SEBRING - Four high-profile cases may be tried this year, including the defendants in Aaron Doty's murder and the neglect deaths of two babies.
First, though, jury selection is to begin Feb. 10 for Johnnie B. Johnson, 30, who is accused to stabbing Vernon J. Walker to death in July 2011.
Avon Park Police responded at 3:29 a.m. to Brina's Cafe, 941 S. Delaney Ave., and found Walker crouching on a blood-covered floor near the toilet. He was rushed to Florida Hospital Heartland but died from a stab wound.
The night before, witnesses saw Walker exiting the restroom at Hawk's Grocery, 918 S. Railroad Ave. and bumped into Johnson. Their brief fight was broken up, but several witnesses heard Johnson state that Walker would die that night, and that Walker would be buried the next morning.
Johnson's aunt, Gail Y. Porter, told police the other side of the story: Walker swung on Johnson; her nephew protected himself.
Later that evening, Detective Nathan Coogan stated, Johnson returned with a butcher knife. Johnson told the detective that Walker started another fight and said he would kill Johnson.
Asst. State Attorney Steve Houchin said Johnson lost a stand-your-ground hearing last year. Houchin will prosecute the case before Circuit Court Judge William D. Sites, Asst. Public Defender Robert Gray will defend Johnson.
Houchin is also handling all four remaining defendants in Aaron Doty's murder case. Kenneth Edward Felipe Jr. and Jonathan Ray Rodriguez have been in Highlands County Jail since they were captured in the Orlando apartment of Giovanni Burgos.
An arrest warrant alleges they beat the 20-year-old Sebring man nearly to death at a party, then set fire to his body on June 10, 2012.
"The state is not waiting on anything," Houchin said. The defense is still deposing witnesses, and Felipe's attorney, Regional Conflict Counsel Byron P. Hileman, is tied up in court until late summer. Both men are charged with first degree murder, kidnapping and tampering with evidence.
"I'm hoping we'll try both of these this summer," Houchin said.
Burgos, who is out on bond, is accused of accessory after the fact because Felipe and Rodriguez were found in his apartment. Travis Makris is accused of accepting a bag of clothing - evidence - from one of the accused murderers. Both are scheduled to appear before Sites Feb. 19.
In April, it appeared a plea bargain would be offered to Makris, who is also out on bond. However, that deal didn't happen, and now Houchin said no deal is being offered. Rodriguez is scheduled in court for a status hearing on Jan. 23; the same for Felipe on March 19.
Adriana Espinosa, 23, 3521 State Road 70, Lake Placid, and Christopher Eiland, Fort Meade, were arrested in June. While they spent two hours in an air-conditioned car, her 18-month-old daughter sweltered. The child arrived at the hospital with a 104-degree temperature.
Eiland, then a Polk County deputy, told authorities they'd met at least five times at the motel and that he and Mrs. Espinosa had sex.
They were charged with aggravated manslaughter and child neglect. She is still being held in the Highlands County Jail in lieu of $300,000 bond; Eiland resigned after he was released on a $50,000 bond.
Authorities concluded that the mother and the boyfriend "were more concerned with concealing the ongoing affair than the welfare of the victim," the report said. She first claimed her baby became sick in an air-conditioned car outside a doctor's office.
Houchin would prefer to try both together this spring, but he suggested that their attorneys will push for separate trials.
Asst. State Attorney Richard Castillo will prosecute; Gray will represent Espinosa; Karen Meeks is slated to represent Eiland. His next appearance before Circuit Court Judge Dennis Maloney is slated for 1:15 p.m. Jan. 22; her appearance will be at 8:30 a.m. Jan. 23.
Kyle Rupert, 22, was sentenced last year to 24.5 years in prison after being convicted in July of manslaughter. Authorities had found his 10-month-old son, Milo, dead of starvation in July 2012. Milo's three sisters were neglected and malnourished.
Rupert, who Castillo said is mentally challenged, and his wife, Sandra Jackson, 25, had no qualms inviting his friends over to play video games, despite the stench, garbage and cockroaches.
Jackson will appear at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 20 before Sites to determine when she will stand trial. Houchin said Gray, her defense attorney, wants to go the prison where Rupert is located for another deposition. He is hoping for a trial in the coming months.
When Marlie Joan Westervelt, 56, 1501 Divot Court, Sebring, was arrested in April, a warrant said she was using the money she embezzled from Sebring Heart Center to help her children.
The affidavit alleged Westervelt stole $936,000. She is accused of writing $36,000 in checks to her son, Jeramey Westervelt, 34, of Naples, $12,000 in checks and credit cards for her daughter-in-law, $3,400 in checks for her husband, $25,000 in unauthorized money transfers of money, $498,000 credit card purchases, $82,000 in unauthorized payroll benefits for herself and the same amount for her husband George Mezori.
Houchin said the family is being prosecuted by the state attorney's economic crimes unit in Bartow.
Mezori posted photos and a travel blog at georgemezori.wordpress.com/george-mezori-marlie-westervelt/
"This is Jade Mountain in St. Lucia. These are in the range of $1,000/nite. Suites with their own infinity pool, views of volcanic mountains, insane amenities." Another post: "This is the VDARA panoramic suite in Vegas. $159-$199/night for a huge suite with 180-degree glass views... Comes with a washer/dryer, full kitchen. Amazing value. Located about as far back off the strip as the Bellagio... There is no casino in the hotel, but who cares when two other properties are so close."
Out on bond, both husband and wife are due back in court at 1:15 p.m. Jan. 22.
Lake Placid attorney John Sanders Haile was found incompetent last year to stand trial on 33 charges of theft and money laundering. However, after Haile's stay in a mental hospital, Maloney ordered jury selection to begin Feb. 10. A four-day trial is scheduled.
Those who only knew Haile by his professional reputation as an attorney and CPA were shocked to hear that he was accused on April 26, 2012, of selling the house of a deceased widowed client, then diverting more than $131,000 in funds to his own Morgan Stanley Smith Barney account. That money was supposed to go to Nancy Haberkamp's heir, Constance Lee Collins of Hampshire, Ill.
After he bonded out of jail, Haile was arrested again for writing thousands of dollars in worthless checks.