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Fatal sinkhole, homeless housing scandal among Times' top Hillsborough stories of 2013

As the year comes to a close, Tampa Bay Times editors have selected 13 from '13 — a baker's dozen of the most notable local and state stories this year. It was a tough list to whittle down, but here, in no special order, are the stories that most captured our attention this year.

1. William "Hoe" Brown resigns

Tenants of prominent Republican fundraiser William "Hoe" Brown had long wondered when the public would learn about the Tampa Port Authority chairman's side job: landlord of a dilapidated motel and illegal trailer park behind his office. In 2013, they did. In response to inquiries from the Tampa Bay Times, code enforcement officials visited Brown's properties, which they declared "deplorable" and "not fit for human habitation." Brown had the trailers hauled away, but in July, he sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott resigning as Port chairman. A Times story later revealed that Hillsborough County's Homeless Recovery program had paid Brown more than $600,000 in public money since 1998 to house the homeless.

2. Bubba vs. MJ

A defamation trial between two radio shock jocks morphed into one of the strangest stories of the year when one side tried to set up the attorney for the other side in a DUI arrest. In the end, the charges were dropped, the Tampa police officer who made the DUI stop was fired, the law firm of Adams & Diaco, which was representing Bubba the Love Sponge Clem in the defamation suit, was under investigation by the Florida Bar and an outside panel was reviewing other arrests to make sure the DUI setup was an exception.

3. No Medicaid expansion

Although Gov. Rick Scott backed it, Republican state legislators last session rejected a key but optional part of the Affordable Care Act: extending Medicaid eligibility to more poor adults. Though hospital and business leaders are lobbying the state to accept the health care dollars, GOP leaders have indicated expansion is a dead issue next year. Scott recently refused to say whether he continues to support it. Meanwhile, the lack of action leaves about 800,000 Floridians in a coverage gap — too poor to qualify for federal subsidies to buy private insurance and unable to qualify for Medicaid.

4. School guards plan

The Hillsborough County School District opened 2013 with an ambitious plan to put an armed guard in all of its 144 elementary schools and closed the year with a School Board vote to hire the first 22 guards. In between, there was backlash against Superintendent MaryEllen Elia, who proposed the idea, and debate about whether the $12-an-hour guards were needed or even appropriate. Critics said the $4 million annual price tag was too high. Elementary school principals endorsed the plan unanimously, saying they fear not only a random attacker, but angry and unruly parents. In the end, a slim majority agreed to fund the first of four phases.

5. Ireland Nugent

On the night of April 11, Jerry Nugent was backing up on a riding lawn mower in the driveway of his Palm Harbor home. He didn't see his ebullient daughter Ireland toddling after him. He accidentally backed over the 2-year-old, severing both her legs below the knee. So began a family saga that held the public rapt for months as the curly-haired girl received emergency surgeries, prosthetic limbs — and soon walked again. Her family weathered grief, anxiety, a dispute with their pastor and controversy around a charity that offered to provide prosthetics. Ireland persisted. She celebrated her third birthday, threw out the first pitch at a softball game for disabled soldiers, and like so many other little girls, took up ballet.

6. Seffner sinkhole

As Jeffrey Bush slept in his Seffner home on Feb. 28, a sinkhole opened beneath his bedroom floor and sucked him and his furniture into the ground. Hearing screams for help, his brother Jeremy rushed in to try to save him but became trapped in the sinkhole, too. A deputy responding to a 911 call was able to pull Jeremy to safety. But no one was able to rescue Jeffrey Bush. The sinkhole that took his life became his final resting place.

7. Zephyrhills lottery winner

The odds of those six numbers coming up on one ticket were a whopping 1 in 175.2 million. But on May 18, 84-year-old Gloria C. MacKenzie, a widow who drove a Ford Taurus and lived in a tiny duplex on the outskirts of Zephyrhills, bought a lottery ticket that made her the largest Powerball winner in history. On June 5, flanked by her son and financial advisers, she said nothing as she claimed her prize, a $370 million lump sum before taxes. Neighbors said MacKenzie never returned to her apartment. But four days later, a woman matching her description paid the dinner checks of 200 patrons at a Plant City BuddyFreddy's restaurant.

