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Caitlin Johnston, Times Staff Writer

Caitlin Johnston

Caitlin Johnston covers transportation, breaking news and features in eastern Hillsborough County. She is a graduate of Indiana University, with her master's from the University of Maryland.

She's always looking for story ideas.

Phone: (813) 661-2443

E-mail: cjohnston@tampabay.com

Twitter: @cljohnst

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  1. Tampa Fire Rescue personnel chief retires amid sexual harassment investigation

    Fire

    TAMPA — A Tampa Fire Rescue personnel chief retired with full benefits this month amid a sexual harassment investigation.

    The fire department opened a formal investigation of David Solorzano, 55, when sworn firefighter Hannah Gray, now also retired, told a lieutenant about the chief's actions. The lieutenant then filed a complaint.

    Gray, who worked as a paramedic with the fire department for five years, told investigators Solorzano made inappropriate comments, hugged her, gave her back rubs and attempted to kiss her in an elevator. The first incident she remembers occurred about two months after she was hired....

    Personnel chief David Solorzano retired last week amid a sexual harassment investigation. [Tampa Fire Rescue]
  2. Ceremony notes 50th anniversary of start of Vietnam War

    Veterans

    TAMPA — People will have the chance to say "thank you" on Saturday to Vietnam veterans who never got a proper welcome home reception, unlike troops today who return to fanfare and gracious communities.

    The Veterans Council of Hills­borough County in partnership with local leaders will honor these veterans, and the more than 58,000 troops killed during the conflict, on Saturday at Veterans Memorial Park. The ceremony is in conjunction with the Department of Defense's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War....

    Rolling Thunder members, from left, Dave Braun, spokesman; Jimmy Linesberry, president; and Larry Caldwell participated in the 2014 Veterans Day event at Serenity Meadows.
  3. New southbound Interstate 275 lanes to open Saturday

    Roads

    TAMPA — The nightmarish commute between downtown Tampa and the Westshore area should finally improve this weekend as three spanking new lanes open on southbound Interstate 275.

    Motorists on the 4.2-mile stretch will navigate fewer construction cones and have better sight lines. Two exits that were moved to the left will be shifted back to the right. The result, officials say, should be a less stressful drive....

    The new southbound lanes, the empty ones on the left, are set to open Saturday after years of construction and traffic jams. The widening will smooth out curves, hills and dips in the road, and exits will move from the left to the right.
  4. Public input helps shape Hillsborough transportation plan

    Transportation

    TAMPA — If it wasn't clear before that people in different parts of Hillsborough County have different transportation needs, it is now.

    Ruskin and Sun City Center residents bemoan the state of their intersections. Those in Lutz say better multiuse trails are good for families and allow more options for bicyclists and pedestrians. And over in West Tampa, attendees clamor for light rail....

    Kathleen Scott writes suggestions on an interactive map of Temple Terrace during a March 10 public meeting to gather input for a new Hillsborough transportation plan. At right is Christina Kopp, senior planner at Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm hired to gather the information.
  5. Tampa teenager killed in shooting during birthday party

    Crime

    TAMPA — Family members and friends gathered Sunday night to remember a 14-year-old boy who was shot and killed late Saturday during a birthday party in Sulphur Springs.

    Richard Newton, 14, was at the outdoor birthday party, at 8105 Ninth St., when a fight broke out that escalated to gunfire around 10:30 p.m., according to Tampa police.

    Newton was struck and died at the scene. Another person was shot and taken to the hospital, Lt. Richard Blasioli said....

    Richard Newton, 14, was an eighth-grader at Van Buren Middle School in Tampa.
  6. Great-grandmother calls death of 2-year-old 'a tragic accident'

    Accidents

    PLANT CITY — The woman who was driving the minivan that ran over and killed her 2-year-old great-granddaughter shook with grief Thursday as she asked a judge to be reunited with the two other children in her care who call her "Mama."

    Alice Barber, 69, struggled to tell the court the terrible details of how Izbella Bronson fell through the open door of the van.

    "I would die in Izbella's place if I could," Barber told the judge, gasping through tears. "I have to live with what I did. I didn't know. I didn't mean to … I would give my life for her if I could."...

  7. Federal judge sides with Scientology on refund issue

    Civil

    TAMPA — A federal judge has ruled in favor of the Church of Scientology, saying two former members must go through the church's internal arbitration process if they want a refund of more than $1.3 million in donations.

    U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore issued a 21-page order Friday stating that plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia are bound by contracts they signed during their 28 years with the church that require them to use the arbitration process to get their money back....

    Luis and Rocio Garcia, former Scientology members, sued the church in 2013, alleging fraudulent tactics.
  8. Hot dog eating contest puts joy of victory, agony of defeat on display (w/ video)

    Human Interest

    TAMPA

    By the barest of margins — a quarter of a hot dog, bun included — Nathan "Nasty Nate" Biller won the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifying event Sunday night at the Florida Strawberry Festival.

