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2009 in review: Whatever happened to ... in Hernando County?

Editor's note: Over the course of 12 months, the Times introduced readers to numerous people and situations for seemingly a split second, and then the news moved on. Today, we revisit a handful of stories that may have had readers asking, Whatever happened to ...

• • •

SPRING HILL — Joan Bates couldn't believe how quickly the bulldozers leveled the place she'd called home for more than two decades.

"It was up for 23 years and came down in 45 minutes," Bates recalls of demolition day last July.

Two months earlier, on May 6, a sinkhole roughly 15 feet deep opened under the Bates' home at 2133 Orchard Park Drive, devouring much of the garage and a front portion of the 2,100-square foot ranch-style house as a crew repaired holes under the house.

No one was home and there were no injuries, but the house was a total loss.

After the television news crews got their dramatic images and departed, Joan and her husband, Jim, got on with their lives.

The family retrieved nearly all of their possessions, though Jim's new Honda motorcycle had fallen into the hole and could not be salvaged. Insurance paid off the balance of the loan for the bike, Joan Bates said.

The Bates remembered too late that they'd moved a box of wedding photos to the garage at some point before the house sank. A week after the catastrophic event, a rainstorm ruined the box of memories, Joan Bates said.

"That really bothered me," she recalls, choking back tears.

One of the Bates' neighbors offered to rent her house in Wellington to the family while they find a permanent home. They are still there.

The family had considered rebuilding on the same spot, but financial and geological realities took hold. The slab of the new home would have to be pinned to the limestone far beneath the surface, a process that could cost as much $180,000, Joan Bates said.

"Everybody told us it would not be a good idea," she said.

Instead, they are selling the lot to their former next-door neighbor, whose rear property line bordered the Bates' side yard. They expect to close the deal this week.

"She's going to have a beautiful back yard," Joan Bates said.

The Bates got a check from their insurance company for the house but say they had to hire a lawyer in the process. They declined to say how much they received for the structure, which in 2008 was valued at $108,000, records show.

"Everybody thinks we made lot of money from this house," she said. "We didn't make anything."

Joan Bates did say the family has enough money to put a down payment on a new house and hope to find a home and move sometime next year. For now, more than two dozen boxes of the family's belongings sit in the garage of their rental place.

"It's a terrible feeling not knowing where you're going," she said, though she added that they plan to stay in Spring Hill, sinkholes and all. "I'm not afraid to buy a house in Hernando."

The family has enjoyed happy progress on some fronts. The couple's son Danny, who lived with them at the time of the sinkhole, has since bought his own house in Spring Hill, Joan Bates said.

Jim Bates, a plant manager for the Pasco County school system, is about to retire. Joan, who retired two years ago after working for Publix for 20 years, is looking for a job.

Finding something to do will help in the process of moving on, she said, and the family needs the income.

"It's been a tough year, but we'll bounce back," she said. "I hope 2010 is a better year for everybody."

Tony Marrero, Times Staff Writer. Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report.

Strangers help Army family settle in home

SPRING HILL — Army Sgt. First Class John Borders and his family settled comfortably this year into their first home, with much thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs and American Legion Post 99 of Brooksville.

Borders, now age 36 and an 18-year veteran of the military, lost his right leg in a mortar attack Jan. 5, 2006, while serving in Iraq. After 54 surgeries and three years of recovery and rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., Borders was ready to begin the next chapter of his life.

But first, he needed a home that could accommodate a wheelchair and his leg prosthesis.

Borders expected to be posted at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, so he asked his wife, Mollie, to begin searching for a house nearby.

She found her dream home, a 11/2 story, white stucco home on a leafy street in Spring Hill. Its four bedrooms would be plenty for the couple and their children, Brittany, 15, and Xander, 5, with space for visits by the youngsters' cousins in Ocala.

But the house was not handicapped accessible. Also, the landscaping had become overgrown. Mollie Borders saw the property's promise, and she contacted the VA, which provided money for adaptations from widened doorways to a wheelchair ramp.

From the hospital, Sgt. Borders also put out a request for aid in February to the American Legion. Post 99, as well as posts in Hudson and Tampa responded.

