A Hernando County sheriff's deputy is dead after a high-speed chase through four counties early Sunday morning.
Deputy John C. Mecklenburg, 35, died after his patrol car crashed into a tree and burst into flames while he was trying to stop a driver police spotted heading the wrong way on U.S. 41 in Brooksville.
Mecklenburg, a U.S. Army veteran, had been with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office since January 2009. The Green Bay, Wis., native graduated from Springstead High School in Spring Hill and leaves behind a wife, Penny, and two children, 4-year-old Andrew and 18-month-old Jessica.
"Whatever call he was on, he wanted to right the wrong," said Deputy Sandra Wilfong, who had worked with Mecklenburg the past two years. "He wanted to prove or disprove the situation. He wanted to make sure if there was a victim they were protected. If there was a predator, they were stopped.
"He was amazing with his people skills and his investigative skills."
A sergeant with the sheriff's office sustained minor injuries in a separate wreck during the chase, which started at 4:40 a.m. when Brooksville police spotted a driver heading the wrong way on U.S. 41.
Officers tried to stop Michael James Anthony, 35, of Silver Springs, but he sped off in his 1991 Honda Accord, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
Officers chased the car, and deputies from the sheriff's office soon joined the pursuit.
A deputy forced Anthony's car to a stop by performing what's known as a "precision immobilization technique," hitting it in a way that stops it without causing significant damage to either vehicle.
Deputies moved in to arrest Anthony, but he took off, again heading south on U.S. 41.
At U.S. 41 and Ayers Road, Sgt. Brandon Ross lost control of his car, hitting a pickup and a power pole. Ross sustained minor injuries. He was treated at a local hospital and released Sunday, the sheriff's office said.
The chase continued into Pasco County, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Just south of the intersection of U.S. 41 and Painter Place, Mecklenburg lost control of his car, veering onto the shoulder and hitting a tree. His car caught fire, which was put out by other law enforcement officers chasing Anthony.
The crash woke Carol Schaub, who lives across the street and went outside with her son to see what happened.
"It sounded like a major explosion," she said.
"When we came out, all we seen was a bunch of metal wrapped around a tree, and the engine was on fire and a piece of the car was on fire. We couldn't see what kind of car it was. It was that badly mangled."
Deputes showed up immediately, followed by firefighters and an ambulance. Rescue workers kept talking to Mecklenburg and encouraging him, Schaub said.
"We knew he was alive because they kept screaming his name," Schaub said. "(The deputies said), 'Talk to us. Stay with us, buddy. Stay with us!' "
Mecklenburg was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, where he died at 9:21 a.m.
Anthony kept driving south on U.S. 41 through Pasco and Hillsborough counties, prompting several other drivers to report his reckless driving.
At 5:09 a.m., a state trooper found Anthony's car sitting on the side of Fourth Street North, south of Interstate 275 in Pinellas County. It had three flat tires. As the trooper approached the car, Anthony came out from some trees near the road and surrendered.
He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center and was booked into the Pinellas County Jail Sunday night on a probation violation charge. He will face multiple charges in several counties, according to the patrol.
Anthony has served time in state prison for stealing cars and fleeing and eluding police, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records.
In 2008, the Punta Gorda Police Department arrested Anthony for larceny grand theft. He was convicted in 2010 and placed on three years' probation, records show.
At a news conference Sunday, Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said the entire sheriff's office was hurting over Mecklenburg's death.
"Deputies know everyday when they put the uniform on that they may have to give their life in the pursuit of justice," Nienhuis said.
"Deputy Mecklenburg was doing just that this morning trying to keep our citizens safe from a very reckless driver," he said. "He gave the supreme sacrifice."
The sheriff's office will take care of the Mecklenburg family in its time of need, along with helping to plan funeral arrangements, Nienhuis said.
The sheriff's office will also review its policy on high-speed chases to see if changes are needed, the sheriff said.
"Not intervening would obviously put lives at risk," Nienhuis said. "So the deputies on the scene obviously made a decision and went with it."