Monday, Apr 21, 2014
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Highlands County's Top 10 Stories of 2013

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Every year Highlands Today staff pick the Top 10 stories of the year. There are many disagreements but a vote was taken and these are the Top 10 ranked in order we chose. We're sure you have your own ideas on the matter. And certainly some recent stories, such as local troops returning home for Christmas and Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton being chosen for the Florida Women Hall of Fame certainly could make this list. Others were left off as well that most folks could argue should have made the list. Here are our picks of top stories of 2013.

No 1: 2013 Wet season was really, actually wet

SEBRING - It started in April, a month before the rainy season usually begins, when southern Highlands County lakes and rivers began to fill.

In northern Highlands County? Not so much. An Avon Park rain gauge showed 2.8 inches in April. Lake Placid gathered 4.3 inches, Lake June and Hicoria reported 3.6 inches.

After seven years of below-average rainfall (less than 46 inches), 2013 finally shaped up to be a better-than-average year (greater than 52 inches), said Granville Kinsman, manager of hydrological data for Southwest Florida Water Management District, which governs northern Highlands.

In the South Florida Water Management District, which manages the other three-quarters of Highlands County, all 16 counties reported above-average rainfall.

South Florida's wet season started with deluges, bolstered the usual rainy season afternoon storms to bring May's rainfall total in well above average. South Florida Water Management District began operating canals to maximize room for stormwater runoff.

On average, South Florida's 21-week wet season begins around May 20 and ends around Oct. 13. Typically, about two-thirds of annual rains fall during the wet season, or approximately 35 inches out of 52 inches. Since 1932, virtually all wet seasons have produced 2 to 4 feet of rainfall. June is usually the wettest month.

And the rain was good, until there was too much: the two water district rain gauges have recorded more than 26 inches of rain in the past 50 days. That's more than normally falls in six months.

"Our entire lot has been flooded since June 12," said Nancy Haverkamp, who moved from Ohio six years ago to Sunshine RV Resort, south of Lake Placid. On June 30, after several inches of rainwater filled her double-wide mobile lot, the driveway and her end of Pryor Lane. "I hate to hear it thunder."

The home of Luz Mercedes de Sanchez on Ixora Street, less than two miles from downtown Lake Placid, was flooded for so long, mold took over.

"I had no flood insurance," said Sanchez, 62, a former bank teller who had the house built in 1991. "I'm in a no-flood zone. They told me 'Call FEMA,' and they said the county must declare it a disaster for any help. Now I'm paying for insurance, taxes and mortgage on a home I can't live in."

GARY PINNELL

No. 2 Special marshals shot during drug raid

SEBRING - Under the cover of early morning darkness, members of the U.S. Marshal's Task Force executed an arrest warrant just north of Sebring at a house of a suspected drug dealer.

The raid of the house was to be one of several planned to nab some people suspected of being major dealers in Highlands County.

But something went awry in that raid. A gun battle ensued and two law officers were shot. Fortunately, they received only relatively minor injuries.

Paul Pearson Jr., a St. Lucie County deputy who was a special deputy U.S. Marshal in the raid, was shot in the shoulder. A full-time U.S. Marshal,whose name hasn't been released, was shot in the hand and underwent surgery at Florida Hospital.

Law officers arrested Robin Jean Guillaume, 29, and Alex Guerrier, 29, the suspects in the shooting, without further incident. No one else was arrested in the raids.

Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said that members of the task force went to 2426 Cleveland Road, knocked on the door and announced they were law enforcement.

After getting no response, the deputies broke open the door and were met by gunfire, authorities said.

Following the arrest of the two suspects, a robot was used to make sure that no one else was inside the house.

Authorities said that law enforcement officers are too often meeting these types of situations.

"More and more of these violent felons who don't want to go back to jail want to shoot it out," said Frank Chiumento, chief inspector for the Florida Regional Task force for the U.S. Marshals Service.

JAY MEISEL

No. 3 Leitzel becomes SFSC's fourth president

AVON PARK - After a comprehensive application and search process, the South Florida State College Board of Trustees unanimously selected Dr. Thomas Leitzel in April to become the fourth president of the institution, which was established in 1964.

