TAMPA — After two days of testimony from medical experts and law enforcement officials, the would-be weapon used to kill 3-year-old Alexis Garcia remains a mystery.
But for the jury, the graphic images of Garcia's twice-fractured skull and the knowledge that his sole caretaker that day in May 2010 was his mother's boyfriend were enough. It didn't matter whether the boyfriend, Michell Blanco, 31, had used his fist or a baseball bat....
In the hours after she was taken into custody on suspicion she had murdered her two children, Julie Schenecker let two Tampa police detectives interview her.
"I'll talk," she told detectives Stephen Prebich and Gary Sandel.
But what came out of her mouth that day in 2011 was verbal slurry, as confusing and contradictory as the utterances of a sleepy child.
Did she understand that anything she said could be used against her in court? Prebich asked....
TAMPA — To the men he served with and supervised in the military, Staff Sgt. Carlos Alberto Lazaney Rodriguez was a Puerto Rican G.I. Joe, a leader who collected Star Wars bobblehead figures and was fearless when it came to jumping out of airplanes, but found flying in them nail-biting.
"He seemed, from a distance, like he was hard and tough on people, but he wasn't at all," said Devin Dawes, 23, recalling how the older man watched out for him when Dawes joined the Army in 2009. "He took care of me."...
TAMPA — Three years after saying they would seek the death penalty against a New Tampa woman accused of fatally shooting her two children, prosecutors have reversed course and will seek a sentence of life without parole.
Julie Schenecker's mental health issues are so severe that the state Supreme Court would not uphold a death sentence, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office said Tuesday. At the same time, they remain unconvinced that Schenecker is not guilty by reason of insanity, the defense that her attorneys will use at trial later this month....
TAMPA — James Pepe, a former Hillsborough County history teacher who pleaded guilty Monday to trying to hire a hit man to kill a colleague, will not serve time in prison.
In a deal reached with prosecutors, Pepe, 56, was sentenced to a year of house arrest, during which time he will wear a tracking device, and 14 years of probation. Pepe's attorneys said the unusually light sentence resulted from evidence suggesting that he was pressured to take steps he otherwise might not have taken....
03/28/14 Local Government
From consultant to candidate
Clearwater resident Shawna Vercher has been working behind the scenes in local and state politics for years. She sums up her expertise like this: "communications and messaging and outreach, and when necessary, crisis management."
Now Vercher says it has become necessary for her to take on a new role: that of the candidate. The Democratic strategist has filed to run for the open District 67 State House seat, currently held by State Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who is term-limited. ...
03/26/14 Local Government
With less than eight months remaining before Pinellas voters decide whether to support a tax increase for bus and rail, a St. Petersburg-based group's survey has found that most voters don't know the details of the proposal.
Called Greenlight Pinellas, the proposed transit plan would raise the county's sales tax from 7 to 8 percent, bringing in revenue to increase bus service by 65 percent and build 24 miles of light rail between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. But an unscientific survey of 1,600 registered voters in Pinellas conducted by the group People's Budget Review found most respondents were familiar only with the rail portion of the plan....
03/18/14 Local Government
County votes to fund mental health clinic
The Pinellas County Commission voted Tuesday to continue funding one of the county's largest privately-run mental health clinics, where people are taken if they're deemed a danger to themselves or others.
Funding for the nonprofit PEMHS, for Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services, has been an open question for months. Last December, the commission funded the clinic's Baker Act facility through the end of March to give its staff time to examine and possibly alter public spending on services for the mentally ill. On Tuesday, the commission authorized another six months of funding, roughly $847,000....
03/18/14 Local Government
CLEARWATER — This June, the county will start the first of $16 million in beach renourishment projects on Treasure Island's Sunshine and Sunset beaches before moving on to Upham and Pass-a-Grille in St. Pete Beach, all of which have been damaged by erosion.
Over the next 10 years, and not including this summer's work, the county and state are expected to spend roughly $65 million repairing Pinellas' coastline....
03/17/14 Local Government
In the aftermath of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's death, Pinellas County has hired a lobbyist to give it the voice in Washington it lost last fall with the passing of Florida's longest-serving congressman.
"Bill told us many times: 'You don't need a lobbyist. You don't need to spend money on that. You have me,' " said county Commissioner Susan Latvala, remembering how Young urged commissioners to "pick up the phone and call me."...
In the aftermath of Congressman C.W. Bill Young’s death, Pinellas County has hired a lobbyist to give it the voice in Washington it lost last fall with the passage of Florida’s longest-serving congressman.
“Bill told us many times: you don’t need a lobbyist, you don’t need to spend money on that, you have me,” said Commissioner Susan Latvala, remembering the many times the congressman urged commissioners to “pick up the phone and call me.”...
The race for the District 4 County Commission seat is beginning to feel like a weird magic act, where people appear on stage and then disappear just as quickly.
More than a year ago, former State Rep. Peter Nehr filed to run for the North Pinellas commission seat after losing his re-election bid to Democrat Carl Zimmerman. A few months later, he dropped out of the race, declining to say why....
03/15/14 Local Government
For most of the last decade, a group of Pinellas County hospitals has agreed to a losing proposition. In exchange for caring for the thousands of poor and uninsured patients referred to them by the county, they accepted small reimbursements that covered a fraction of their costs.
It was charity care supported by the theory that if the hospitals treated patients in the county's health plan, which serves people who have almost no income and don't get Medicaid, it would lower their emergency room costs. And for years, most of those patients sought treatment at two of the biggest names in indigent care in Pinellas: Bayfront Medical Center and the BayCare Health System....
03/13/14 Local Government
ST. PETERSBURG — A month ago, when Gov. Rick Scott announced he would fast-track an expressway linking Pinellas' two major corridors, U.S. 19 and Interstate 275, he seemed to offer a well-timed gift to a region he's aiming to win over as he seeks re-election.
But he also dropped a ton of concrete on top of Pinellas' plans for a light rail route, which will also be on the November ballot, when residents will be asked to decide whether to support a sales tax increase to pay for rail and an expansion of the bus system....
Though many expected him to run, Brian Aungst Jr., son of the former Clearwater mayor, will not be a candidate for the North Pinellas seat on the county commission this Nov.
It seemed almost inevitable that Aungst, a 29-year-old lawyer with the firm Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen in Clearwater, and the local GOP’s legal counsel, would run. And as recently as Tuesday night, Republican leaders were suggesting he would be in the running for the District 4 seat....