    Biller downed 23 dogs in 10 minutes. As he was declared the winner, the runner-up marched off the stage while the others cheered. To the audience, it looked like anger. But it was a more involuntary reaction than that....

    Nathan Biller, center, finishes a hot dog during the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest qualifying event at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City on Sunday. Biller ate 23 and was the male winner, narrowly beating Crazy Legs Conti, right.
  9. Legislation filed that would allow Uber, Lyft to operate legally in Florida

    Transportation

    TAMPA — Ride-share companies Uber and Lyft could operate legally in Florida if legislation filed Wednesday by Sen. Jeff Brandes passes this session, bringing an end to nearly a year of feuding with regulators in Tampa, Orlando and Miami.

    Uber and Lyft have quarreled with regulators over whether they meet requirements for insurance, background checks and other safety issues. The Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission ordered a cease and desist and sought a court injunction against the two companies. Authorities in Miami-Dade impounded vehicles belonging to Lyft drivers, and Orlando passed regulation calling for a vehicle registration fee and a higher minimum fare for Uber and Lyft....

    State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, thinks the bill’s wording will change.  
  10. Video suggests Apryl Foster's death was an accident, friends say

    Accidents

    BRANDON — In the darkness at the end of a straight, tree-lined road, Apryl Foster's car passed through an open metal gate, flashed its turn signal and turned right.

    That was how two of Foster's friends described the moments before the car slid down a boat ramp into the waters of Mango Lake, as recorded on a surveillance video from a nearby home.

    The video, which sheriff's officials showed to Foster's family and friends after her body was found Sunday, convinced them that the 33-year-old's death was nothing other than an accident. ...

    Jessica Swafford, right, and her sister Rachel talk to the media about their friend Apryl Foster on Monday in front of Relevant Church in Ybor City.
  11. Officials say body in submerged car is likely missing Brandon woman (w/video)

    Public Safety

    BRANDON — A fervent 10-day search for Apryl Foster, who disappeared after a night in Ybor City, came to an end Sunday afternoon when Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies found her car submerged in a lake.

    Authorities said they recovered a body from inside the car and have "no reason" to believe it was anyone other than Foster, 33. She was last seen Feb. 13 wearing clothing that matched that of the recovered victim....

    Apryl Foster's parent, Craig Beman, left, and Peggy Beman speak to reporters near the lake where her car was found submerged Sunday afternoon.
  12. Federal judge to rule on validity of Scientology's refund process

    Special Topics

    TAMPA — A federal judge on Thursday urged both sides in a lawsuit over the Church of Scientology's fundraising tactics to settle matters on their own before he is forced to make "a difficult decision" after two days of hearings.

    If they don't come to an agreement — and there was no indication they would — U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore said he will focus on whether the church has a valid procedure in place to arbitrate money disputes with former parishioners....

    Plaintiffs Luis and Rocio Garcia  spent $1.3 million on church services and causes.
  13. Former Scientologist disputes church claims about granting refunds

    Special Topics

    TAMPA — A closely watched lawsuit over the Church of Scientology's fundraising tactics is expected to reach a pivotal point today in U.S. District Court.

    Attorneys for the church and two plaintiffs who say Scientology staffers pressured and deceived them into making large donations are expected to question more witnesses and complete their arguments, ending two days of hearings.

    At issue: whether Scientology's internal justice system takes precedence over the U.S. legal system when it comes to former church members who want their money back....

    A judge will decide whether Scientology’s internal justice system takes precedence over the U.S. legal system when it comes to former church members who want their money back.
  14. Jeff Brandes: 'Time to abolish Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission'

    Blog

    State Sen. Jeff Brandes told his Facebook followers Thursday that it is time to abolish Hillsborough's Public Transportation Commission in light of regulators' efforts to seek a court injunction against rideshare companies Uber and Lyft.

    "First-class cities, like Tampa and St. Petersburg, deserve first-class services, like Uber and Lyft. Regulators should not stifle innovation," the post said. "It's time to abolish the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission."...

  15. Steinem in Tampa: Women can make real change happen

    Human Interest

    TAMPA — Washington may get more attention, but real social change happens at the state level, and women have the power to make it happen, feminist icon Gloria Steinem said Wednesday as she received an award named for former Florida legislator Helen Gordon Davis.

    Steinem, 80, is the first recipient of the Helen Gordon Davis Waves of Change Women's Leadership Award, given at a sold-out luncheon in Tampa. Though Davis could not attend, her daughter, Stephanie Davis, told the crowd her mother said Steinem was her immediate choice for the honor....

    Author and activist Gloria Steinem, right, holds a first copy of her Ms. magazine that was donated for a raffle by retired Hillsborough County Judge Charlotte Anderson, left, at Wednesday’s Helen Gordon Davis award luncheon in Tampa.