At that time, then SFSC Board Chair Tami Cullen said she enjoyed the vision Leitzel had for the college.

Leitzel, who was president of the Technical College of the Lowcountry in South Carolina, started working at SFSC on July 1.

On his first day at SFSC, Leitzel said, "The college is in great shape and Dr. [Norman] Stephens just did an incredible job here."

Leitzel succeeded Stephens who, after 10 years of guiding the college through institutional growth and transformation, announced in October 2012 that he would retire from the college's top post effective June 30, 2013.

After advertising the position, the college received 47 applications. The presidential screening committee narrowed the field to 10 semifinalists. The Board of Trustees selected four finalists on March 14. Each finalist visited the college for two days of campus visits, interviews and community and faculty/student forums.

Leitzel was vice president of the Charlotte Campus for eight years and dean of the School of Graduate Studies for six years at Pfeiffer University in Charlotte, N.C. Previously, he was dean of Business, Health and Technologies at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C.

Leitzel's academic career began in a community college; he graduated with an associate in science degree in business administration from the Pennsylvania College of Technology in University Park, Pa.

MARC VALERO

No. 4: Parents charged in one of Highlands County's worst child neglect cases

AVON PARK - It was shocking enough when authorities released information in 2012 that Milo Rupert, 10-months old, had died.

But the revelations that followed were as shocking or even more disturbing.

The extent of the situation did not become public until the following year when Kyle Lee Marsh Rupert and Sandra Jackson, the parents of Milo, were arrested by the Highlands County Sheriff's Office and each charged with three counts of child neglect without great harm, one of child neglect with great harm and aggravated manslaughter.

Subsequently, Kyle Rupert plead guilty to aggravated manslaughter and was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Jackson's case remains pending, with the next court hearing scheduled for Feb. 20.

Records showed that Milo died of malnutrition and his sisters also suffered from it. They lived in a dirty cockroach-infested apartment.

The children were kept in rooms and the father and his friends spent most of the day playing video games, living in the same filth as the children, records showed. They apparently paid little attention to the children.

Jackson spent a lot of time working, but when she was home the records indicate she did not provide much more care for the children, the reports indicated.

Records indicated that during the last six months before Milo's death, the level of care for the children, as low as it had been previously, steadily dropped. Jackson told authorities that she didn't take Milo to a doctor because she didn't want medical personnel to see how bad Milo looked.

State Department of Children and Family Service employees responded to complaints much earlier about the conditions upon which the children were being raised.

But that was months before the final six months in which the conditions deteriorated. The parents took steps to control the cockroach problem and DCF investigators closed their investigation.

Under a new system being used to investigate the situation, the investigators would have looked deeper into why the conditions were so bad, DCF officials say.

HIGHLANDS TODAY STAFF

No 5: Avon Park killing rocks community

AVON PARK - In November, a popular Avon Park High School graduate was gunned down near Memorial Field, east of downtown Avon Park. Highlands County sheriff's deputies are still investigating the cause and one man was arrested, but the principal suspect still had not been charged.

As many as 1,000 people overflowed Dwayne Council Jr.'s funeral at Union Congregational Church, which seats 750.

In his high school days, a group of friends lunched on Fridays at Yums, a Chinese restaurant in the shopping center next to Publix Supermarket.

"He would try to talk to the Chinese people and order his food and say it like was on the menu," smiled Council's classmate and cousin, Wilneisha Gamage. "He couldn't get it correct, but he tried."

"I won't try to figure it out," Gamage added. "He was a good person. He was good and caring. And he made you laugh. That was the biggest thing."

The Council family are members of the Vision Community Church, where Dwayne Jr., 21, played the drums, but funeral directors said it wouldn't have handled the expected crowd, so services were moved to one of the city's largest. Even then, some had to watch on closed circuit TV next door at an older chapel.

As the choir began to sing 15 minutes before the service started, it became clear not only that the church would fill, but that the crowd would cut across racial, social and generational lines. Attendees were white and black, ordinary and affluent, young and elderly.

"He was the class clown," said Jelisa Matthews, who pinned a red paper "10" on her classmates, representing their class Class of 2010, who voted Council "Most Athletic."

