PINELLAS PARK — The motorcycles poured single file into the quiet cul-de-sac Monday night — 20, then 40, then 60, then more until no space remained. They throttled down to a low murmur and waited for the 4-year-old boy standing on a red pickup to give the signal.
It was a difficult moment for Aeiden Mullins. His father had died two days earlier. A fraternity of motorcycle lovers had come to pay their respects with a communal revving of engines.
Aeiden hesitated for a few seconds, then raised his fist as if to hold a throttle. Engines roared to life, continuing for two ear-splitting minutes — tribute to a man who bought his first cycle at age 18, fixed friends' cycles for free in his garage and was just about to open his own repair shop when something went horribly wrong Saturday on the Howard Frankland Bridge.
The police report said Justin Mullins, 26, swerved his Kawasaki 600 abruptly on the Hillsborough side of the bridge. One car hit him, then another, crushing his skull even though he was wearing a helmet. Westbound traffic backed up for three hours before police could clear the bridge.
That brief synopsis made it sound like driver error, but it wasn't that way at all, his wife, Jessica, said Monday. She knows because she was riding on the back.
They were traveling about 80 mph, she said, because Justin always said that if you don't match the speed of surrounding cars, "They will run you off the road.''
Then he inexplicably slowed and pulled onto the right shoulder, dropping to 10 mph or less. She thought maybe something was wrong with the bike or that Justin was stopping to look at the water.
Instead, she said, he slumped to the left and dropped his hands off the controls. He seemed unconscious, and the bike began to veer left into oncoming traffic.
"I patted him on his side so he would come to,'' she said. "But he was gone before we got hit.''
She flew backward over the top of at least one car and somehow ended on the roadway eight cars back before traffic stopped, she said. On Friday, she walked slowly, stooped over from back pain.
A preliminary autopsy showed that Mullins died of injuries to the brain, said Dick Bailey, spokesman for the Hillsborough County medical examiner. There was no evidence of organic disease, such as a heart attack, but some tests are still pending.
Mullins, who attended Clearwater High School, worked construction off and on. For the last six months, he helped his father, Jack Mullins, do maintenance work at Feather Sound's commercial complex.
But motorcycles were his love. He rode once a week for three or four hours with about 40 cyclists who called themselves the Tuesday Night Crew.
"He understood motorcycles,'' Jack Mullins said. "He would say, 'When I ride, I feel like I'm a part of it and it's a part of me.' ''
Justin could buy a bare frame and build a cycle from scratch. One beat up cycle is still in his garage, half fixed. It belongs to a friend laid up in Tampa General Hospital after a recent accident on the Howard Frankland.
Mullins had ridden to Tampa Saturday to pick up a $25,000 check from friends who were going to help him open a formal repair shop called Off the Chain.
"He was so excited,'' Jessica Mullins said. "He was already talking about what parts he was going to buy.''
In 2009, Mullins and another cyclist were heading east on Memorial Causeway about 2 a.m. when they failed to negotiate a turn and collided, according to a Clearwater police report. Mullins hit a light pole, was knocked unconscious and was airlifted to Bayfront Hospital.
He knew the dangers, his wife recalled Monday. "He said that if anything happened, he wanted to be on his bike.''
Times staff writer John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report.