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Laura C. Morel, Times Staff Writer

Laura C. Morel

Laura covers public safety in north Pinellas. She joined the Tampa Bay Times in May 2012 as a breaking news reporter.

Born and raised in Miami, she previously covered crime and immigration at the Bradenton Herald and has completed internships at the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald and the Sun Sentinel.

Phone: (727) 445-4157

Email: lmorel@tampabay.com

Twitter: @LauraCMorel

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  1. Clearwater minister accused of aiding tax refund scams totaling $755,900

    Criminal

    TAMPA — The pastor of a small Clearwater church admits in a federal plea agreement to cashing $755,900 in tax refund checks that were obtained using stolen identities, while keeping a "small portion" for himself.

    Sylvester Banks Jr., 56, is scheduled to make his first appearance in court Wednesday and plead guilty to theft of government funds, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison....

    A screenshot from the Facebook page of the Bible Church of God in Clearwater shows Sylvester Banks Jr. and his wife, Lekeshia, who lead services at the church in Clearwater.
  2. Clearwater police announce murder arrest in 15-year-old case

    Crime

    CLEARWATER — Detectives arrested a California man on charges that he killed a 31-year-old woman outside a motel 15 years ago, police said.

    In a news conference Thursday, homicide Sgt. Michael Ogliaruso said Rodney Dean Manley, 61, of Weaverville, Calif., is accused of beating Marion "Missy" Cato to death. He faces a charge of first-degree murder.

    "It was extreme blunt force trauma," Ogliaruso said. "It was definitely something that we would consider a heinous crime."...

  3. Officials approaching developers about Sponge Docks hotel

    News

    TARPON SPRINGS — As the chamber of commerce president, Reggie Gibson gets calls from tourists asking the same question: Is there a hotel near the Sponge Docks district?

    The answer is no, but city officials hope that may change in the near future. Economic development manager Karen Lemmons has been approaching developers about the prospects of building a hotel in the city's busiest tourism area....

  4. Deputies searching for bicyclist accused of touching girls in Palm Harbor

    Crime

    PALM HARBOR — Authorities are searching for a man seen riding a black BMX bicycle who touched one woman and two underage girls in the last two months near Carwise Middle School.

    In a news conference Monday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the first incident happened March 24 when a 16-year-old girl who attends Palm Harbor University High School was jogging near Carwise, at 3301 Bentley Drive, and saw a man on a bike....

    Composite sketches of the bicyclist accused of groping females in Palm Harbor.
  5. Retail theft rings in Tampa Bay keeping detectives busy

    Crime

    As a Clearwater police officer, Lesa Phillips remembers encountering shoplifters, many of them people down on their luck and stealing food to get by.

    But in her new role this year as a detective in the department's economic crimes unit, Phillips is investigating retail theft rings: networks of three or more people who steal from stores and then sell the items on the street or make fraudulent returns of pilfered goods in exchange for cash or gift cards....

  6. Tarpon Springs Housing Authority apartments to undergo renovations

    Local Government

    TARPON SPRINGS — The Tarpon Springs Housing Authority plans to utilize more than $13 million to completely renovate four complexes that are home to low-income residents 55 and older.

    The money, which comes from tax credits, as well as funds from Pinellas County and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be used to demolish and replace the interiors of buildings on Lemon Street, Pine Street, Walton Village Way and Ring Avenue....

    The narrow hall in Donald Platz’s apartment leaves little room for his mobility scooter. He has lived at the Lemon Street complex for four years.
  7. Painful reminder that it's time for the stingray shuffle

    Public Safety

    They're more than a foot wide, love to burrow under the sand, and quickly lash their bony, serrated tails at any threats.

    During the past month along Pinellas beaches, a number of stingrays have mistaken unsuspecting visitors for predators. Clearwater Beach has reported nearly 40 injuries in April. While other areas haven't noted as many stings, authorities are reminding beachgoers to shuffle their feet as they enter the water....

    Front- Edwin Wong, and his son Christopher Wong, center, both of Barrie Ontario, Canada, fish for Florida Pompano, Sunday in the surf off of Madeira Beach, just north of John's Pass. "We visit here each April for the great weather and fishing," said Edwin Wong. "A few days ago the pompano were hitting your line almost every time you cast," he said. Pompano can be found along the beaches and near passes during the spring months. "They put up a good fight,"said Christopher Wong.
  8. At this blood-alcohol level, no wonder officers say he was stumbling

    Crime

    SEMINOLE

    At this blood-alcohol level, no wonder stumbling is cited

    A homeless man arrested on charges that he was drinking at a bus stop last week had a blood-alcohol level of 0.317, according to an arrest report.

