PALM HARBOR — Heather Serna said she was skating on the Pinellas Trail with her iPod about lunchtime Friday when she noticed that a guy on a bicycle seemed to be following her.
She tried speeding up, then slowing down, but he stayed close. Too close, she said.
Just south of Klosterman Road, the man came up on Serna's right and jumped from his bicycle onto the 23-year-old skater, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The two tumbled off the trail. Avery Harmon, 36, then punched Serna several times in the face and started choking her, authorities said.
The 6-foot, 180-pound Harmon drove his thumb or finger into her throat, she said. He told the 5-foot-5, 125-pound aspiring yoga instructor he had a knife, she said.
"Automatically I thought he was going to rape me," said Serna, a graduate of the University of South Florida. "It seemed like he was trying to knock me out. He was choking me. He was punching me."
She fought back, scratching him, she said.
"I was really fighting for my life," Serna said. "… I remember seeing blood on his face. I don't remember if it was my blood or his blood."
Suddenly, Harmon stood up, apologized and ran away, authorities said.
"He started saying, 'I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,' " she said. "… It was broad daylight. Maybe he heard someone."
Serna took off her skates, which were tangled in vines, and ran to someone nearby who called 911 about 11:25 a.m. Deputies closed the trail and set up a perimeter, using a helicopter and tracking dogs to look for Harmon.
At 1 p.m., deputies caught Harmon after someone said they saw him hiding behind some bushes in a yard near Alt. U.S. 19 and Highland Drive.
Harmon was charged with aggravated assault, aggravated battery and failing to report and reregister as a sex offender. He was being held in the Pinellas County Jail on Friday night in lieu of $25,000 bail.
Serna was taken to Mease Countryside Hospital, where she was treated for injuries that included a fracture in the bone of her right eye socket. Friday night, she said both her eyes were bruised, her nose had been bloodied and her face was swollen.
Harmon, of 1845 Alt. U.S. 19 S in Palm Harbor, was convicted in March 2002 of indecent liberty with a minor in North Carolina.
Attacks like Friday's are very unusual on the trail, a 34-mile path that runs the length of Pinellas County and serves 90,000 walkers, skaters, cyclists and runners a month.
Paul Cozzie, the county's bureau director of culture, education and leisure, said he couldn't remember another attack like this in his 3 1/2 years overseeing the trail. He recalled one other attack, but it didn't occur during the day, when the trail is open, Cozzie said.
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4157.