asked his mother what she did that day.

She mentioned the memorial for John and the other deputies.

"What other men got killed?" he asked.

She mentioned Capt. Scott Bierwiler, killed in a crash while driving to work in 2009, and Deputy Lonnie Coburn, who was shot and killed in 1978.

Andy thought about it.

"Who killed him?" he asked of Coburn.

"Another bad guy."

"What do bad guys look like?"

Penny took a deep breath. Her two lives, again, colliding.

"Just like you and me, buddy."

Reach John Woodrow Cox at jcox@tampabay.com.

Top stories of 2011: Deputy's widow lives in two worlds as she grieves 12/31/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 31, 2011 2:27pm]

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