Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Widow refuses to attend bill signing ceremony for new law named after her husband

BROOKSVILLE

Gov. Rick Scott sat down at a brown desk and plucked the cap from a blue marker. Two dozen Hernando County sheriff's deputies, their uniforms neatly pressed, lined the wall behind him. The area's political elite watched on. Sheriff Al Nienhuis stood next to the governor, watching and waiting.

Scott paused, then opened a black leather folder and signed his name to the "Deputy John C. Mecklenburg Act." The bill, named for a deputy killed last year in a high-speed chase, will create harsher penalties for those who flee and elude law enforcement in certain circumstances.

The governor stood and the room burst into applause. He turned to Nienhuis and handed him the marker. The two men nodded at each other.

But something about the scene didn't seem right.

Penny Mecklenburg — the deputy's widow and the person largely responsible for the bill's passage — wasn't there.

The ceremonial signing was once meant to honor her husband's memory and her efforts to change a flawed state statute. At least she thought so. Without her knowledge, she said Thursday, the event turned into something much different in recent days.

Something political and exploitative and ugly.

• • •

Ten months ago, on July 3, John Mecklenburg was killed after his vehicle struck a tree in Pasco County during a high-speed pursuit. He had been chasing Michael James Anthony, a man who authorities say was high on drugs when he drove the wrong way through a stoplight in downtown Brooksville.

For a time, the tragedy changed Penny Mecklenburg. People knew the 5-foot-4 former teacher as feisty, head-strong and maybe even a little pushy, but that was hard to see in her after the crash. Still, even then, she began to ask questions. She wanted to know what would happen to Anthony.

"I knew the bad guy was in jail," she said. "I needed to know how long he would stay there."

Authorities told her Florida law did not allow prosecutors to charge Anthony with first-degree murder simply because her husband was killed in the pursuit. It was possible, she learned, that he might only get a few years in prison.

She was shocked. The statutes, she decided, should change.

Nienhuis arranged a meeting in October with state Sen. Mike Fasano and state Rep. Richard Corcoran. At the Chili's in Spring Hill, Mecklenburg made her case. When members of law enforcement are killed pursuing suspects, she insisted, those people should face first-degree murder charges.

Corcoran dropped another bill so he could take on Mecklenburg's. In January, she twice drove to Tallahassee and spoke to committees reviewing the proposal.

It unanimously passed the House in February, and the Senate backed it 39-1 soon after.

In March, Scott approved it.

• • •

One of the governor's staffers called Mecklenburg days later.

"She said the governor would like to do a formal bill signing ceremony for me and my family," she recalled, "and he would be willing to come to Hernando County if it was easier for me."

She was elated. She imagined her two young children, Andy and Jess, always remembering the day the governor came to town and signed the bill named for their daddy.

She picked Friday because she knew deputies in her husband's unit would be off work and could attend.

The ceremony was initially scheduled to be held at the Sheriff's Office. A month ago, she told Scott's director of external affairs, Mike Dew, she had changed her mind and wanted a quiet ceremony at a private location away from big crowds and without Nienhuis, who she believed has used her husband's death to his political advantage. Nienhuis was appointed sheriff in 2011 and faces his first election this year.

"We're here to accommodate you," she says Dew told her. "Anything you want."

Then, on Tuesday, Dew called her with surprising news. A second signing, separate from hers, would be held at the Sheriff's Office. The governor would see her later that night, but the media would only be welcome at the other ceremony.

"The governor," she said Dew told her, "has political obligations."

Angry and hurt, she told him she wanted to cancel. Dew asked her not to be hasty and said he would make some calls. Later that night, she heard back.

"They're going to do the bill signing," he told her, "with or without you."

The next day, she was for the first time invited to the ceremony when sheriff's Capt. Billy Beetz called her. She told Beetz she wouldn't come because she felt Nienhuis was trying to exploit her.

"How dare he use John's good name and the work that I've done," she said, "to carry himself to the polls."

Later Wednesday, she said, Scott called her. She and the governor have a personal history. He had attended her husband's funeral and, later, invited her to his State of the State address. There, he called her "an incredibly strong woman."

This week, Scott told her he understood why she wasn't coming and offered to someday do another private signing for her.

He also acknowledged that Nienhuis had arranged the second ceremony.

"He did exactly what the sheriff wanted and the opposite of what I wanted," she said. "Because of political pressure."

• • •

Friday evening, as Scott and Nienhuis smiled together for news cameras, Mecklenburg and her kids went to IHOP.

She had hash browns and bacon. Andy and Jess ate pancakes decorated with strawberry eyes and banana mouths. Andy put yogurt on his. Jess smeared ketchup on hers.

Mecklenburg didn't regret not going.

After the ceremony, when asked if he chose to hold the signing at the Sheriff's Office for political reasons, Scott didn't answer directly, saying he had been willing to do both.

Nienhuis, his jaw clenched and face flushed, stood beside the governor as reporters lodged questions about Penny Mecklenburg's absence.

Later, the sheriff indicated that the ceremony at the Sheriff's Office had been planned for weeks. He said he wanted it held there so others affected by the bill could be involved. Three times, Nienhuis was asked if he had personally invited Mecklenburg. Each time, he said the governor's office had handled it.

His eyes appeared to water as he heard that she had accused him of using her husband's death for his own political gain.

"I care very deeply about Penny," the sheriff said. "It breaks my heart that she's upset."

Mecklenburg said Nienhuis hasn't called her since February.

"Actions," she said, "speak louder than words."

John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432.

   
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