When Darrel Stephens got word that one of his officers had shot dead an unarmed black teenager, he knew he'd better hit the streets. He'd been police chief just three years, but he had quickly learned that St. Petersburg was anything but sleepy, that racial tension surged through sections of the city.
He bolted to the scene where a crowd, disenfranchised and enraged, was growing by the minute. As police took measurements and photographs, he walked among the residents, he recalls now, and was joined by City Council members and neighborhood leaders, all trying to keep the peace....
08/07/14 Human Interest
George Owen Smith was afraid of the dark, so he'd whistle Gene Autry songs, like country music could keep the evil away. Every night for 40 years after he died, his mother, Frances, would sit on the stoop of her home in Auburndale, listening for her boy to come whistling through the woods.
He was just 14 when he was sent to what was then the Florida Industrial School for Boys in Marianna, in late 1940, and he was there only a few months when his mother got word of his mysterious death. His body had been found under a house in Marianna, officials told her, and was so badly decomposed that they could identify him only by laundry marks on his clothes, dental records and the color of his scattered tufts of hair....
08/03/14 Human Interest
Claude Neal couldn't read or write. He was short and scrawny, and scraped by, picking peas and cotton, mending fences and tending hogs, trying to provide for a wife and 3-year-old daughter against the tides of the Great Depression.
He died on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, killed by six white men who felt the need to send a message. They lashed him to a tree with tractor chains, cut him with knives, burned his flesh, and when he was dead, they turned him over to a mob of thousands, who poked him with sharpened sticks and drove their cars over his corpse before hanging him from an oak tree that still stands in front of the courthouse here, 80 years later....
08/01/14 Human Interest
Nowadays, the weathered roadside sign seems to beg for attention, but narrow your eyes and you can see better days. Better days, when Duncan Hines found Chalet Suzanne in the Florida hills and told all his friends. When Burt Reynolds and Dinah Shore dropped by, when Robert Redford and Johnny Carson and Kevin Costner and Don Johnson clinked mismatched glasses and dragged their forks across secondhand china. And no wonder they came. Thirty Golden Spoons from Florida Trend hang outside the dining room, a testament to doing things right and long. For 83 years, Chalet Suzanne has kept the doors open. That's no small task in a state that's always in flux. Alas, things change, and Chalet Suzanne is closing its doors for good Aug. 10....
07/30/14 Human Interest
TAMPA — This past Christmas we bought for my middle child something called a Spooner Board, which is marketed as a toy for gifted children but is really just a sort of a curved plastic skateboard without wheels. She dragged it to the front yard and tried to scoot around, and was bored in about two minutes.
"We need a hill," she said.
"Get in the car," I said. To save Christmas, we drove downtown, to Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park, home to the only hills I could think of....
A few years ago, Travel + Leisure magazine predicted that the "greatest luxury of the 21st century will be dropping off the grid," and that the future of travel would be so-called black-hole resorts, desirable for their total absence of the Internet and cellphone connections. I found this hard to believe at the time, in light of the modern tendency to document every turn of a family vacation on Facebook....
07/18/14 The Feed
All is not peachy on the Island of Sodor.
Martin T. Sherman, the St. Petersburg native who has voiced the lovable engines Thomas the Tank Engine, Percy and Diesel for U.S. audiences, broke the news softly a few days ago on one of the more popular Thomas & Friends fansites.
"Unfortunately," he wrote, "I must now quit the show. It is embarrassing but the reason is that they are paying a very low wage. The terms they are offering are so poor, and this with the immense success of Thomas, that the only right thing for me to do is walk away."...
07/11/14 Human Interest
OKEECHOBEE — The sheriff's deputies saw blood on the back of Joseph Johnson's shirt. He was 12, in 1959, walking down a Sarasota street after another beating from his stepmother.
There's no way this is going to happen to you again, one of the deputies told him.
They sent him to live at the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee, a brand-new state-run facility for troubled kids and orphans and wards of the state, where that deputy's promise fell apart....
06/23/14 Human Interest
Chelsea Baker was nervous.
So much could go wrong. She could hit Evan Longoria's sweet face with a pitch. She could end David Price's elbow. She could come out and throw like 50 Cent.
And everybody would be watching — her friends and teammates, the gaggle of reporters, Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon.
She never expected any of this. A female baseball player, a 17-year-old female baseball player, throwing batting practice — knuckleballs, no less — inside a for-real major league stadium to men who make millions of dollars....
06/13/14 Human Interest
The daughter sits on the front porch of a little bungalow in Seminole Heights, her new home since her husband died a few months ago down south. She misses him, but she's making do.
At 76, she has her health, and friends. And her son, Gary. And she has the memories.
Like the time Frank Sinatra came over to say hello to her father and spilled a champagne bucket of ice in her lap and looked as though he had made a fatal mistake. Or the time her father took her to the Majestic Theatre to see Carousel, the hottest ticket on Broadway, and he bought all the seats in front of them so their view was unimpeded. Or the time she went ice skating on the terrace of her family's 19th-floor apartment at the Beresford at 211 Central Park West. Or the time, later, when she made love to Dean Martin six times in one night....
TAMPA — Is she insane?
Julie Shenecker, with 20 years of medical records that detail a struggle against a variety of severe mental illnesses, killed her own teen children. She shot them, as she wrote, in the "mouthy mouth," covered them with blankets, manipulated her daughter's lifeless lips into a smile. She wanted to protect them from molestation, and from inheriting her own debilitating brain disease. She wanted to kill herself, so they could live safely and eternally together in heaven....
Janet Feldman did not need four dozen rotisserie chickens. Who among us does?
But the 57-year-old Davie woman who makes outfits for strippers is not someone who minds her own business when she discovers a wrong. If society's moral fabric is twisted, she irons it smooth.
"When I see a wrong," she says, "I right the wrong."
The day she took all the chickens, she was trying to prove a point. Trying to look out for the little guy. She was on a mission....
TAMPA — Coffin nail by coffin nail and bone fragment by bone fragment, University of South Florida forensic anthropologists are learning more about the identities of remains exhumed months ago from a hidden cemetery at the state's longest-running and most criticized reform school.
Researchers have so far analyzed 12 of the 55 sets of remains unearthed at the former Dozier School for Boys, developing biological profiles and establishing theories about date of burial, age and race. They've received DNA analysis from the University of North Texas Health Science Center on five of the bodies, but have not yet identified any of the boys....
04/01/14 Public Safety
When 15-year-old Thomas Curry was found dead in 1925, not long after he had run away from Florida's reform school in Marianna, the coroner's jury determined he "came to his death from a wound on forehead: skull crushed from an unknown cause." His body was buried in Philadelphia.
Now, a team of University of South Florida forensic anthropologists, backed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, are asking the Pennsylvania state police to help them find and exhume Curry's remains for an autopsy. Nelson has asked Gov. Tom Corbett for his assistance....
03/29/14 Human Interest
LAND O'LAKES — If you believe the clowns, everything was hunky-dory until 2007, when Ben Alexander came along.
A dedicated clown could work a restaurant for a couple of hours, twist a T. rex or a Super Mario — really innovative stuff, not just one-balloon wiener dogs or swords — and walk home with a hundred bucks. The restaurants paid, so parents didn't have to worry about scrambling for tips. The clowns weren't going to get rich, but it was a living....