    The state deems impairment at 0.08.

    Officers approached Robert Livingston, 53, on April 18 when they saw him drinking from a half-gallon bottle of vodka and stumbling into traffic on Bay Pines Boulevard, the report states....

  9. Cause of fatal explosion at Tarpon Springs gas facility still unknown

    Public Safety

    TARPON SPRINGS — The cause of a fuel plant explosion that killed one man and seriously injured another, rattled nearby homes and triggered a power outage remained unknown late Thursday, authorities said.

    Tarpon Springs police received 911 calls at 1:56 p.m. about a blast at MagneGas Corp., an alternative-energy company at 150 Rainville Road, just north of the Sponge Docks district.

    Officers and firefighters responded and found one worker dead at the scene. Another was flown to Tampa General Hospital with serious injuries, said Tarpon Springs fire Deputy Chief Scott Young....

    An injured person is loaded into a helicopter ambulance Thursay afternoon at a Magnegas Corp. facility at 150 Rainville Road in Tarpon Springs. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
  10. Arrest is a reminder to lock your car

    Crime

    CLEARWATER

    Man accused of trying to break into cars: I was only checking pay meters

    Several witnesses saw Joshua Aperans, 23, trying to open the door handles of cars parked at 45 Causeway Blvd., police said.

    After being arrested April 1, Aperans of Cape Coral told officers he was "only looking at meters" to make sure the car owners had paid, arrest reports state.

    Aperans was jailed on charges of burglary....

  11. Pinellas Sheriff's Office announces human trafficking arrests

    Crime

    She is a 16-year-old girl with a troubled history of drug abuse and arrests for domestic battery and theft, but her life became more turbulent this year when she met a man online named Pimp Master Flex.

    For months, he would post Craigslist prostitution ads for her. In exchange, the girl could keep the money and sent him sexually explicit photos of herself, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said....

    Syrenite McGee, 23 was arrested Tuesday on charges of human trafficking.
  12. New fingerprint scanners help law enforcement quickly identify suspects

    Crime

    Some suspects like to play what deputies call the name game of providing aliases. But the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is now equipped with a game changer: a fingerprint scanning device the size of a cellphone that reveals someone's identity in less than a minute.

    "You can lie about your name, you can change your middle initials," said Pinellas sheriff's fingerprint records manager Bill Schade, "but you're not going to be able to change your fingerprints."...

    A print scanned by a mobile fingerprint scanner also appears on the laptop in a cruiser of a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy.
  13. Trafficking charge needed in battle against synthetic drugs, police say

    Crime

    Law enforcement officials in Tampa Bay have noted a slump in synthetic drug sales but say they are missing one component to continue battling the deadly narcotic: a trafficking statute.

    Under Florida law, dealers can be charged with sale and delivery of those drugs, such as synthetic marijuana and bath salts. Synthetic drugs contain substances that mimic other narcotics and can elicit severe side effects, including aggression and seizures. But regardless of the amount traffickers possess, they face a maximum of five years in prison....

    Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco helped influence the decision to propose
the Senate bill.
  14. Handyman arrested in 2014 slaying of Tarpon Springs doctor

    Crime

    TARPON SPRINGS — A handyman who previously did work at Dr. Steven Patlin Schwartz's home faces a first-degree murder charge in the killing of the 74-year-old doctor.

    Anton Stragaj, 37, of Palm Harbor was arrested Tuesday. Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen declined to comment on a motive in a news conference Wednesday, but said investigators are not ruling out the possibility of other suspects....

    Tarpon Springs police Chief Robert Kochen announces a breakthrough in the investigation of Dr. Steven Schwartz’s death. Anton Stragaj, a handyman who did work for Schwartz, has been charged with murder in the first degree. 
  15. Spring breakers to seniors swarm the beaches

    Tourism

    While cold weather this winter has been unusually rough on residents of the North and Midwest, it is proving to be a boon for businesses on Pinellas County's beaches.

    Higher than average occupancy rates began in January, well before the magic months of March and April, when tourism is at its peak. Hotels enjoyed occupancy rates of 90 to 100 percent in March thanks to international visitors, spring breakers and Phillies fans....

    People are busy having fun on Tuesday in Clearwater Beach. Tourists came early this year, perhaps because of what seemed like a never-ending winter up North, but the revelry continues as spring break continues.