Anna M. Phillips, Times Staff Writer

Anna M. Phillips

Anna M. Phillips writes about legal affairs and criminal justice in Tampa and Hillsborough County. Before joining the Times in 2012, she covered the New York City public schools for the New York Times and for the education news website Chalkbeat New York (formerly GothamSchools).

Phone: (813) 226-3354


Twitter: @annamphillips

  1. Sharyn, Joshua Hakken take plea deals for kidnapping their children, fleeing to Cuba


    TAMPA — A husband and wife who sailed to Cuba last year in a desperate quest for political asylum pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges that could send them to prison for a decade or more.

    After weeks of negotiation, Sharyn and Joshua Hakken accepted plea deals that will spare them federal charges. In exchange, they admitted kidnapping their young sons, then ages two and four, and taking them and the family dog on a 300-mile voyage from Madeira Beach to Havana. The couple set sail not long after losing custody of their children following a drug arrest in Louisiana....

    Attorney Jorge Chalela says he and Joshua Hakken wanted a trial but the plea was best.
  2. Attorney appeals Hillsborough judge's order protecting a fellow jurist from questioning


    TAMPA — For more than two decades, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Chet Tharpe has listened to testimony from some of the area's most hardened criminals. But a recent effort to require him to answer questions under oath about his role in an attempted murder case is not going as smoothly as his daily courtroom proceedings.

    On Friday, a month after a judge rejected his demand to question Tharpe, Tampa lawyer Mark O'Brien said he has petitioned Florida's 2nd District Court of Appeal to reverse the decision. If he is successful, Tharpe could be forced to reveal the details of his out-of-court communications regarding the case....

    Hillsborough Circuit Judge Chet Tharpe revoked a suspect’s bail.
  3. Defendant's foggy memory of Lutz triple murder complicates possible plea


    TAMPA — Edward Covington, the Lutz man charged with a triple murder that law enforcement officials said was among the most horrifying crimes they had ever seen, says he wants to "take responsibility" and plead guilty to the killings.

    Naturally, his attorneys have advised against that.

    But regardless of whether he admits guilt, Covington's recent pronouncements, recorded last month in a phone conversation with his mother from jail, could complicate his already messy case. Prosecutors are hoping to use the recording against him in his upcoming trial, which is scheduled to begin next month, arguing that it constitutes an admission of guilt. Meanwhile, attorneys for Covington are trying to get their client's words excluded on the grounds that plea negotiations are not admissible....

    Edward Covington, 41, is charged with murdering and dismembering his girlfriend and her two young children in 2008.
  4. Kidnapping suspect Sharyn Hakken may take plea deal


    TAMPA — Sharyn Hakken's remarkable journey from college-educated engineer to misguided asylum seeker to accused kidnapper could end in a plea deal, her attorney said Thursday.

    Hakken and her husband, Joshua, made headlines around the world last year when they fled from Madeira Beach to Cuba on a small sailboat with their two young sons and the family dog. Roughly 300 miles from home, they were caught by U.S. authorities outside Havana and brought back to Florida, where they were charged with kidnapping and other offenses. Their sons were returned to the custody of their grandparents in North Tampa....

    Sharyn Hakken and her husband are accused of kidnapping their sons and fleeing to Cuba.
  5. Tampa pill mill owners, manager sentenced to 30 years, get huge fines


    TAMPA — The long legal battle surrounding what police say was Tampa's largest pill mill culminated Friday in a circuit judge handing down 30-year prison sentences to the clinic's owners.

    Jorge Gonzalez-Betancourt and Michele Gonzalez, the husband-and-wife team that owned 1st Medical Group, were convicted in March of drug trafficking and racketeering charges.

    Prosecutors accused the couple of using their licensed pain clinic as a front to sell thousands of prescriptions to opioid addicts and drug dealers who traveled from faraway states where government regulations were tighter. ...

    Former pain clinic manager Maureen Altman, 58, was sentenced to 30 years in prison and must pay a $500,000 fine. Half a dozen of her friends and relatives had asked the judge for leniency.
  6. Insurer that paid Culpepper disability claim accuses him of fraud


    TAMPA — Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Brad Culpepper is being sued by a California insurance company that claims he fabricated ailments and injuries while leading an active life as a mixed martial arts practitioner.

    Nearly four years ago, Culpepper filed for workers' compensation for injuries he suffered playing in the NFL. Doctors who examined him concluded that he was 89 percent disabled, and the insurance company, Fairmont Premier, gave him a $175,000 settlement. But what began as a claim similar to those made by thousands of other NFL players is now headed to court....

    "One Armed Dude and Three Moms" Jeff Probst extinguishes Brad Culpepper's torch at Tribal Council during the fourth episode of SURVIVOR: BLOOD vs. WATER, Wednesday, Oct. 9 (8:00-9:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.  Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2013 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
  7. Audio of 911 call released in fourth fatal wrong-way crash in Tampa


    TAMPA — Crashes involving wrong-way driving, like the one that left three people dead Sunday, are occurring in the Tampa Bay area at twice the national rate.

    Though Sunday morning's crash may have seemed a horrifying aberration, it is the fourth such accident this year on the same stretch of Interstate 275. Federal and state experts say they are at a loss to explain the spate of wrong-way driving crashes, which fits into a broader and disconcerting picture of the region's traffic problems....

    Sunday’s crash on Interstate 275 killed two sisters and a male passenger when their car went the wrong way and hit a truck.
  8. Florida's legal aid services for the poor imperiled by budget cuts


    Florida's legal aid societies, where the poor seek help fighting eviction, collecting government benefits and battling foreclosure, are in crisis, according to advocates who say the state's last line of civil legal defense is crumbling.

