Just after midnight yesterday, 911 dispatchers in the Florida Keys received a barrage of odd calls: A backhoe, witnesses said, was wildly flinging boulders across the Seven Mile Bridge and into the water.
Thus began America's strangest police chase of the year. Over the next hour and a half, a small army of Monroe County Sheriff's deputies would chase the backhoe back and forth along the famous bridge as it tore through guardrails, scraped asphalt, and swung its mechanical arm at police.
"I've been on this job for 28 years, and it's truly never the same thing twice in the Keys," Officer Becky Herrin, a department spokesperson, tells New Times.
The construction equipment crime spree began on the north end of the bridge, which was one of the longest in the world when it was built to connect Ohio Key and Knights Key on the roadway to Key West.
A 59-year-old homeless man named Carl Blahnik, who lived in the woods near a beach, had stolen the heavy machinery from a construction site. "Apparently, they left the keys in the backhoe," Herrin says.
Blahnik clearly had some basic backhoe-operation skills, because he began using the device to fling large rocks. When police first approached, he offered a garbled explanation for his antics.
"He made some comments about wanting to slow traffic, that people don't drive safely, and he wanted to slow people down," Herrin says.
He certainly accomplished that mission. When officers tried to talk him out of the backhoe, he took off down the bridge. For the next hour and a half, deputies pursued him back and forth — and back and forth again. It's not easy to pull over an eight-ton backhoe.
"What are you going to do, right?" Herrin says. "It was complicated by the fact that our stinger spikes can only be used effectively at an entrance or an exit. And he was just staying right in the middle."
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As he rolled up and down the bridge, Blahnik caused extensive damage. "He scraped the roadway for four or five miles at least with the bucket of the machine, as well as with the jackhammer to the back," Herrin says. "He scraped all the reflectors off and some of the striping. I'm sure they'll be looking at the sides as well, the guard rails, to see how damaged they are."
Finally, just before 1:30 a.m., Blahnik rolled back off the north end of the bridge, where deputies had set up road spikes. The machine thudded to a halt, and Blahnik was arrested.
The Seven Mile Bridge is back open to traffic today, but Herrin expects extensive and expensive repairs over the coming months. Blahnik, meanwhile, was charged with seven felony counts, including grand theft, using a deadly weapon without intent to kill, and fleeing a crime scene.
Deputies are thankful that Blahnik didn't hurt anyone during his joyride. "It really was unreal," Herrin says.