BROOKSVILLE – “Fireworks came early to Hernando County” on July 3, 2011, said Prosecutor Bill Catto, during his opening statement Tuesday morning in the attempted murder trial of Michael James Anthony.
“You’ll see a lot of fireworks caused by this man,” Catto said.
The state believes Anthony, 37, of Silver Springs, is responsible for a high-speed chase down U.S. 41 that crossed multiple county lines, injuring Hernando County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Brandon Ross and killing Deputy John Mecklenburg.
Anthony is charged with attempted felony murder, aggravated fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer with injury or damage, attempted second-degree murder, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer with a deadly weapon, leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, felony fleeing or attempting to elude a law enforcement officer and reckless driving. He is also facing first-degree murder charges in Pasco County for the crash that killed Mecklenburg.
“I submit to you Sergeant Ross is an extremely lucky man,” Catto said. Ross was believed to be driving more than 110 mph when his cruiser crashed near Ayers Road and crashed into parked cars and a power box in the Daylight Donuts parking lot.
During the defense’s opening statement, attorney Stephany Espinosa said her client “didn’t intend to hurt anybody” and “just wanted to get away.”
Espinosa said Anthony had just started using crack cocaine again after two years of sobriety, and believed law enforcement officers had been pursuing him since Ocala. Court documents show Anthony told a detective he smoked $1,500 worth of crack in two days.
“He just wanted to get away, so his family and friends didn’t know he relapsed,” Espinosa said.
The defense said law enforcement used “dangerous techniques,” such as a maneuver to make a car spin out, to stop Anthony’s car.
And, when Anthony managed to get away from law enforcement for a second time, Espinosa said he did so carefully without intending to cause harm.
Testimony from multiple law enforcement officers on Tuesday re-created the events on July 3, 2011, for the jury.
Brooksville Police Sgt. Edward Serrano said he was on his way to an unrelated call when he saw a gold Honda Accord begin driving the wrong direction on U.S. 41, south of Jefferson Street.
Serrano said he attempted to pull over Anthony in the area of Broad and Main streets, but the man kept driving the wrong direction south on U.S. 41.
Even though traffic was light in the early morning hours, Serrano said he decided to keep driving behind Anthony to warn approaching drivers.
“If they saw my light, they’d know something was wrong,” Serrano said.
As the chase passed out of the city of Brooksville and into Hernando County, deputies set up spike strips that Anthony avoided.
Ross said that he thought Anthony could “end up killing somebody.”
“At that point you can make the decision to do nothing and hope for the best, or do something,” he said.
Ross said he decided to act and rammed Anthony’s car to cause him to spin out.
“It becomes all or nothing,” Ross explained to jurors.
After Anthony’s car came to a stop, officers saw him take a hit from a crack pipe, disobey orders to get out of the car and drive away from the scene.
Ross testified he lost control of his car further south on U.S. 41, when Anthony hit the front of his cruiser.
Ross crashed into parked cars and a power box, and said he could not get out because the doors were crushed in, and he thought his car might be on fire.
After kicking the door open, Ross collapsed. He sustained a gash to the head and had to have a torn bicep tendon surgically reattached. Earlier this year, Ross said he had back surgery to remove cartilage caught between his spinal cord and column.
Jurors also reviewed dashboard camera videos from the chase, as well as surveillance video from Daylight Donuts that shows the explosion caused from Ross’ crash.
After leaving Hernando County, the pursuit continued into Pasco County, where Mecklenburg crashed about a mile south of County Line Road.
Mecklenburg was pinned to the steering wheel and dashboard, alive but unresponsive. He was airlifted to St. Joseph’s in Tampa where he died from his injuries.
Anthony continued driving south, allegedly traveling the wrong direction on the Howard Frankland Bridge and crashing near the Fourth Street North exit off 1-275 in St. Petersburg. Anthony told Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Jeremy Cohen said he saw Anthony lay down in the southbound lane without a shirt on, and later say “I f—ed up … I’ve been clean for two years.”
Mecklenburg’s widow, Penny Mecklenburg, was in the gallery Tuesday with other family members.
The trial will continue Wednesday morning.