She pointed to a section on the church's south side. "We're sitting over there. There's a lot of us here. A lot."

Her favorite memory: "He would imitate anybody, from the president to Jay-Z to his daddy. Just walking down the road, he'd say," and Matthews threw her voice deeper and gruffer to portray Dwayne Council Sr., "Hey. You there. Come here. Where are you going?"

Council's father was a Red Devils football and weight lifting coach. The younger Council was born in Fitchburg, Mass., and worked security at Avon Park Youth Academy.

"He was a great athlete," said Romeo Dunn, 17, whose best friend is Dwayne's brother, Charles Council.

"I'm going to break down," said his uncle, Reggie Knighten, who offered the first prayer of the services, "just to let you know.

"Carry on his legacy as you build your own," he advised young people. "Lord, I don't know what you had planned. But I know we need to make a change, not only in this town and this community, but in this world.

"Life is too short for all the violence," his voice rose. "God help us all to get through this. Lets's turn this into a celebration."

Survivors include Council's daughter, Jordyn; five brothers and sisters, Adrian. Erika, Khadija, Charles and Adarius; and his parents, Dwayne and Jeanine.

GARY PINNELL

No. 6: Youth Academy riot sparked over hoops wager

AVON PARK - A melee among the juveniles at the Avon Park Youth Academy on Aug. 17 led to reports of a full-scale riot and the destruction of 18 buildings.

Many of the buildings were vandalized, but photographs didn't indicate wide-spread destruction.

The incident reportedly required about 150 law enforcement officers from several state and local agencies to quell and seven juveniles were taken to a nearby hospital for treatment of minor injuries.

The riot started about 8:30 p.m. after a fight on a basketball court. A team of five juveniles from St. Petersburg was playing a team of five from Orlando and had wagered three Cup O' Noodles soups on the outcome. The losing team, from St. Petersburg, refused to pay and the two teams started fighting. Juveniles who weren't playing joined in, deputies said.

During the riot, none of the juveniles escaped from the secured compound.

In September it was announced that 61 youths would face charges in the incident. The charges included rioting, felony criminal mischief, burglary, petit theft, breaking into a vending machine, possession of contraband and theft of a fire extinguisher.

The 61 weren't misguided children, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said, they were hard-core thugs.

The Avon Park Youth Academy is a 144-bed, moderate-risk program for males in the juvenile justice system between the ages of 16 and 19 years old. It's a non-secure facility, meaning youth are not confined to their rooms during the day. Teens are taught job skills and receive mental health and substance abuse treatment, according to a spokeswoman from the Department of Juvenile Justice.

MARC VALERO

No 7: Jeff Carlson dodges prison time

VERO BEACH - Three years after a late night boating accident took his wife's life, Jeff Carlson was a free man in October after Judge Robert Pegg sentenced the former county commissioner to 18 months probation and about $25,000 worth of fines and court costs.

The circuit court judge also sentenced Carlson to the maximum allowed, 30 days in jail, but suspended that term unless Carlson violates his probation. Carlson was to perform 50 hours of community service, and be evaluated for substance abuse. He had to pay $1,060 in fines, and pay about $24,000 for the costs of investigation and prosecution.

The sentencing closed a painful chapter for Carlson, who was a Highlands County commissioner when his 22-foot boat crashed into a channel marker near Capt. Hiram's Restaurant in Sebastian in Indian River County.

His wife, Julie Carlson, 38, was fatally injured. Investigators said Carlson had been drinking that night.

Carlson was charged with boating manslaughter and boating under the influence. A six-woman jury found him guilty of lesser included offenses in August.

More than 50 Highlands County's leaders attended his sentencing hearing as a show of support for the father of two.

Carlson watched as character witnesses testified on his behalf, but did not react when sentenced. Afterward, in the hall, he hugged dozens of family and friends who came to support him.

Neal Noethlich said his family discussed the matter and decided to ask the judge for leniency.

"With me is all the family as a family unit," Noethlich said. "We are the inlaws, and we are here in support of Jeff. This was an unfortunate and tragic accident."

