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Anthony sentenced to life for charges stemming from fatal chase in Hernando

BROOKSVILLE — Michael Anthony admitted that he fled from deputies one morning two years ago, that he smoked crack cocaine as they surrounded his vehicle and that he then sped away.

But he said he didn't mean to swerve into a Hernando deputy's patrol car moments later to cause the crash that followed.

Anthony failed to convince a jury. On Thursday, it convicted the 37-year-old Ocala man of attempted felony murder of a law enforcement officer and attempted second-degree murder of a law enforcement officer.

Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. imposed the mandatory life sentence moments later.

Anthony was also found guilty of the five other crimes he was charged with, including aggravated fleeing or attempting to elude an officer and leaving the scene of a crash involving injury.

Anthony kept his head down as the clerk read the verdict. He declined an offer to speak before Merritt sentenced him.

During three days of testimony, jurors heard and saw evidence of the high-speed chase on the morning of July 3, 2011. Prosecutors argued that Anthony could have killed Hernando sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Ross by braking and swerving to hit his patrol car.

"This case boils down to one thing: Michael Anthony's willful refusal to do the right thing," Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto said in his closing statement. "He could have stopped it every inch of the way down that roadway, and he didn't."

The chase began about 4 a.m. after a Brooksville police sergeant saw Anthony drive through a red light downtown and head the wrong direction on U.S. 41. Anthony kept driving after the officer turned on lights and sirens.

South of the city, Ross joined the pursuit. Fearful that Anthony would collide with oncoming traffic, Ross struck the Honda, causing it to spin off the highway.

As Ross and Deputy John Mecklenburg ordered him to get out, Anthony took a hit off his crack pipe and sped off.

By the time the chase began, Anthony testified, he had been driving around and smoking crack for 36 hours. The binge broke the longtime drug addict's three-year streak of sobriety. Instead of going home to face his family and friends, he wound up in Brooksville, hallucinating and in a state of extreme paranoia.

"I was scared of getting caught because it would lead to a cascade," Anthony testified Wednesday. "Everything would just crumble down. My family, my friends, my job. Everything I worked for."

Ross, Deputy John Mecklenburg and another deputy resumed the chase, reaching speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. Ross testified that Anthony slowed and sped up several times, finally swerving into Ross' lane and colliding with the front end of his patrol car. Ross spun 180 degrees and crashed into two cars parked at a shopping plaza near U.S. 41 and Ayers Road.

Moments later, Mecklenburg lost control of his car and slammed into a tree just south of the Pasco-Hernando line. He died a short time later, prompting Pasco prosecutors to charge Anthony with first-degree murder. That trial is set for February.

Assistant Public Defender Dean Livermore told jurors in his closing statement that prosecutors failed to prove Anthony intended to hit Ross' car.

"He wasn't trying to hurt anybody," Livermore said. "He was only trying to get away, dealing with his hallucinations and illusions."

Mecklenburg's widow, Penny, sat in the front row for the three-day trial. She wiped away tears as the clerk read the verdict, keeping her eyes on Anthony as he was fingerprinted and led away. She declined to speak to reporters this week.

Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis arrived in time to hear the verdict.

"Hopefully, this will be a deterrent for people who want to make poor decisions in the future, particularly if it involves the safety of my deputies."