Post 99 Commander Bob Perkins organized crews of volunteers who pulled dead plants, pruned shrubbery, leveled a pebbled, circular driveway, even felled dead trees. The workers even assembled a backyard cedar playset given by an anonymous donor.

Indoors, post members peeled off wallpaper and pulled up worn carpeting. The veterans, Perkins estimated, worked some 500 hours on the site from March through May.

Legion Post 152 in Tampa gave a set of bunk beds so the young cousins could be comfortable during sleepovers. A Legion post in Hudson presented the Borders with a $1,000 gift card to buy mattresses and bedding.

Of the made-over home and its landscape, Borders said this week, "It's very nice. It's very comfortable. It's user-friendly." Although he walks with a prosthetic leg, he sometimes prefers the wheelchair for comfort.

Referring to the adaptations, his wife added, "I like that it makes it easy for him to get through the house. If he's happy, I'm happy."

Mollie said she and her husband have paid for additional changes, such as making a second bathroom handicapped accessible for visits from friends they made at Walter Reed.

The sergeant said he hasn't been at home much since June. He's been taking courses in counterintelligence, his new field of choice after the infantry, at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Upon completion, he is hopeful that the tentative assignment at MacDill will materialize.

"My goal is to do 30 years," he said.

Meanwhile, Mollie is working as a receptionist for a contracting firm in Tampa. Brittany is a sophomore at Springstead High School and Xander is in kindergarten at Suncoast Elementary School.

After 18 years of moving from Army post to post, from temporary housing to apartments, the Borders want to make their Spring Hill abode a long-time keeper.

Beth Gray, Times correspondent

Sick cat is spoiled rotten in new digs

SPRING HILL — When Anne Thetard adopted Noah in August, she worried the young Siamese mix cat would be fearful. After all, he had been through quite a bit.

But Noah surprised her.

"Nothing scares him. I thought he would be very skittish because of what's he's been through, but he wants to meet everyone who comes in,'' she said.

Noah was raised by Spring Hill resident Dorothy Swanson, who provides foster homes for cats for Home At Last Pet Adoptions. When he was about a year old, Swanson placed him in a new home in Pasco County.

The new owner allowed Noah to go outside, and he wandered away, eventually getting picked up as a stray. His microchip landed him back with Swanson.

While he was in the wild, however, Noah was infected with deadly feline leukemia.

Noah kept getting out of the isolation room he had to stay in to avoid infecting the other cats, so Swanson had to consider her options, including possibly euthanizing the sick cat.

Believing Noah deserved better, she asked the St. Petersburg Times to tell Noah's story and try to find him a new home.

Thetard and her husband, Daniel, read the article and Noah was in their life almost immediately. That was when cat training 101 began.

"He was not a lap cat when he got here, but now he's on my lap every morning,'' she said.

Noah was also not eating well when he arrived but that, too, has changed. "He's put on some weight,'' she said. "His favorite thing in the whole world is raw fish.''

Noah also recently discovered the bathroom sink, curling up inside, playing in the water and then shooting Thetard a look she translates as, "Look what you did to me. You got me all wet."

Although he sneezes now and then, Noah has not shown any signs of the leukemia that will shorten his life. While Thetard knows that her time with Noah won't be long, she said she has no regrets about giving him a home.

"I thoroughly enjoy him,'' she said. "He's spoiled rotten.''

Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer

Local restaurant chef gains fame for dish

SPRING HILL — Kevin Howe's culinary prowess is well known in Hernando County. Customers are willing to stand in line outside the tiny County Line Cafe and Grille he and his wife, Karen, have run the past nine years to sample the fabulous fare that Howe routinely creates.

But in July, Howe got a taste of the limelight when he was invited to go on Live! With Regis and Kelly to cook up a specialty dish called Grilled Sesame Lime Pork Tenderloin, as part of the show's "Ultimate Hometown Grill Off" competition.

The recipe, which started out as an occasional off-menu special, earned Howe national recognition.

"It was a fantastic experience," said the affable Howe, 44. "I'm just a guy who loves to cook. I never thought I would ever be part of something like that."

