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Laura C. Morel, Times Staff Writer

Laura C. Morel

Laura covers law enforcement and courts in Pinellas County. She joined the Tampa Bay Times in May 2012.

Born and raised in Miami, she speaks Spanish and holds degrees from Miami Dade College and Emerson College in Boston.

Phone: (727) 893-8232


Twitter: @LauraCMorel

  1. Remember normal? It's back, along with electricity, in some parts of Tampa Bay


    TAMPA — After their power flickered off amid Hurricane Irma's fury, Sydney and Bob Bell decided to stay at their Sunset Park house with their 15-year-old springer spaniel, Bonnie.

    "As dogs get elderly, sometimes they forget they're potty trained," Sydney, 67, said. "She's like our child and we just wanted the three of us to be here at home."

    Sydney has seen neighbors get their power back, even as she and her husband remained in their muggy home. But when utility trucks rumbled onto her street Saturday, Sydney sensed it was their turn. ...

    County workers arrive in a Lutz neighborhood Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017 to haul away yard waste homeowners had left along the side of the road. Much of the limbs and leaves had been out since Monday.
  2. After Hurricane Irma, tree service companies flooded with calls


    ST. PETERSBURG — Certified arborist Mark Michaels tilted his head up to the uprooted tree leaning against the Barcley Estates home. A cedar next door also crashed into the back yard. He knew clearing them would take at least half the day.

    Then, his phone rang. It was another homeowner, the latest in a string of nearly 30 calls Michaels received since residents in Pinellas County emerged from their homes Monday morning to assess the wreckage left behind by Hurricane Irma....

     Mark Michaels of Mark Michaels Tree Service works on moving branches at a home on 86th Avenue N in St. Petersburg. A tree had fallen on the home owners roof and they called the tree service to remove it. EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times

  3. St. Petersburg neighbors pitch in to tackle downed tree


    ST. PETERSBURG — At 11 p.m. Sunday, Ray Ricottilli heard a crack outside his house on 28th Avenue N west of U.S. 19. Then, he heard a thud.

    In the morning as neighbors on this street emerged from their homes to survey the damage around them, they found the large tree blocking their road.

    A neighbor sent a photo to Jimmy Ritchey, who lives on that street. He had evacuated and was taking shelter at St. Anthony's Hospital, where his wife works as a nurse....

    At 11 p.m. Sunday, Ray Ricottilli heard a crack outside his house on 28th Avenue N west of U.S. 19. Then, he heard a thud.
In the morning as neighbors on this street emerged from their homes to survey the damage around them, they found the large tree blocking their road.
A neighbor sent a photo to Jimmy Ritchey, who lives on that street. He had evacuated and was taking shelter at St. Anthony's Hospital, where his wife works as a nurse.
Ritchey, a landscaping company manager, returned home Monday morning and by 10 a.m., had taken out his pole saw and chain saw and gotten to work.
Moments later, neighbors joined in to help, grabbing onto stubborn branches as Ritchey sliced them with the polesaw. They dragged the tree limbs onto a pile next to his house. LAURA C. MOREL / Times
  4. From dogs to tigers, how animals in Tampa Bay will weather Irma


    As Hurricane Irma approaches Tampa Bay, animal shelters in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, as well as the Big Cat Rescue and the Florida Aquarium, are busy preparing for the storm.

    Hurricane preparedness varies at each place, from playing instrumental music at the dog kennel to stocking up on fresh seawater — thousands of gallons of it. Here's how local facilities are bracing for the storm:...

    The Florida Aquarium received a shipment of 30,0000 gallons of seawater from the Gulf of Mexico in preparation for Irma.
  5. Despite pain, woman in court faces ex-boyfriend who lit her on fire



    Sheron Pasco sat in the wheelchair as her mother pushed it toward the man in the orange jail suit.

    His name was John Riggins, her former boyfriend. More than a year ago, he doused Pasco with gas as she lay in bed and flicked on a lighter. She still remembers him telling her to burn.

    On Friday, he stood before Pinellas Circuit Judge Philip Federico and pleaded guilty to charges of arson and attempted first-degree murder. He was sentenced to 47 years in prison, and must serve at least 30....

    Tranda Webb. CHRIS URSO   |   Times

  6. Man who killed school crossing guard in crash sentenced to 18 years


    LARGO — Norm Runkles remembers swinging by Douglas Carey's crossing guard post and seeing the 70-year-old smile. During his breaks, Carey met his wife at a nearby parking lot to talk about their days.

    "I watched that go on and I thought that was really special," said Runkles, a crossing guard supervisor at the Clearwater Police Department. "She just doesn't get to do that anymore."

    Three years ago, a speeding Cadillac that ran a red light on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard struck Carey and ended his life....

    A memorial to crossing guard Douglas Carey at the corner where he typically worked in Clearwater. [JIM DAMASKE | Times files (2014)
  7. Victim recalls horrific crash that killed three in stolen car

    Public Safety

    CLEARWATER — Ricky Melendez pulled himself out of bed when his alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was time to start a day that would nearly end his life.

    He let his 4-month-old Lab puppy, Mila, out of her crate as he brushed his teeth and got dressed for work. The 29-year-old was a bit tired, having spent the previous day at a water park in Orlando with his cousin and his brother. But he was excited to get to his new job at Sprouts Farmers Market in Palm Harbor, where he was the dairy manager. He was trying to get the nickname "The Milkman" to catch on....

