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Hundreds mourn Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg at Spring Hill funeral

SPRING HILL

Frank Cheshire's hands were stained black.

Through driving rain early Friday morning, the 22-year veteran Hillsborough sheriff's master deputy had driven his motorcycle from Tampa to help lead the funeral procession for Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg, killed Sunday after a high-speed chase.

Like it had so many times before on days like this one, the rain had soaked through Cheshire's black gloves and discolored his skin. It seems, he said, to always storm at the funerals of his fallen comrades.

Well more than 500 people, including Gov. Rick Scott, attended the service at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church in Spring Hill. It was so full that organizers seated some people in an overflow room where the services were broadcast on a television. Officers from as far away as Coral Springs, Boynton Beach and Highlands County attended.

Though most of those men and women didn't know Mecklenburg, Cheshire insisted, they didn't need to.

"There's a connection," Cheshire, clinching his fists, said of law enforcement's brotherhood. "There's a connection."

Lining dozens of pews, many Hernando deputies wiped away tears as co-workers described the husband, father and public servant Mecklenburg was.

Lt. Harold Hutchinson, Mecklenburg's commander and close friend, said if the deputy were alive, he would brighten the mood, even in the church Friday.

"He would say, 'Why the long faces?' " Hutchinson said, grinning. "And then he'd do the chicken dance."

The deputy was remembered as much for his smile as anything else. After Mecklenburg arrested a man one evening, Hutchinson told the audience, the deputy spoke to the guy over the phone the next day.

"You," the man told him, "were the nicest law enforcement officer I have ever met."

The day after Mecklenburg died, Hutchinson took the deputy's wife, Penny, for a drive. She told him that she'd asked God why he would take away such a good man. She hadn't heard an answer. Hutchinson had posed that same question before, but until she asked him, the lieutenant didn't have an answer either.

"Good guys are taken from us because they're the ones putting themselves out there," Hutchinson told her. "He died putting himself out there."

Early Sunday, Mecklenburg, 35, lost control of his cruiser during a chase in Pasco County and struck a tree. The father of two young children was flown to a Tampa hospital and died there at 9:21 a.m. after receiving three blood transfusions.

Despite horrific injuries, the deputy lived more than four hours after his crash.

Barely able to speak, Hernando Sgt. Brian McGinnis, Mecklenburg's supervisor in the patrol division, said he believed the deputy clung to life to make sure his family and other deputies involved in the pursuit were okay.

"This was the last great act of servitude Deputy John Charles Mecklenburg did," McGinnis said, "before he went to go home with God."

Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis recalled a moment earlier this week when he walked into Mecklenburg's house and the deputy's 5-year-old son, Andrew, walked out of his bedroom in pajamas and looked up at the sheriff. The little boy's eyes lit up.

"My daddy's a deputy," he said.

Nienhuis knelt down next to Andrew and looked into his eyes.

"I told him twice that his daddy was more than a deputy," Nienhuis said. "He was a hero."

Meanwhile, 7 miles away, dozens of people stood in the rain along the procession route waiting to pay their respects for a man they also considered a hero.

Bagpipers practiced their notes for the internment as Explorer Scouts prepared to help park cars at the cemetery. Nearby, at the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and Barclay Avenue, a sopping American flag the size of a car sluggishly flapped in the wind between the top of two fire truck ladders.

Gregg and Betty Baja, parents of Hernando Sgt. John Baja, huddled under an umbrella as they watched the limousine carrying Mecklenburg's family approach Florida Hills Memorial Park.

"It could've been our son," Betty said.

"It's just very sad," Gregg added.

At the time of his wreck, Mecklenburg was chasing 35-year-old Michael James Anthony, a felon on probation who's been arrested previously on fleeing and eluding charges. During the pursuit, authorities say, Anthony also rammed Hernando Sgt. Brandon Ross, causing him to lose control of his vehicle and hit a pickup truck and a power pole.

Anthony, who was caught in St. Petersburg, was charged with felony murder and attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. At Friday's funeral, no one mentioned the suspect, now in the Hernando County Jail.

None of Mecklenburg's family spoke during the service, though several times they embraced the speakers after their eulogies.

On a table at the front of the sanctuary, Mecklenburg's urn sat next to a badge, a flag and a cross. As his father, Chuck, and mother, Judy, carried the bread and water for the Eucharist to the stage, she kissed her fingertips and pressed them atop her son's urn.

Staff photojournalist Will Vragovic and staff writer Melvin Backman contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or jcox@sptimes.com.

Hundreds mourn Hernando Deputy John Mecklenburg at Spring Hill funeral 07/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 8, 2011 9:52pm]
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