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Wild chase earns man jail sentence

Michael Fitzgerald Jr. was emotional when he climbed into his car Nov. 19. He was headed to the funeral of his friend, Casey Kelley, whose suicide days earlier had shocked and saddened the community.

But Fitzgerald never made it to the service. Three law officers arrested him that morning after he led them on a high-speed chase off N Holiday Drive.

Monday, when the case made it to court, Fitzgerald's father explained the circumstances and asked County Judge Gary Graham for leniency.

"This (case) was brought on by the death," the elder Fitzgerald said.

After listening to law officers describe the events that preceded the arrest, Graham sentenced Fitzgerald to 90 days in jail and three years' probation.

"He's lucky he didn't bring a couple more people to be buried that day," the judge said.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers had set up a roadblock near the intersection of N Holiday and Waterbury Terrace that day to check vehicle equipment, records show.

According to the troopers, Fitzgerald roared through their checkpoint and completed two 360-degree circles in the intersection. The troopers and a Citrus County sheriff's deputy immediately gave chase.

Fitzgerald, 22, who was driving a 1978 Pontiac Firebird, slid into a tree and raced down a sand road going at least 40 mph. At some point, while driving over a hill, his car was airborne, the law officers testified.

Fitzgerald's father said he talked to his son before he drove off that day. He could sense his son's pain.

"It was a very emotional time for him," Fitzgerald Sr. said.

Graham cited the driving details _ and the fact that Fitzgerald was on probation for drunken driving at the time _ in sentencing. In addition to the jail and probation time, Fitzgerald lost his driver's license indefinitely and must pay court costs.

The younger Fitzgerald, who lives in Homosassa Springs, showed little emotion during the hearing Monday morning. Later, after court, his father was groping for answers.

His son, a worker at the Kmart store in Crystal River, was his family's sole means of support. The elder Fitzgerald is learning welding at the Withlacoochee Vocational & Adult Educational Center; his wife is on disability.

Fitzgerald Sr. explained the situation to Graham and asked only that his son be put on a work-release program. Graham said he recognized the problem, but could not help.

"He's going to have to sit over there for 90 days," Graham said.

After the hearing, Fitzgerald Sr. said: "It's not a fair sentence. I could see dropping his license a year, but no work release means that he loses his job."