HIGHLANDS TODAY STAFF

No. 8 AP political turmoil continues

AVON PARK - Just as one lawsuit or controversy seemed to be resolved in the City of Charm another dispute or claim riled things up again.

In a March 7 letter to the State Commission on Ethics, Councilman Garrett Anderson claimed that City Manager Julian Deleon threatened him and attempted to interfere in his personal business.

An investigator hired by the city council and the ethics commission both found no wrongdoing on Deleon's part.

In an Aug. 1 letter to the city council members, eight city workers called for Deleon to be placed on administrative leave immediately and also called for an investigation.

"We cannot work under intimidation and fear any longer," the letter stated.

City Councilman Parke Sutherland met with six of the city workers to understand their concerns.

At the Aug. 12 council meeting, Sutherland reported that the workers didn't want an investigation and they believed that Deleon was doing a "great job."

Deleon filed a report with the Highlands County Sheriff's Office on Aug. 12 stating four people had violated Florida's public records laws: Police Pension Board Attorney Scott Christiansen, Police Pension Board Administrator Carol Knapp, Police Pension Board Chairperson Greg Warner and Fire Pension Board Chairman Warren West.

Deleon was concerned that communication indicated there was discussion about terminating the police pension plan, which would require a large lump-sum payout by the city.

The council removed Warner from the board.

Warner ran against Mayor Sharon Schuler and Councilman Parke Sutherland faced opposition from Jonathan Remick, but the incumbents handily won reelection in November.

MARC VALERO

No 9: Bizarre window-breaking vandalism hits county businesses

SEBRING - Businesses from Avon Park to Lake Placid, many clustered in the downtown areas, woke to a rude shock one Sunday morning in March.

Several store front windows had been shot at by BB and pellet guns, in what can inarguably be called one of the most bizarre vandalism cases in Highlands County, causing more than $50,000 in damage to more than 30 businesses.

Sebring resident Michael Brown, one of three charged, pleaded guilty to 71 counts of shooting a missile into a dwelling, vehicle, building or aircraft.

He got eight years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation and several thousand dollars in restitution.

Zolfo Springs resident Cody Scott Dayfert got 364 days in jail, followed by nine years probation and ordered to pay more than $21,000 in restitution to more than 30 businesses. Of 155 charges, prosecutors dropped more than 130 charges, court records show. Dayfert was convicted of one charge of criminal mischief and received adjudication withheld for around 20 charges of felony criminal mischief, according to court records.

A third suspect was 13 years old at that time, and since he is a juvenile, his judicial disposition outcome is not known.

On the night of Sunday, March 24, police took more than 75 reports in Sebring, Lake Placid and Avon Park. After videos were examined, Brown, Dayfert and the minor were arrested, according to an earlier Highlands Today report.

HIGHLANDS TODAY STAFF

No. 10: Texting while driving becomes secondary offense in Florida

SEBRING - On Oct. 1, texting while driving became a secondary offense in Florida, meaning drivers couldn't get pulled over for just texting, but could - if they were caught doing another violation- like weaving in and out of traffic or not stopping at a stop sign or speeding.

Even though some critics said the state didn't go far enough and make it a primary traffic offense, the new law was a big step for others, passing as it did after several abortive attempts in the Florida Legislature.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who had sponsored the bill for four years, credited House Speaker Will Weatherford for allowing the bill to be heard in the House.

Florida was the only one of five states that had no restrictions on texting behind the wheel, Detert said.

Three months after the law came into effect, some law enforcement talked about the difficulties of enforcing the law.

"As the law is written, it is extremely difficult to enforce the texting while driving ban," said Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler. "Drivers continue to openly text while driving, knowing it is a secondary offense."

Fansler underscored the need to make it a primary offense.

"I am not certain how many people are going to have to die to make this a primary instead of a secondary traffic stoppable offense. Our officers have not issued any citations and possibly only a small number of warnings," he said.

While motorists can't type and drive, they can do so while stopped at a light or in a traffic jam. The first offense is a $30 citation.

In Florida from 2010 through 2011, at least 85 crashes caused by distracted drivers turned fatal, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

HIGHLANDS TODAY STAFF

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