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The biggest North Pinellas stories of 2012

Stories in North Pinellas County ran the gamut this year — from the joy, inspiration and money generated by a dolphin with a prosthetic tail to the killing of two young children by their troubled mother, to stunning accusations against a public official and a former children's television host. Today the Tampa Bay Times North Pinellas staff reviews the top stories of the year, several of which brought national media attention to the area.

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This was the year that Winter the tailless dolphin, star of a major Hollywood film, was touted as a draw doing the same thing for Pinellas County that Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand's tourism industry.

The local economic impact of the movie Dolphin Tale will total more than a half-billion dollars next year and could triple by 2016, according to a study by University of South Florida St. Petersburg's College of Business.

The popular film has dramatically increased the number of out-of-state visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter's real-life story about getting a prosthetic tail has played out. The effects have been spread around the local economy, boosting business for hotels, restaurants, gas stations and the like, the study found.

Attendance at the aquarium itself has roughly quadrupled since the movie's release, with about 750,000 visitors this year to the aquarium and its sister attraction, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, located for now in downtown Clearwater's Harborview Center.

"It's startling. It was one of those surreal years where everything lined up," said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO. "We're still riding the coattails of the global release of Dolphin Tale."

Yates says the movie draws visitors to Winter's home because the film is so closely tied to a real location. The name "Clearwater" is mentioned or shown several times in the movie.

One might assume that tourism generated by the film would begin to drop off after the movie left theaters. But Yates and the movie's producers say Dolphin Tale will have a long "afterlife" on DVDs, on HBO, and later on the ABC Family network, ensuring that viewers will have many chances to be exposed to Winter's story.

Mike Brassfield, Times staff writer

Early on Saturday, Sept. 22, Clearwater resident Murphy Brown returned home from a poker game to find his family dead. The deaths of Murphy's wife, Dawn Brown, and their two young sons, Zander and Zayden, was one of the more heartbreaking acts of violence in North Pinellas in 2012.

Dawn Brown, 34, drowned the two boys and then hanged herself, the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office determined. Autopsies on the boys' bodies revealed that they had been heavily dosed with over-the-counter sleep or allergy medicine before their deaths.

Murphy Brown said that he discovered the boys, ages 9 and 5, laid out lifeless beneath the covers in their beds. Dawn was hanging from a ceiling fan. Relatives said she had struggled with worsening depression.

The murder-suicide devastated Brown and his extended family. But the story concluded with an unusual act of forgiveness and generosity: The Browns decided to hold a joint funeral service for Dawn, Zander and Zayden. After the service, mother and children were laid in adjoining plots at Calvary Catholic Cemetery in Pinellas Park.

Peter Jamison, Times staff writer

Life Force Arts and Technology Academy, a publicly funded charter school in Dunedin, was open for only two years, but in that time it accumulated a lengthy list of shortcomings: mismanagement, misappropriation of funds, deviations from the authorized curriculum, bankruptcy and some of the lowest student test scores in the Tampa Bay area.

Students lacked for school supplies, and teachers were paid only $85 a day, with no benefits or contracts.

Life Force was already in bankruptcy when Hanan Islam and her Clearwater company, the Art of Management, took control of the school in the summer of 2011. Islam gave teachers lesson plans based on the work of Church of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, saying Hubbard's "study tech" would help save the school.

However, in a series of reports, the Tampa Bay Times detailed how Islam's management disrupted the academic environment, brought in Scientology influence and drained funds that could have been spent for education.

Life Force paid Islam's companies, Art of Management and a study-tech promotional group she directed, the World Literacy Crusade, more than $100,000 in public funds over a span of just five months, according to bankruptcy records. Islam also moved some school events into Church of Scientology facilities.

In June, Life Force became the first Pinellas school to be forcefully closed by a revoked charter, following action by the Pinellas County School Board.

Only 50 students remained enrolled in the final weeks of the school's operation. They had the option of enrolling in other charter schools or regular elementary schools for this school year.

Hanan Islam left the school prior to its closing. She is still listed as a leader with the World Literacy Crusade in California.

Diane Steinle, Times staff writer

Largo resident Ronald William Brown, 57, performed puppet shows for years at his church and on the Christian Television Network. But it was very different circumstances that would earn him international fame in the summer of 2012.

A resident of Largo's Whispering Pines mobile home park, Brown was arrested in July based on accusations that he owned child pornography and had conspired with a man in Kansas to kidnap, cook and eat a boy at Gulf Coast Church in Largo.

The latter accusation was eventually dropped by federal prosecutors, but not before Brown had become an international sensation as Florida's latest bizarre-crime celebrity. Video footage from Brown's old television show even surfaced on the Internet showing him having a conversation with a ventriloquist dummy about the evils of pornography.

