Top 10 local stories of 2012
Highlands TodayAVON PARK - No. 1 Aaron Doty slaying rocks county
Published: January 1, 2013
Published: January 1, 2013
No one thought it could happen here.
On June 10, a 20-year-old man was beaten nearly to death at a party. None of the dozen or more partygoers intervened, and no one called the police.
Afterwards, friends even helped Jonathan Ray Rodriguez, 22, and Kenneth Felipe, 19, load Aaron Doty's body in a pickup truck.
Rodriguez and Felipe were acquaintances, and Doty had stopped at their home, 5504 Granada Blvd. early Sunday after going to other parties. All three had been drinking throughout the night, a court document said.
Between 5 and 6 a.m. Sunday, Rodriguez and Felipe confronted Doty about causing problems at the party and told him to leave, the affidavit stated. Rodriguez picked a fight. They struck him in the face and head, knocking him unconscious, and continued while Doty was on the floor.
Two girls, 17 and 16, unsuccessfully tried to revive Doty, who was moaning and breathing hard. He lay outside the home until the two accused murderers and a 17-year-old loaded him in a truck. They went to a gas station, Rodriguez bought gasoline, Felipe and Rodriguez left the 17-year-old on Capri Street, and they returned without Doty.
Investigators alleged in an arrest affidavit that the two men burned his still-living body to destroy the evidence.
The next day, Doty was reported missing by his family. Deputies in four-wheelers, police dogs and aircraft found Doty's body in the dense woods northwest of the Sun 'n Lake of Sebring subdivision.
Three days later, Rodriguez and Felipe were arrested by federal marshals in Orlando. After investigators identified partygoers through videos, three more were arrested.
Adriana Rodriguez was accused of helping clean up the blood evidence at Jonathan Rodriguez and Felipe's apartment.
Nicole Hebert reportedly drove the suspects to Orlando.
Giovanni Burgos allegedly hid the two men at his Orlando apartment, even though he knew they were accused of murder.
Travis Makris was charged with being an accessory because he accepted clothing from one of the two accused murders. On Nov. 20, he became the only one of the five defendants to be released on bond.
"What can we garner from this horrible tragedy?" Sheriff Susan Benton asked after Felipe and Rodriguez were arraigned. "This is a learning moment…How do these young folks go from high school cheerleaders to would-be drug dealers to alleged murderers?"
When children leave the house, parents must know where kids are going and with whom they will be, she said.
"I see and hear time and again, 'I'm afraid my child is involved in alcohol or smoking marijuana or bath salts.' We must be courageous in stopping them and setting up roadblock after roadblock, even if you have to go to the extreme," Benton said. "Even if you have to go to court for an involuntary commitment so that law enforcement can take the time to evaluate them.
"Do you know much courage that takes, for a parent to make an involuntary commitment?" Benton asked. "We can't just love our kids; we have to raise them. When we hear that there was an all-night party, we have to ask, 'Where are their parents?'"
No. 2 BP backs out of ethanol project
Think of it like a Seinfeld episode: "No ethanol for you!"
British Petroleum and Verenium Biofuels originally announced plans in 2008 to plant and harvest 20,000 acres of energy grasses, sorghum and cane on land north of the Seminole Indian Reservation and produce 36 million gallons per year of cellulosic ethanol.
Although BP eventually bought out the 50-50 Vercipia partnership and planted 3,000 acres along with Lykes Brothers, on Oct. 26, the energy giant changed its mind.
"We are stopping activities at that site," Hartwig said. BP had a field office on S.R. 621, between Lorida and Brighton. BP also had pulled building permits to build an office for 25 workers at The Tower in Lake Placid.
Instead, the company is refocusing "its U.S. biofuels strategy on research and development, as well as licensing its industry-leading biofuels technology," according to spokesman Matt Hartwig.
"Given the large and growing portfolio of investment opportunities available to BP globally, we believe it is in the best interest of our shareholders to redeploy the considerable capital required to build this facility into other more attractive projects," said Geoff Morrell, BP vice president of communications.
