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2008's unforgettable characters

On the first day of 2009, we look back on eight of the stories we'll remember from 2008.

Surely one of the zaniest tales of 2008 involved Jean Merola, better known as the "French Fry Granny." Back in January, Clearwater police Officer Matthew Parco cuffed the then 75-year-old and hauled her to jail for conduct outside an area McDonald's. The trouble began when Parco asked Merola to move her car from where McDonald's employees told her to wait for an order of fries. Merola refused. When the case got to court in July, a county judge found the grandmother of eight had been abusive toward Parco but was not guilty of obstructing a public place. Though cleared of any wrongdoing in his handling of the Merola arrest, Parco resigned from the department in May in an unrelated matter.

Clearwater celebrated a facelift of its beach with last spring's debut of BeachWalk, a $30.4-million patterned walkway meandering along Clearwater Beach. The promenade is lined with lush landscaping and features outdoor seating, gathering spots and other amenities. Now the city is trying to replace the parking spaces that BeachWalk consumed.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "D.C. Madam," hanged herself May 1 at her mother's home in Tarpon Springs. Palfrey was facing several years in prison after being convicted of racketeering and money laundering while running a prostitution service. Palfrey was 52 years old at the time of her death.

Susan Stanton, the Largo city manager fired after revealing plans to become a woman, ended her 18-year marriage to wife Donna on Aug 6. Stanton, formerly named Steve, changed her name and had sexual re-assignment surgery.

Bernie Powell died Aug. 21 at age 96. His legacy went far beyond the historic hotel he restored and the millions he has contributed to the community and elsewhere. Those who paid their respects to Mr. Powell said he taught them lessons of generosity, faith and love. He owned the Belleview Biltmore Resort & Spa for 44 years and re-established it as one of Florida's grand resorts.

Wal-Mart's four-year bid to build a 203,000-square-foot supercenter on the banks of the Anclote River in Tarpon Springs came to an end in November when the big box retailer unexpectedly announced it was putting plans on hold. In December, Wal-Mart representatives said they would consider an offer from the county to buy the land, but county officials said they're not sure exactly where they'd get the money to buy the 74-acre property.

The saga of wrestling great Hulk Hogan's family continued to generate headlines in 2008. Sometimes it seemed the story of the troubled clan was everywhere. In May, Hogan's son, Nick Bollea, pleaded no contest to a reckless driving charge that stemmed from a 2007 crash in Clearwater that left his friend, John Graziano, severely injured. He would spend five months in jail. In the meantime, his father and mother, Terry and Linda Bollea, are going through a contentious divorce.

For creating high-wage jobs in Oldsmar, the Nielsen Co. received $3.1-million in city, county and state incentives, with nearly a half million more in the pipeline. Then in 2007 and 2008, Nielsen laid off 232 employees and announced 170 more layoffs through early 2009. City officials objected when they saw contractors from India-based Tata Consultancy Services filling jobs once held by local workers. So Nielsen gave up an additional $3.1-million in future incentives.

2008's unforgettable characters 12/31/08 [Last modified: Thursday, January 1, 2009 2:19pm]

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