As the year ends, Brown is in jail awaiting trial on multiple child-pornography charges that could lead to decades in prison. His trial, sure to attract more media attention, is expected to begin in the winter or spring of 2013.

Peter Jamison, Times staff writer

Thousands of timeshare owners, many of them elderly and hurting financially, from across the country have called Florida agencies over the last few years complaining of being ripped off by timeshare resale companies in the Tampa Bay area. Local companies, many of them in North Pinellas County, promised quick sales of vacation properties for up-front fees, many complaints allege, but then never sold the timeshares.

Complaints to the Florida Attorney General's Office spiked from 964 in 2008 to 12,257 in 2010. Some local companies made millions. Some elderly people lost their life savings trying to sell their timeshares.

In March, coverage of timeshare resale telemarketers by the Tampa Bay Times highlighted local companies that generated complaints and how state officials failed to regulate an industry that even insiders admitted was rife with fraud.

State rules ban people convicted of certain crimes from getting licensed to work in telemarketing, but the Times found one salesman who had worked at several companies despite nine out-of-state felony convictions, and one company run by a convicted felon whose staff of 22 one year included 11 with criminal records.

Attorney General Pam Bondi touted the Timeshare Resale Accountability Act, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in June, as a new tool to help clean up the industry. The new legislation requires resale companies to disclose more information to customers before they can take payment. Through Dec. 27, the Attorney General's Office had received 3,704 timeshare resale complaints for 2012, down 70 percent from 2010.

Will Hobson, Times staff writer

Confusion reigned in Spring Bayou on Jan. 6 when a cross thrown during the cross dive portion of Tarpon Springs' annual Epiphany celebration couldn't be found. So Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, threw a second one. That one was recovered, but so was the first one, and the divers' grappling over the crosses led to organizers ultimately declaring four winners of the 2012 cross dive — an unprecedented outcome. Organizers have changed the rules now, so that on Jan. 6 when the 2013 Epiphany cross dive is held, only one cross will be thrown.

In January, managers at U-Stor Self Storage in Clearwater found something grim inside Unit B8: the remains of Ann Bunch.

The 95-year-old woman, who died after three heart attacks and a stroke in 1995, rested in a blue plywood coffin amid old TVs and banana boxes, the Times reported.

The story of how she landed there attracted national attention and highlighted a dark side of hoarding: the desire to hold on long after it's socially acceptable and even legal.

Rebecca Ann Fancher, Bunch's 54-year-old granddaughter who lives in Clearwater, told police that her mother, Bobbie Hancock, had planned to drive Bunch's body to Alabama to be buried near family. But that never happened. Instead, Hancock hired a day laborer to haul the coffin into the 10-by-10-foot storage unit, which had no air conditioning.

Hancock revealed the gruesome secret last August on her death bed, Fancher told the Times, and blamed her decision not to drive to Alabama on rain storms and a dysfunctional truck.

John Setlow, Fancher's ex-husband, told the Times a different story: Hancock was a hoarder who filled her home and lawn with junk, he said. She couldn't part with anything. She passed the habit to her daughter.

Seventeen years after Bunch died, when unemployed Fancher could no longer pay rent on the unit, managers threatened to auction its contents.

You can't do that, Fancher told them. Grandmother's in there.

Though improper storage of a human body is a crime, no one was charged. It appeared the responsibility for putting Bunch's corpse in storage rested with Hancock, who is dead, Clearwater public information officer Elizabeth Watts told the Times.

A Masonic lodge with ties to Bunch's second husband paid to transport the body to its original destination: the churchyard at Summer Hill Baptist Church, near Columbiana, Ala.

Danielle Paquette, Times staff writer

A judge this month ordered prison for a former Dunedin schools volunteer charged with paying a 12-year-old girl to pose for sexually explicit photos that he uploaded to a fetish website.

Steven J. Andrews, 30, was sentenced to two years behind bars, though records show he will receive credit for more than 300 days he sat in the Pinellas County Jail awaiting prosecution following his February arrest.

The prison term will be followed by three years of probation and designation as a sex offender.

The allegations came to light after the preteen he was paying to pose while bound and gagged in costumes — they included full-body spandex, ice skater and a pink cheetah outfits and a Disney character, among others — complained to her mother that Andrews had missed a payment.

Authorities say Andrews, a longtime friend of the girl's family, admitted that he masturbated to photos of her that were recovered from a flash drive.

Defense lawyer Jason Bangos said his client has mental health issues. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Andrews admitted guilt on three counts each of sexual performance by a child and false imprisonment, escaping a potential prison sentence of up to 30 years.

Upon his arrest, the well-known bagpiper and drummer was fired from his duties as a band volunteer at Dunedin Highland Middle and Dunedin High schools and as an after-school teacher at Children's Nest Day School in Tampa.