Howe's odyssey began when a customer of the restaurant, located in a small strip center on U.S. 19 north of County Line Road, nominated his recipe in the show's contest to find the best grilling recipes in America. Selected as semifinalist, Howe was flown to New York the following week to cook the dish for hosts Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa.

Viewers of the show loved the recipe so much that they voted Howe to return to the broadcast again a few weeks later to vie for the grand prize, a feature in future issue of Better Homes & Gardens magazine.

This time, Howe wasn't able to muster the votes to beat eventual winners Brad Orrison and Brooke Lewis, owners of the Shed Barbeque in Ocean Springs, Miss. Still, he has no regrets.

"It was a lot of fun, and it helped get our name known," Howe said.

Indeed, almost every day at least one visitor to the eatery mentions the show. The dish that made his restaurant famous now occupies a permanent place on the menu.

Though the new-found fame made for noticeable bump in business, Howe says his goal is to make certain that a visit by any new customer isn't their last.

"People come back because they love the food and appreciate the hard work of the staff," Howe said. "I don't think I couldn't ask for more than that."

Logan Neill, Times Staff Writer

A murder case and a plea of no contest

BROOKSVILLE — The prominent Brooksville real estate agent and the grifter with the criminal record didn't know each other for long. But whatever the depth and substance of their relationship, it ended quickly and violently in mid January.

Steven Van Slyke wound up dead, and Monty Albright went on a spending binge with the victim's credit card.

In between their fateful meeting and Albright's surprising no-contest plea in April, the murder investigation grabbed headlines for its salacious allegations and the unresolved questions about what actually happened at Van Slyke's home at 27 Cherry St.

It was a case unlike anything Brooksville had seen in quite some time, authorities said.

"If it would have happened in Broward County, it probably wouldn't have stayed in the limelight for the time that it did," said Assistant District Attorney Pete Magrino. "How should I say it? There haven't been, from what I've been able to tell, a number of similarly situated cases here over the years."

In April, less than three months after being indicted in the grisly slaying, Albright told a judge that he wanted to plead no contest and spend the rest of his life in prison. Albright said he didn't want Steven Van Slyke's family to have to go through a trial.

His attorney, Alan Fanter, said he had never concluded a first-degree murder case so quickly. "It was his idea," Fanter said of the plea.

That was just another odd twist in a case that had more than its fair share.

On Jan. 19, authorities said, Albright entered Van Slyke's home and tied him to a chair. Albright, who was homeless and on probation at the time, took his bank card and obtained the access code. Once he realized it worked, he strangled Van Slyke with a necktie tied to a bedpost, then went on a crack cocaine-fueled spending binge that totaled more than $2,200.

Van Slyke's friend, Eric Jessop, discovered his body a day later. A neighbor found Jessop lying facedown on the sidewalk wailing.

During the investigation, Albright told authorities he had known Van Slyke for three weeks before his death. Van Slyke apparently had hired Albright to do odd jobs around his home, such as laundry and cleaning.

Albright also told authorities that Van Slyke died when a sex game went too far, according to court records.

But Jessop later told the Times that Albright's explanation was ludicrous and claimed that Van Slyke was scared of homeless people and would never have allowed himself to be tied up. He said Van Slyke hired escorts sporadically in the past, but said they were "top dollar" — not people off the streets.

Brooksville police Chief George Turner also said Albright could not be believed, calling Albright a "crack head."

"The bottom line is that it was a robbery and homicide perpetrated by a drug addict," Turner said. "Everything else clouds the issue."

Either way, Magrino explained that Albright spoke warmly of Van Slyke in his statements to investigators. Van Slyke was the "only one who exhibited favorable contact toward him," the prosecutor said.

Albright allegedly told investigators that he had "destroyed something beautiful."

Now, Albright is in prison and the Brooksville community, and Van Slyke's family and friends, have been spared the pain of what could have been a circus sideshow of a murder trial.

"I would like to hope it was because the defendant realized what he had done and wanted to resolve the case because of true remorse," Magrino said. "There wasn't a lot normal about this case."

Joel Anderson, Times Staff Writer

2009 in review: Whatever happened to ... in Hernando County? 12/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 29, 2009 10:16pm]
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