While ending its pursuit of commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol production in the U.S., BP continued to invest in and operate its biofuels research facility in San Diego and a demonstration plant in Jennings, La., and to further develop and license next-generation cellulosic biofuel technologies for commercial use in the U.S. and around the world, Hartwig said.
Globally, BP has completed construction of its joint-venture 110 million-gallon-per-year ethanol plant in Hull, England, which is expected to come online later this year. In Brazil, BP took ownership of three sugarcane ethanol mills located in the Goiás and Minas Gerais states of Brazil in 2011, and is currently expanding production there.
Three weeks later, the British oil company agreed to pay $4.5 billion fines and admit to criminal charges related to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion two years ago that killed 11 people and saturated the Gulf Coast in crude petroleum. On Dec. 14, the company pled not guilty to 14 charges.
No 3 Sheriff's office takes over AP policing
The City of Charm experienced tension and controversy as it looked into, and then made the change to downsize its police department from 22 to three officers and brought in the Highlands County Sheriff's Office for primary law enforcement duties.
On June 11, the Avon Park City Council, by a 3-2 vote, directed City Manager Julian Deleon to seek a proposal from the sheriff's office to provide the city with law enforcement services.
On Aug. 4 the city council unanimously picked the sheriff's office.
But, between those dates, tension rose between Deleon and the police department prompting Deleon in July to request the presence of at least four sheriff's deputies at the next few council meetings.
In August, Deleon estimated the savings of switching from the city's police department to the sheriff's office for primary law enforcement coverage for the next four years at $584,695, $626,669, $749,437 and $747,437.
At the Aug. 4 council meeting, which was held at the community center, Sheriff Susan Benton proposed 16 new law enforcement positions, including 10 patrol deputies, two school resource deputies, three detectives and one crime scene detective.
Highlands NAACP President Aljoe Hinson said Southside residents have a lot of negative feelings about the city's police department.
"We need accountability and accreditation in a police department," he said.
Hinson provided the council with a petition with 300 signatures from people who wanted the sheriff's office to police the city.
Councilman Parke Sutherland made the motion to contract with the sheriff's office.
From a financial standpoint it's an easy decision, he said. Smaller government is better.
The sheriff's office hired 15 Avon Park police officers, and on Oct. 1 started providing primary law enforcement duties in the city.
Now with three sworn officers, the city's police force handles primarily code enforcement and community policing duties.
No. 4 Tornado kills Venus mom
An otherwise uneventful Sunday in June turned into tragedy for one Venus mother, who died protecting her 3-year-old daughter after a tornado ripped through their mobile home in Venus.
Heather Town, 32, clung to her little girl, both of whom had been flung 200 feet from their home, until neighbors heard the child cry in the woods and rescued her, authorities said.
Heather's heroism brought tears into many eyes and capped off a tragedy that affected other property owners in the Lake June and Venus areas although no one else lost their life.
Tornadoes spawned by Tropical Storm Debby that day caused $1.376 million in losses and damaged 28 properties in Highlands County, Highlands County Spokeswoman Gloria Rybinski told Highlands Today in June.
While residents from Lorida to Venus were affected, the bulk of the destruction happened in the neighborhood of five streets: Lake June Road, Twin Lakes Road and Cloverleaf Road in the Lake Placid area, and Montana Trail and Bobwhite Road in Venus.
According to Rybinski's estimates, four of those homes were destroyed and more than 10 severely damaged.
Highlands County residents banded together to help the Town family through fundraisers but life changed forever for Heather's other daughters who have now lost both their parents and are reportedly being raised by their aunt.
No. 5 SFCC becomes SFSC
Just one letter changed in its initials, from SFCC to SFSC, but it was a major advancement for South Florida Community College, which became South Florida State College on July 1.
South Florida Community College received approval June 22 from the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to offer its first bachelor's degree program.
The name change, which included a new college seal and logo, reflected the college's expanded mission and first four-year degree program, a bachelor's of applied science in supervision and management.
Starting from a list of 200 suggested names, the college's new moniker came down to a simple word swap with "State" replacing "Community."