Keyonna Summers, Times staff writer

Local law enforcement agencies have been making lists of gang members and associates for years, but the practice didn't come to light until this summer, when copies of several lists generated controversy in Ridgecrest, a predominately black neighborhood west of Largo.

The lists are compiled by police agencies and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, then used by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office to determine who deserves tougher prosecution and, potentially, longer prison sentences.

There was a problem, though, highlighted by a September story in the Tampa Bay Times: You don't need to actually commit a crime to end up on a list and be treated like a gang member. The proof was Justin Wiley, a 22-year-old Largo man who was targeted by a sheriff's deputy for being a "gang member," according to criteria set by state law, even though Wiley had never been charged with a crime. The deputy barred Wiley from the public housing complex where his grandmother and infant son live, and then arrested Wiley months later for returning, all because Wiley was listed by the Sheriff's Office as a gang member.

How did Wiley get listed as a gang member? He was seen by deputies several times with other people who were listed as gang members, which is all the law requires for someone to be added to a gang list. Wiley says he is not, and never has been, a gang member. Others on the lists include Wiley's cousin and a neighborhood man in his 50s who bikes around Ridgecrest, talking to people around the neighborhood.

At an October meeting with representatives from every major Pinellas County law enforcement agency, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Largo police Chief John Carroll and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe agreed the state's legal definition for "gang member" is too broad, and that local law enforcement should consider altering how gang intelligence is collected and used. Changes could come in 2013.

Will Hobson, Times staff writer

Authorities recently dropped felony gambling charges against five people arrested in October in Largo at a monthly free poker tournament. Charges against two league organizers and a restaurant owner were downgraded to misdemeanors.

The arrests had provoked confusion and an uproar throughout several bay-area free poker leagues as players struggled to understand what aspects of their games could have crossed the legal line.

But authorities say even without paying to play, vying for a prize — such as a trip to Las Vegas — during a game of chance violates Florida's gambling laws.

"Is it a crime? Absolutely," said Assistant State Attorney Joshua Riba. "We believe that it is, otherwise we wouldn't have filed the charges. We just thought this would be an easier way to resolve the case."

League owners Rick Danford, 46, and Steven Wheeler, 54, face gambling misdemeanors. So, too, does 57-year-old Louis Karamanos, who owns Louie's Grill and Sports Bar in Largo, where the tournament took place.

Wheeler wasn't at the tournament during the arrests but later had the charge brought against him, Riba said.

The three are all eligible for pre-trial intervention, Riba said. If the program is completed successfully, the charges will be dismissed.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation was drawn to this case as undercover agents qualified for the Nutz Poker League's monthly Texas Hold 'Em tournament without winning a single poker game, Riba said. Instead, the agents could "buy in" to the tournament by accumulating points from purchasing food, drink and league merchandise.

Danford maintains that the Nutz Poker League did nothing illegal. Still, the league stopped operating while the criminal cases proceed, even as other groups continue to run.

"It's kind of got everybody on edge," he said, "because the bottom line for us is, who is the victim here? What have we done wrong? Who have we hurt?"

A department spokeswoman said the state has not pursued other arrests in connection with free poker in the bay area. Louie's Grill and Sports Bar faces possible sanctions from the department's Division for Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco.

Stephanie Wang, Times staff writer

Jamie Geer, who was Clearwater's controversial fire chief for some six years, was arrested in December 2010, accused of sexually abusing a young girl for years. The case was resolved this year. Geer vehemently denied the allegations, demanded a jury trial and even took the stand in his own defense, but a jury wasn't convinced. Geer was found guilty of sexual battery, lewd or lascivious battery and unlawful sexual activity with a minor, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Clearwater drew both praise and criticism this year when it passed a series of new laws toughening the city's handling of its homeless population. City officials plan to stay on the same course in 2013.

Perhaps the most severe new law bans sitting or lying down on public sidewalks and rights of way on Clearwater Beach, downtown and in the nearby East Gateway neighborhood.

Advocates for the homeless say the city is criminalizing homelessness by banning activities associated with basic survival. But Clearwater officials call the laws a weapon of last resort, allowing police to move the homeless into shelters or social services.

The new laws were the suggestion of Robert Marbut, a Texas consultant who was hired to guide the city's policies on the homeless. He had done the same thing earlier in St. Petersburg.

Marbut said Clearwater was "too welcoming" to the homeless. Under his guidance, the city started boarding up public restrooms, breaking up illegal encampments, and shifting more of the homeless to the Pinellas Safe Harbor shelter next to the county jail.

At the end of his stay, Marbut reported to the City Council that there had been an 80 percent drop in the number of homeless people on Clearwater's streets. Many of the remaining ones were hanging around the Clearwater Main Library downtown.

Mike Brassfield, Times staff writer

For more of North Pinellas' big stories, see Page 6. For top stories from across the area, go to tampabay.com.

The biggest North Pinellas stories of 2012 12/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 2:24pm]

    

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