BROOKSVILLE — The man Nadine Lippel loved more than a decade ago — once a caring husband, doting stepfather and generous friend — is just a memory today.
Back then, Michael James Anthony was good looking and in his mid 20s. He had a flair for conversation and was a savvy businessman.
On Monday, the 35-year-old was charged with felony murder in the death of Hernando County Sheriff's Deputy John Mecklenburg, the married father of two who chased Anthony's speeding car down U.S. 41 a day earlier, authorities say. As the pursuit spilled into Pasco County, Mecklenburg lost control of his vehicle, hit a tree and died Sunday morning at a Tampa hospital.
"We had a great couple of years," Lippel said of Anthony. "This is truly a story of drugs — drugs that took away a wonderful person. I watched somebody I love deteriorate."
In the early 2000s, soon after Anthony and Lippel, 39, were married, his spiral into crime began. His arrest record includes charges of burglary, possession of drug paraphernalia, and fleeing and eluding law enforcement. In April of last year, records show, the Silver Springs man was placed on probation and ordered to follow a strict drug offender curfew each night.
The chase began early Sunday — during Anthony's curfew hours — when Brooksville police officers saw a car traveling the wrong way on U.S. 41. Soon after, authorities say, Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Ross lost control of his vehicle and hit a pickup truck and a power pole. He suffered minor injuries.
Then, Mecklenburg crashed.
Anthony was arrested by the Florida Highway Patrol around 5 a.m. when his car was spotted on the side of the road in Pinellas County. FHP spokesman Steve Gaskins said Anthony may have been on drugs and alcohol but that won't be determined until a toxicology report is completed.
After his arrest, Anthony was uncooperative.
"He was either unable to or unwilling to provide basic information yesterday morning such as providing his correct home address," Gaskins said in an e-mail.
With the help of Brooksville-based medical transport company JET I.C.U., Fraternal Order of Police representative Steve Klapka arranged for Mecklenburg's parents and brother in Wisconsin to be flown down Monday. As they looked over family photos of Mecklenburg's childhood vacations, Klapka did what he could to keep their mind off the tragedy during the flight.
"They are a very close-knit family," Klapka said.
At Mecklenburg's home in Spring Hill, friends and family comforted his wife, Penny, and their two children — Andrew, 5, and Jessica, 18 months.
David Vieira first met Mecklenburg more 20 years ago. Vieira went to Central High School while Mecklenburg and Penny attended Springstead High School, where the couple fell in love and started dating.
Sunday and Monday, Vieira and his wife helped care for Mecklenburg's two children. Jessica, he said, is too young to understand, but Andrew knows something is wrong.
"There are moments when he gets upset," Vieira said, "because he knows Daddy won't be coming back."
The stories, and the tears, have been frequent the past two days. Vieira most likes the memories of Mecklenburg at home, where he was just a big kid, playing with his two children. There's the time when the deputy covered himself head to toe in floaties and leaped into the family pool; the trips to the golf course with Andrew when, with a toy club, Mecklenburg would let his son whack balls around the grass; the afternoons at the house when he squeezed into a Power Wheels car and raced his kids around the back yard.
Monday, per a long-standing tradition at the Mecklenburg house, the adults lined one side of the pool as the kids gathered on the other. Then, at once, they did cannonballs into the water.
When Penny saw that, Vieira said, she broke down.
"She knew John would have loved to have been there," Vieira said. "He was always the one in the middle of that."
Vieira worries about Penny most of all. He could still remember the couple's first dance at their wedding. Two people, he said, who just belonged together.
"They completed each other," Vieira said. "I couldn't see them without each other."
As Hernando deputies also mourn Mecklenburg, Sheriff Al Nienhuis said his agency would release more information this week, including its chase policy.
"For us to base our answers on the many fragments of information we have at this point would be inappropriate because we have a fallen deputy to honor," Nienhuis said. "When all the reports are completed and reviewed, we'll be in a better position to answer the questions with certainty because the last thing we want to do is disseminate incorrect information."
Meanwhile, 50 miles south of Brooksville, Anthony sits in the Pinellas County Jail facing multiple counts. Along with felony murder, he's charged with violation of probation, and fleeing and attempting to elude a law enforcement officer.
When she met him in the late 1990s, Lippel said he was a clean-cut, intelligent guy who came from a "good family." Born and raised in Florida, he had worked in the concrete and modular home building business.
"He took on me and my child," said Lippel, who was a single mother at the time she met Anthony. "He was a phenomenal father. Everybody loved him."
That soon changed. He started getting in trouble with police, and when Lippel said she found out Anthony was doing drugs, they divorced.
"He was always a hard worker, so it wasn't noticeable at first," Lippel said. "He's not your typical addict."
Lippel was shocked when she learned of the chase and accident on Monday. She said she hasn't seen or heard from Anthony in a few years, but she did run into his mother a couple of months ago.
Lippel was told Anthony had come to the Tampa Bay area for rehab. His family seemed optimistic about his future.
"She just said that he was doing very well. I don't know what happened between then and now," Lippel said. "It just breaks my heart, the whole situation. It's just a sad story."
Times staff writer Jamie Klein contributed to this story.
CORRECTION: The photo appearing with this story was taken by photographer Jamie Klein. Earlier versions of this story appearing in print and online gave an incorrect credit.