DUNEDIN — The arborist awoke before dawn Tuesday and turned on his TV. Cops.
Brian Hazel, a contractor who trims trees at the golf course surrounding his home, tuned in long enough to get some sense of the plot. Then, as though the bounds between reality and television drama had become porous, Hazel heard a gunshot outside his home. There were three more, quickly. And more — he counted eight, total.
It wasn't yet 4 a.m. Hazel didn't know it, but somewhere in the darkness beyond the fairways, a 200-foot-tall, million-gallon water tank had sprung a leak.
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Mark Fitzgerald, according to people around his neighborhood, is a friendly guy. He lives several blocks from the Dunedin Golf Club. The 49-year-old has a wife and a dog, authorities said. Sometimes he does odd jobs at the clubhouse.
"If we had a water leak or something, he'd come and fix it up," said Dunedin Golf Club president Ronald Randolph.
Ed Hawkes, a 79-year-old whose house faces the 11th tee, said Fitzgerald told him he had been a paratrooper.
Hawkes also heard gunfire — three quick cracks — that woke him about the same time Hazel was watching his Cops episode. Hawkes went outside and sat on his porch. It had rained during the night and was quiet and dark.
Then Hawkes saw a golf cart race up the fairway of the 10th hole, its horn blaring the whole way, he said. He thought it was drunken kids.
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Law enforcement officials say the person behind the wheel of the golf cart was Mark Fitzgerald, intoxicated and heavily armed.
Fitzgerald later told Pinellas County sheriff's deputies that he was searching for his lost dog. In case he ran into coyotes, he explained, he brought along a handgun and a .308-caliber rifle, a powerful weapon that can kill antelopes and bears at distances of more than 300 yards.
The Sheriff's Office said Fitzgerald was intoxicated, but did not specify whether he showed signs of drug or alcohol use.
The coyotes, acknowledged golf course superintendent Allen Brissenden, are a real problem. The creatures came to Dunedin Golf Club for wild rabbits, which like to hang out on the course. But they have grown brazen, Brissenden said, mauling and killing household pets.
"We've had quite a few dead cats," he said.
According to the Sheriff's Office, Fitzgerald eventually leveled his rifle at a bigger target.
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On Tuesday morning, Tom Burke, an engineer for the city of Dunedin, stood beneath one of several reclaimed-water tanks owned by the city. Big and sky blue, it looms over a section of the Dunedin Golf Club course.
As Burke spoke, water fell behind him. It began at a hole in the water tank no thicker than a pen and cascaded 200 feet down, landing as a diffuse shower a few feet in diameter.
"This ranks right up there among the more stupid things I've seen," Burke said. "What was he thinking? There's no way to fathom that."
Sheriff's deputies believe a bullet from Fitzgerald's rifle pierced the carbon steel shell of the tank, which was built in 1965 and provides reclaimed water for irrigation to the golf course and nearby houses.
The tank is now being drained, he said. Contract engineers will have to crawl into its concave underside to reweld the interior where the bullet struck. In the meantime, the city will lose some 800,000 gallons of water storage capacity, he said. Drinking water won't be affected, but the golf course greens could start to get thirsty, Burke said.
He estimates Dunedin's cost from the damage at somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000.
Fitzgerald was arrested Tuesday morning. He was booked into the Pinellas County Jail on charges of discharging a firearm in public, discharging a firearm while intoxicated and criminal mischief. He was released Tuesday afternoon on $2,400 bail.
Deputies were able to confirm that Fitzgerald's dog was missing by speaking to his wife, according to Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda.
She said she had no information on what had become of the animal.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.