The short list of suggested new names included: College of South Florida, Florida Heartland College, Florida Heartland State College, Peace River State College, South Florida Heartland College and others and the name that was chosen - South Florida State College.
The college's Board of Trustees unanimously approved the new name in September. 2011.
The college held a celebration at the flagpoles on the mural circle on Sept. 26 to mark its expanded mission and new name.
About 150 people were on hand, including college officials, students and community members, for the event, which featured the raising of the college's new flag and the lowering of a time capsule into the ground.
"We celebrate a moment in the history of our college, a milestone and a very important one. We're adding something new; a new possibility for our students to earn bachelor's degrees that open new doors," SFSC President Norm Stevens told the gathering.
No. 6 Robert Severino convicted
Before March 30, 2011, Robert Severino was an esteemed real estate broker and a long-standing supervisor on the Sun N' Lake of Sebring Improvement district.
However, according to court records, 49 people paid between $1,874 and $28,000 each, totaling $297,374.
Severino, 63, 4218 Columbus Blvd., had promised to negotiate water and sewer bond payoffs for Sun 'n Lake residents. He didn't do that, however, and he failed to return the money to homeowners.
Instead, he issued 13 worthless checks to the district totaling $211,000.
He was charged with 14 bad check, grand theft and fraud felonies on May 25, 2011, and with a 15th felony on June 13. He got out of Highlands County Jail by posting a $28,000 bond, but in August, facing six new arrest warrants, Severino skipped town.
After returning to Highlands County on Sept. 24, 2011, he was arrested and jailed again, and remained there for a year.
On Sept. 28, 2012, a plea was arranged. He was convicted of 48 grand theft counts, and was sentenced to eight years prison and 12 years probation. He also agreed to pay $297,374 in restitution, $948 in fines and court costs, $40,000 to the Department of Corrections, and relinquish his real estate license. The monetary obligations are due two years after he is released.
However, that didn't end the saga. In November, a Miami law firm filed a lawsuit on behalf of 20 property owners against Severino, Robert Dygert, and the Sun 'n Lake Improvement District. In response, Dygert, a real estate agent for Sun 'n Lake Real Estate Services Inc., said he was a victim, too, and was lied to by his boss.
He was successful at having people apply for Severino's bond payment schedule because he really believed in it, Dygert said. "When people called the office, it was mostly me they talked to, and I would relay to them what Mr. Severino had told me."
No. 7 Helms fired; Fisher takes his place
After 38 years as a Highlands County employee, former administrator Rick Helms found himself ousted from the county's top job July after three county commissioners voted to terminate his contract.
That firing roiled the county. Helms' predecessor Michael Wright had also been terminated a year ago before his contract expired.
Some thought commissioners were being petty and were setting a bad precedent, paying out on a contract before it expired.
Helms fought to keep his job, and several residents came out to speak in his support, but it didn't work.
Commissioners Greg Harris and Don Elwell begged the majority to reconsider but to no avail.
The commissioners supporting Helms' termination criticized him for poor communications. Wright had also been criticized on those grounds.
In the end, June Fisher, who was named interim county administrator, took his place. For the Highlands County girl, things had come full circle.
No. 8 Parker, Short convicted
Kaedyn Short should have been the safest little girl in the world, Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin told a jury in September.
Her mother, Jenifer, was a nurse and her live-in boyfriend James Parker a police officer.
Yet, the 22-month-old died in hospice care after she was removed from life support in 2009. She had suffered massive brain injuries, and her prognosis for recovery was poor.
That same jury convicted Parker of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in Kaedyn's death in September.
Parker was sentenced on the spot by retired Circuit Court Judge Dennis Maloney to life without parole on the murder charge, and 30 years to be served concurrently on the child abuse charge. His attorneys are appealing.
In November, Jenifer Short pleaded no contest to failure to report child abuse, a third-degree felony.
Short was sentenced to five years probation, plus fines and court costs, by Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden.
Houchin said investigators and doctors determined, without a doubt, that Parker injured the child after Short reported for work as a nurse at Highlands Regional Medical Center.