8. Dontae Morris conviction

Three years after two Tampa police officers were gunned down in a traffic stop, a 12-member jury needed just four hours to decide Dontae Morris was the man who pulled the trigger. During the November trial, jurors watched a police video that showed Morris, 28, shooting Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, then running away to begin a four-day manhunt that sent hundreds of law enforcement officers into surrounding neighborhoods with assault rifles, dogs, battering rams, even an assault vehicle. Morris, who is accused of three other murders, is to be sentenced in the spring.

9. Hakken case

Some criminal cases tap a broad current of political or social anxiety. Such was the bizarre saga of Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, college-educated engineers from Tampa who allegedly abducted their young sons and fled on a sailboat to Cuba in April. Before the journey, the Hakkens had their parental rights stripped after a series of incidents involving drugs and guns in Louisiana. It later emerged they held paranoid fears about the federal government, views which earned them sympathy from some right-wing activists and parents with grudges against child-welfare workers. As Joshua and Sharyn Hakken sit in jail awaiting their January trial date in Hillsborough Circuit Court, their saga has taken more strange turns, as Sharyn Hakken developed an extramarital romance with a female jail inmate. The Hakkens' sons, 5-year-old Cole and 3-year-old Chase, are now living with their maternal grandparents.

10. Allen Hicks Sr. settlement

On May 11, 2012, drivers on Interstate 275 noticed a northbound car swerving into the guardrail near Bearss Avenue. When paramedics and law enforcement officials arrived, they found Allen Hicks Sr. — a popular, 51-year-old youth baseball coach from Tampa — behind the wheel, speaking incoherently. What followed was a tragic sequence of events in which Hicks, who had either suffered or was about to suffer a stroke, was arrested for failing to heed officers' commands, thrown in a jail cell and left writhing on the floor without proper medical treatment. He later went into a coma and died. His death led to a combined $1.1 million in wrongful-death claim and settlement money from state and county agencies, as well as Armor Correctional Health Services, the private contractor that provides medical care for prisoners in Hillsborough County jails.

11. 'Bollywood Oscars'

Tampa has hosted Super Bowls, Final Fours, political conventions and decades of Gasparilla, but come April, it will be the first city in the United States to ever host the "Bollywood Oscars.'' The 2014 International Indian Film Academy's Weekend & Awards is a three-day gala that will culminate in an awards ceremony being televised worldwide from Raymond James Stadium on April 26. At least 35,000 people are expected for the awards show, with up to 60,000 visitors coming for other events.

12. No more Pier

The battle over St. Petersburg's landmark Pier intensified through 2013, helping to unseat the incumbent mayor and promising to dominate the new administration's agenda. Despite growing objections City Council members in May agreed to continue funding the modernistic Lens, which was to replace the 1973 inverted pyramid. Opponents collected thousands of petitions to force a referendum on the Lens and convinced a firm majority of voters to reject the avant-garde design. Another faction continued its fight to save the crumbling Pier, but an appellate court rejected former mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford's attempt to stop demolition of the structure that closed amid tears and fanfare in the spring. What now? Mayor-elect Rick Kriseman's transition team is recommending creation of yet another committee to study the issue, with the goal of having a new or refurbished pier by 2017.

13. 28 years in Navy Vets scam

In November, an Ohio jury found Bobby Thompson, 66, guilty of racketeering, money laundering and identity theft for a charity scam first brought to light by a Tampa Bay Times investigation in 2010. Thompson, actually a Harvard-trained lawyer and former Army military intelligence officer named John Donald Cody, ran his scam from a roach-infested duplex in Ybor City. Authorities said his U.S. Navy Veterans Association raised over $100 million in donations but turned out to be a charade. He was sentenced to 28 years in prison. The judge also ordered that he spend each Veterans Day in solitary confinement for the duration of his prison term.

Fatal sinkhole, homeless housing scandal among Times' top Hillsborough stories of 2013 12/28/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 28, 2013 11:53pm]
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