BROOKSVILLE — As headlights appeared in the distance on the northbound side of U.S. 41, a 1991 Honda Accord authorities say Michael James Anthony was driving in the opposite direction rolled down the middle of the three-lane road.
One in front of the other, two cars heading north quickly approached when, suddenly, Anthony jerked his vehicle into their lane. Both oncoming cars swerved onto the shoulder and into the grass — just feet from slamming head-on into Anthony — as he appeared to veer even closer to them.
The Hernando County Sheriff's Office played a roughly four-minute video for the media on Wednesday that showed the early stages of a chase Sunday that left Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg dead after he lost control of his car and hit a tree.
Anthony, 35, has been arrested on charges of felony murder, violation of probation and fleeing and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.
The video was shot just after 4 a.m. from the dashboard camera of Brooksville Police Sgt. Ed Serrano. Neither Mecklenburg nor another deputy involved in the chase had cameras in their vehicles.
As Serrano neared the intersection of E Jefferson Street and U.S. 41 in downtown Brooksville, Anthony's vehicle went through the stoplight going the opposite direction. Serrano spun his car around and chased after him.
Anthony, who never appeared to drive more than about 40 or 50 mph, soon began veering between lanes and nearly struck a line of divider poles in the road. In total, he passed six pedestrian vehicles, including one truck towing a U-Haul trailer and another pulling a boat.
Near the video's end when Anthony nearly hit the two oncoming vehicles, onlookers — mostly members of the Sheriff's Office watching the video for the first time — gasped.
Brooksville Police Chief George Turner said he believed Anthony had intentionally tried to plow into the other cars. ''To me," Turner said, "it looks like he was hell-bent on taking some people with him."
Because of the ongoing investigation, officials stopped the video moments after Hernando Sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Ross crossed the median from the southbound lane to take the lead on the pursuit. Minutes later, authorities say, Ross's vehicle crashed into a pickup truck and a power pole. He suffered minor injuries.
Soon after that accident, Mecklenburg, 35, lost control of his cruiser during the chase and struck a tree. Mecklenburg, a husband and father of two young children, was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa where later he died.
Authorities will eventually release more of the video and further details on the chase, said Sheriff Al Nienhuis, but he noted that the process would take time and called the criminal investigation "extremely complex."
"We're not even close to being able to form opinions or answer questions on exactly what happened," Nienhuis said. "We owe it to those men and women (involved), and Deputy Mecklenburg, to be methodical and patient in our examination."
On Tuesday, Sheriff's officials said from what they've found so far, none of the deputies involved had committed any "material violations." Authorities declined to say if Mecklenburg was wearing his seat belt.
At the time of the chase, Anthony, a felon from Silver Springs in Marion County, was on probation and had been ordered to follow a strict drug offender curfew each night.
After leaving Hernando, investigators say, Anthony continued south through Pasco and Hillsborough counties and into Pinellas until he was arrested on Fourth Street N, near Interstate 275 at 5:09 a.m. Nienhuis said a government worker who monitors traffic cameras in Pinellas had also spotted Anthony's car driving the wrong way on the Howard Frankland Bridge.
The funeral for Mecklenburg will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill. The burial will follow at Florida Hills Memorial Park.
Mecklenburg, friends say, had for years dreamed of being a deputy. According to his personnel file, he had applied to work at law enforcement agencies five previous times before he got the job in Hernando two years ago. His performance evaluations, though few, were glowing.
In March of last year, Lt. Harold Hutchinson nominated Mecklenburg for the interdepartmental "Character First Award" for the deputy's diligence.
"No matter the personal sacrifice he must make to maintain such a high level of service," Hutchinson wrote, "Deputy Mecklenburg is willing to make it."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or email@example.com.