According to testimony in Parker's September murder trial, he and Short argued about moving to Las Vegas, where he wanted them to find jobs but Short was reluctant to because of her children.
That is what, Houchin maintained, caused Parker to hit the little girl.
Parker's defense lawyers maintained she was a clumsy girl who hit against things and had fallen from a bunk bed. Her injuries that night, they said, were from a second-injury syndrome.
After almost a week of testimony, jurors returned with a verdict that same evening after closing arguments wrapped up.
No. 9 2012: The year of the animal
It was the year when Highlands County began listening to animal rights advocates.
Starting with the court appearances of seven men and women accused of breeding and fighting pit bulldogs, 2012 continued with the April 18 grilling of Animal Control Director Darryl Scott.
Scott said animal control officers investigated 213 animal-bite cases in fiscal year 2010-11, as well as 8,643 complaints. In addition, hundreds of animals have to be fed, cleaned, medically supervised and – at the end of a 10-day stay – adopted or euthanized. His staff helped adopt 109 dogs and 37 cats in the past six months, Scott said.
Yes, Spiegel agreed, there is no way Scott's staff can do all the work there. So why won't he accept volunteers and inmate labor?
County commissioners dealt with animal control problems by doing what then-County Administrator Rick Helms advised not to do: forming a committee in May, which met for six months before issuing a report.
Scott, a former deputy and state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission agent, said people can't be allowed unattended around the animals and the cages, and that training, watching and guarding inmates is more trouble than it's worth. In November though, a volunteer was accepted.
Veterinarians proposed sweeping changes to Highlands County's animal control laws: mandatory rabies vaccinations, collars, microchips and tags for household pets; mandatory spay or neutering for frequently impounded animals, and a law against feeding feral cats.
Scott picked up four starving horses in Venus, and the owners were criminally charged. One owner has pled guilty, and the animals were later surrendered to Scott, who arranged for adoptions.
In October, more than a dozen animal rights activists picketed Animal Control on Heywood Taylor Boulevard, where they said animals are getting sick and not being treated properly.
"Sick cats, kittens, dogs and puppies are coming out of there all the time," Michele Bonilla of Lake Placid emailed Highlands Today. "This has got to stop!!"
Five weeks later, the same group protested again in front of Highlands County Government Center and called for 14 reforms at the shelter.
"Problems that have been brought to the attention of our county commissioners and the immediate supervisor of the Highlands County Animal Control," stated a white paper handed out by Pam Bradshaw of Sebring.
On Nov. 28, commissioners appointed a second committee of vets to re-examine Animal Control department issues.
No. 10 AP first with curbside recycling
The City of Avon Park launched the first curbside recycling program in the county on the week of Nov. 12 after distributing 64-gallon blue recycling carts to every residence and larger carts to businesses.
Separating materials is not necessary with the city's "single-stream" program, which allows all recyclables, such as plastics, glass, metals, cardboard and newsprint, to go into one container.
The city discontinued its collection of regular garbage on Mondays and Tuesdays and Republic Services started collecting the recycled materials on Wednesdays.
The regular garbage is now picked up once per week either on Thursday or Friday.
This once-per-week measure is being taken to promote resource conservation and to provide a cost savings to the city, City Manager Julian Deleon said in September.
Whatever is recycled will reduce the city's tipping fees at the county landfill.
"I am hopeful that we can get at least a 20 percent savings off our tipping fees, which are roughly $300,000 per year," Deleon said. So it amounts to an annual savings of about $60,000.
Also, Republic Services will be using its own trucks and personnel to collect the recyclables, he said. "Our equipment is not getting worn out, so there will be equipment savings."
With a once-per-week garbage pickup schedule, it will free up four city employees to do other functions, he noted.
The city will also see significant fuel savings from fewer trips to the county landfill by the trucks that only get about 6 miles per gallon, Deleon has estimated. The annul fuel cost for the trucks is around $70,000, So reducing the fuel bill by 30 percent would cut costs by $21,000.