Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Couple wins free wedding at Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Samantha Stahl, 34, left, kisses fiance Kevin Freeland, 32, moments after finding out they won a free wedding.


Samantha Stahl, 34, left, kisses fiance Kevin Freeland, 32, moments after finding out they won a free wedding.

CLEARWATER — Surprise. You're getting married next month and the bill is on us.

That was the message Tuesday from the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which announced the winners of its "Wedding of a Lifetime" contest.

The winning couple had no idea they were even in the contest, thanks to the friends of the bride who wrote the entry form.

"I'm a little overwhelmed at this point, but I'm happy," said bride Samantha Stahl. "It's like a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders."

Fiance Kevin Freeland called the event "unbelievable."

It all played out Tuesday afternoon at the Clearwater Police Department, where Stahl works as a dispatcher.

Freeland arrived a few minutes after 4 p.m., thinking Stahl was going to win some type of work-related award.

When he walked through the door, he was faced with a crowd of friends, family and cameras. All eyes were trained on him.

"I thought I walked into the wrong room," Freeland said afterward.

For more than two minutes, the 32-year-old stood with his hands in his pockets.

Finally, Stahl was ushered in. A dispatcher for eight years, the 34-year-old works nights, but co-workers told her to come in early for an efficiency evaluation.

She paused when she walked into the room.

"What's going on?" she said. Then she saw her fiance. "Why are you here?"

Tears soon flowed.

David Yates, the aquarium's CEO, stepped forward and broke the suspense, telling the couple what they had won. The bride and groom can invite 100 guests for a ceremony at the aquarium on Valentine's Day.

Publix will donate the wedding cake. The Sheraton Sand Key will provide space for a reception and a one-night stay at the hotel for the couple. Clothing, wine, flowers and other wedding items will be donated by local businesses.

Freeland and Stahl were among 77 entries in the contest, some from as far away as New York.

The prize came at the perfect time for Freeland and Stahl, who have been struggling to pay for and plan their wedding.

"It couldn't have happened to a better two people," said Tracy Squitieri, one of Stahl's co-workers who entered the couple in the contest. She saw the item about the contest in the St. Petersburg Times on Jan. 8 and decided to enter them.

Stahl and Freeland met on roughly five years ago. Their relationship progressed, despite serious health problems faced by Freeland.

Freeland had been diagnosed with oral cancer in 2001 and fought through two relapses. He is now six months out of treatment and in remission.

Even as the illness took its toll on Freeland, Stahl never left his side.

On Aug. 30, they became engaged and set a wedding date for October 2009.

But financial setbacks threatened the wedding, and the couple even considered eloping instead of paying thousands of dollars for a large ceremony.

The aquarium's surprise means they don't have to make the choice.

"It's a great organization," Rick Stahl, Samantha's father, said. "They've just helped out two great kids."

Jonathan Abel can be reached at or (727) 445-4157.

Fast facts

And it's free

The wedding package includes the following:

• Use of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for bride, groom and 100 guests at 2 p.m. Feb. 14

• An ordained minister to perform the ceremony

• A sparkling wine toast after the ceremony provided by Zenzen Wines USA

• A wedding dress provided by Cathy's Boutique in Clearwater

• A tuxedo provided by MW Tux

• Flowers provided by Heritage Florist in Clearwater

• A wedding cake provided by Publix

• Cookies provided by Di's Delights

• A one-night stay in a suite at the Sheraton Sand Key

• A reception at the Sheraton Sand Key

• Photography by Limelight Photography

Couple wins free wedding at Clearwater Marine Aquarium 01/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 9:56pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Tampa poll rates streets, flooding, police-community relations and transportation as top public priorities


    A city of Tampa online survey of the public's priorities for the next 18 months rated improving streets and easing flooding as the top priority of nearly 89 percent of respondents.

    Survey results
  2. Video shows women violently beating another in apparent Pasco road rage incident


    NEW PORT RICHEY — Two women are accused of dragging another woman out of her car window and beating her unconscious at a Pasco County intersection in an apparent road rage incident, according to the Sheriff's Office.

    Shelley Lyn Gemberling, 49, and Alicia Nikole Scarduzio, 20, are accused of pulling another driver out of her car and beating her in a Pasco County intersection. (Pasco Sheriff's Office)
  3. Top 5 at noon: Out of sight, out of mind: a Times investigation; PolitiFact: what's at stake in the tax debate? and more


    Here are the latest headlines and updates on

    Aaron Richardson Jr. talks to voices in his head at his father's bail bond business in St. Petersburg. Richardson has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   TIMES]
  4. It's not a game, but the names are all the same in this football family


    TAMPA — A coach yells across the field into a scrum of blue-and-white clad football bodies at Jefferson High: "Kim Mitchell! Kim Mitchell, come here!"

    These twins are not only identical, but they have almost identical names. Kim Mitchell III, left, and Kim Mitchell IV are  talented football players at Jefferson High with Division I-A college offers. Kim  III wears No. 22 and plays cornerback while Kim IV wears No. 11 and plays safety. (Scott Purks, Special to the Times)
  5. Did Hurricane Irma speed the end of Florida orange juice?


    Hurricane Irma plundered Florida's orange belt, leaving a trail of uprooted trees, downed fruit and flooded groves worse than anything growers say they have seen in more than 20 years.

    A large number of oranges lie on the ground at the Story Grove orange grove in the wake of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 13, 2017, in Lake Wales. [Photo by Brian Blanco | Getty Images]