    Years of funding cuts from local governments, the state and the Florida Bar Foundation have diminished legal aid groups to the point where some may soon be forced to close their doors. Others are laying off staffers, furloughing lawyers and eliminating entire segments of their practice. Since 2010, Florida has lost 100 legal aid lawyers, and grim financial forecasts suggest it is poised to lose 100 more of the 386 who remain....

    A Gulf Coast Legal Services attorney talks with clients during a meeting in 2010. Since 2010, a reduction in funding has resulted in the loss of about 100 legal aid attorneys across the state. And agencies expect to lose 100 of the 386 that remain.
  9. Battle of biblical ideals emerges in Hillsborough murder case


    TAMPA — In the beginning, there were three grisly murders of Old Testament proportions.

    A day after Mother's Day in 2008, Hillsborough sheriff deputies found Lisa Freiberg's mutilated corpse and the bodies of her children, 7-year-old Zachary and Savannah, 2. Her boyfriend, Edward Covington, was found in his underwear, in a closet.

    A month before Covington is set to go on trial on three charges of first-degree murder, prosecutors have asked a judge to bar defense attorneys from getting biblical with jurors....

    Assistant Public Defender Mike Peacock, an ordained minister, did not make any religious statements during the trial of Richard McTear Jr., who was found guilty on July 31 of killing his girlfriend’s 3-month-old son. But during the penalty phase, Assistant Public Defender Theda James asked jurors to spare McTear’s life. “We should leave vengeance to the Lord. It doesn’t belong in this courtroom,” she said. Prosecutors objected.
  10. Secrecy in Hillsborough child murder case could point to a conspirator


    TAMPA — Granville Ritchie, the man accused of murdering a 9-year-old girl and dumping her body in Tampa Bay, was arraigned Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery and aggravated child abuse.

    Ritchie, 35, who appeared in court briefly, pleaded not guilty to the charges. His arraignment set in motion a case that has been months in the making.

    On May 17, a couple fishing from the Courtney Campbell Causeway spotted a child's body in the water. It was Felecia Williams, a 9-year-old girl who went missing from a Temple Terrace apartment a day earlier. Months of investigation followed, as Temple Terrace investigators worked to sort out the conflicting testimony offered by Eboni Wiley, one of the last people to see Felecia alive, and Ritchie, the main suspect....

    Granville Ritchie  was arraigned on Wednesday on charges of first degree murder, sexual battery and child abuse. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |   Times]
  11. Hillsborough County Judge Chris Nash cruises to re-election


    TAMPA — Voters Tuesday decided to keep Chris Nash on the bench in Hillsborough's only race for a county court judge seat.

    Nash topped his opponent, Norman Cannella Jr., the son of a prominent Tampa defense attorney, by a margin of 65 to 35 percent.

    Nash, 43, was appointed to a judgeship last year by Gov. Rick Scott and was on the job only a few weeks when he learned of his high-profile challenger, who entered the race with considerably more name recognition. Cannella Jr., 46, is a former prosecutor who has been in private practice since 2001, but it is his father, Norman Cannella Sr., whose name carries great weight in the legal community....

  12. Hillsborough voters elect two circuit judges


    TAMPA — Voters elected two new Hillsborough County circuit court judges Tuesday, but two more races are headed for a final decision in November after none of the candidates in them secured more than half the vote.

    Circuit court judges are elected to six-year terms.

    Group 8: In a three-way race, the two top vote getters, Barbara Twine Thomas and Carl C. Hinson, will face each other in the Nov. 4 general election. Thomas, who has twice been nominated for a judicial appointment but never chosen, lead with more than two-fifths of the vote. Hinson won abut a third and the third-place candidate, John Dingfelder, received about a quarter of the vote....

  13. Blind Tampa man says he has 'no remorse' for shooting great-nephew in self-defense


    TAMPA — A legally blind Tampa man shot and wounded an intruder Sunday night, discovering afterward that it was his 15-year-old great-nephew.

    Melchisedec Williams, 50, was in his home near Chipco and N 30th streets around 10:30 p.m. when, according to Tampa police, his great-nephew cut the wires bringing power to Williams' house and broke in through a bedroom window. Inside the house, he made his way to the kitchen and grabbed two of his great-uncle's steak knives....

    “That’s what made me stop shooting,” Melchisedec Williams said, about hearing his great-nephew’s groans. “I was in the dark, and I was ready to unload that gun until I heard his voice.”
  14. Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 8


    Circuit Court | Group 8

    The three candidates for Hillsborough circuit judge in Group 8 all maintain solo law practices focusing primarily on civil claims, but that is where the similarities end. John Dingfelder is a former public school teacher and Tampa City Council member, Carl C. Hinson has devoted his career to personal injury law and Barbara Twine Thomas has twice been nominated for a judicial appointment but has not been chosen by the governor. This is a nonpartisan race. Anna M. Phillips, Times staff writer...

    Barbara Twine Thomas
  15. Hillsborough Circuit Judge, Group 34


    Circuit Court | Group 34

    This race for a rare open seat has drawn three candidates, two of whom run solo legal practices focused on personal injury claims and a third who specializes in construction and business law. One of the candidates, Constance Daniels, has run for a judicial seat before. Robert Bauman and Melissa "Missy" Polo are new names on the ballot. Anna M. Phillips, Times staff writer...

    Melissa Polo