    Clearwater resident Ricky Melendez recalls the accident early Sunday where four teens driving a stolen SUV slammed into his car. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times

  8. Uhuru movement criticizes law enforcement action in fatal crash involving stolen car

    Public Safety

    ST. PETERSBURG — The International People's Democratic Uhuru Movement held a news conference Monday where a former Pinellas Sheriff candidate and two candidates in the upcoming St. Petersburg elections blamed deputies' tactics for the deaths of three teens who died in a fiery crash on Sunday.

    Jesse Nevel, a mayoral candidate who is affiliated with the Uhuru movement, called the deaths of Jimmie Goshey, Dejarae Thomas, and Keontae Brown, a "state sanctioned lynching" and criticized Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's remarks following the crash....

    St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Jesse Nevel.
  9. Three boys dead after fiery crash in stolen SUV, Pinellas sheriff says


    Deyon Kaigler said in December that he was done stealing cars. His friends were still posting videos of high-speed joyrides to Facebook, wearing key fobs on lanyards around their necks. But Deyon, 16, had decided it was too dangerous.

    "I value my life," he said. "I'm not trying to be dead."

    TIMELINE:Three boys died in a stolen vehicle: Here's how it unfolded (w/video)...

    Three boys died when the stolen SUV they were in crashed early Sunday morning on Tampa Road, the Pinellas sheriff said. [LAURA C. MOREL | TIMES STAFF]
  10. Friends, family gather in Clearwater to remember teens who died in SUV crash


    CLEARWATER — Amoni Walker sat on a swing, her eyes staring at the ground. With a soft smile, she talked about her brother, Dejarae Thomas.

    Thomas, 16, was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. His father died in a car crash when he was a baby, so his mom raised him. Next week, he was going to start school at Clearwater High.

    His older siblings spoiled him, buying him clothes and giving him rides whenever he asked. They called him "big eyed boy" or "Dee Dee."...

    The mother of Dejarae Thomas, along with siblings and other family members cries during a candle light vigil for her son. Thomas was one of three teen boys that were killed during a high speed crash of a stolen SUV gather at the North Greenwood Recreation Center in Clearwater for a candle light vigil.  [Sunday, August 6, 2017] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]
  11. The kids: Six teens involved in stolen car crash have troubled histories

    Public Safety

    All six teen boys involved in the stolen car crash that killed three of them on Sunday morning had extensive criminal histories, according to state records.

    The four boys in a stolen Ford Explorer that crashed were playing a "cat and mouse" game with two other boys in a stolen Chrysler Sebring, authorities said.

    They all attended high schools in Clearwater or Dunedin, a schools spokeswoman said. ...

    Memorial from a Facebook page for the three teens killed when the stolen SUV they were in crashed violently in Palm Harbor early Sunday morning. Clockwise from top left; Dejarae Thomas, 16, Keontae Brown, 16, and Jimmie Goshey, 14.
  12. Pinellas judge tosses charges against man under new 'stand your ground' law


    LARGO — Charges against a 40-year-old man involved in a fatal scuffle outside a St. Petersburg bar were dismissed this week after his defense attorneys invoked the state's new "stand your ground" law.

    Bobby Ryan of St. Petersburg was charged with manslaughter after he was accused of punching Christopher Motlenski, who later died from complications of his injuries. On Thursday, Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Frank Quesada granted his motion to dismiss the case....

    The case against Bobby Ryan, 40, is likely the first time the updated law was used in Pinellas.
  13. Report: $36 million worth of guns stolen in Florida in four years

    Public Safety

    An estimated $36 million worth of guns was stolen in Florida from 2012 to 2015, according to an analysis released this week by the Center for American Progress.

    The nonpartisan institute examined FBI data to determine the total value of stolen guns per state. Texas and California led the country in the total value of stolen weapons, with Florida ranking third.

    Analysts used the total worth of the guns to calculate how many weapons were stolen, and determined about 80,000 firearms were reported stolen in four years in the state....

    Broken glass litters the floor of Tampa Arms Co. after thieves drove a pickup  through the front of the gun store and stole more than 40 weapons, including handguns and semiautomatic rifles. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
  14. Child abuse cases, like conviction of Palm Harbor day care owner, challenged by appeals lawyers nationwide


    Maria Harris was just a year old when she fell asleep at her new day care and never woke up.

    It was Aug. 21, 2008. She died eight days later from a brain hemorrhage that doctors said was inflicted by abuse. Her day care worker, Stephanie Spurgeon, was convicted of manslaughter. The mother of two was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

    Now Spurgeon wants a new trial. Her appellate lawyers will argue that the forensic science that convinced a jury of her guilt is wrong....

    Maria Harris, 1, died of a brain hemorrhage in August 2008, and day care worker Stephanie Spurgeon went to prison for abuse.
  15. Through his camera lens, Jack Swenningsen captured Florida's charm for decades

    Human Interest

    ST. PETERSBURG — For decades, Jack Swenningsen traveled Florida and captured the state's charms with his camera, taking photos of the beaches and smiling sunbathers that graced the pages of advertising brochures and magazines.

    In St. Petersburg, he photographed the Million Dollar Pier and created the iconic "Mr. Sun" logo. The round, smiling face is still a fixture of the city.

    "We've always kidded Jack that he's responsible for all the traffic in St. Petersburg," said Lenny Feldmann, Mr. Swenningsen's longtime friend. "People came down here because they saw his wonderful pictures."...

    An advertising shot of models enjoying Treasure Island. [Photo by Jack Swenningsen, 1960s]