A Hernando County Sheriff's Office deputy died and another was injured in crashes during a high-speed chase Sunday morning that spanned four counties, starting in Brooksville and ending in St. Petersburg.
Deputy John Mecklenburg , 35, died after losing control of his car and slamming into a tree along U.S. 41 in Pasco County. Mecklenburg was the married father of two and an Army veteran.
"Hernando County lost a hero today," Sheriff Al Nienhuis said Sunday. "He made the ultimate sacrifice."
The pursuit began after Brooksville police officers saw a car traveling the wrong way on U.S. 41 around 4:40 a.m.
The man Mecklenburg was chasing — Michael James Anthony, 35, of Silver Springs — was arrested by the Florida Highway Patrol just after 5 a.m. when his car was spotted on the side of the road in Pinellas County.
Anthony, a felon on probation, is no stranger to law enforcement or chases. He has been convicted of several crimes including fleeing and eluding authorities, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Late Sunday, Anthony was being booked into the Pinellas County Jail. The only charge listed was a probation violation, but he faces multiple charges, the Sheriff's Office said.
"We're going to make sure he gets exactly what justice calls for," Nienhuis said.
Brooksville officers started following Anthony's 1991 Honda Accord after they saw him driving recklessly, authorities said. They were soon joined by Hernando deputies, who followed him south, said Deputy Wendy McGinnis, a Hernando County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman.
The first chase ended with an unsuccessful attempt by authorities to spin out Anthony's car, according to the FHP.
Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Ross lost control of his cruiser at U.S. 41 and Ayers Road and hit a pickup truck and a power pole, said troopers. Ross suffered minor injuries. No civilians were injured.
Mecklenburg continued chasing Anthony south into Pasco, before he lost control of his cruiser and veered off U.S. 41 and into a tree.
His car briefly caught fire. After the blaze was put out, Mecklenburg was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa and died there at 9:21 a.m., Nienhuis said.
Anthony, meanwhile, continued south through Pasco and Hillsborough counties and into Pinellas until his car rolled to a stop on the shoulder of Fourth Street N, near Interstate 275, he FHP said. A trooper saw the car there with three flat tires. Anthony surrendered without incident at 5:09 a.m., the FHP said.
Police did not say how fast Anthony was driving, but he traveled from downtown Brooksville to north St. Petersburg, a distance of about 50 miles, in less than 30 minutes, according to police reports.
Nienhuis said that deputies pursued Anthony because he was endangering others. "Not intervening would obviously have put lives at risk," he said.
Anthony's arrest added another line to a long record that started in Florida in 1998, when he was charged with disorderly conduct in Punta Gorda. He pleaded no contest and adjudication was withheld, records from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement show.
In October 2002, Anthony was convicted of burglary, grand theft and grand theft motor vehicle in Charlotte County and given three years of supervised release, according to the FDLE. After he violated the terms of that release, he was sentenced to a year in jail in December 2003, according to Charlotte County court records.
In 2004, he was sentenced to a year in prison for a fleeing and eluding conviction in Hardee County stemming from a January 2002 incident, according to the FDLE.
Anthony is currently on probation, court records show.
In March 2008, he was convicted of grand theft and possession of drug paraphernalia and given four years of probation. He twice violated that probation but was ultimately given more probation — three years — in April 2010, Charlotte court records show.
Mecklenburg's death is the first for a Hernando sheriff's deputy in the line of duty in two years, and the third in the past 33 years.
Capt. Scott Bierwiler was killed in a crash while driving to work in February 2009.
He had been considered a top contender to replace former Sheriff Richard Nugent, who left office after he was elected to the U.S. House.
Bierwiler's death came 31 years to the month after Deputy Lonnie Coburn was shot and killed in February 1978 during a struggle with two men who had raped and killed a pregnant woman.
Mecklenburg, a Green Bay, Wis., native, joined the force in January 2009.
"There are a lot of people hurting right now in the Hernando County Sheriff's Office," Nienhuis said.
Mecklenburg leaves behind his wife, Penny, a Hernando High School teacher, and their two children — Andrew, 5, and Jessica, 18 months.
Jason Galitsky, a family friend, remembered Sunday a conversation he once had with Mecklenburg about high-speed chases.
"He wasn't a reckless movie cop, someone who's going to rev up the engine and go after this guy," Galitsky said. "He wouldn't do it unless he knew other people were in danger."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writers John Woodrow Cox and Tony Marrero contributed to this report. Will Hobson can be reached at 727-445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.