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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. Trial date scheduled for John Jonchuck, charged with throwing daughter off Dick Misener bridge


    John Jonchuck is scheduled to stand trial next February, three years after he was arrested on charges of throwing his 5-year-old daughter off the Dick Misener bridge.

    After a Monday afternoon hearing with prosecutors and Jonchuck's three defense attorneys from the Public Defender's Office, Pinellas Circuit judge Chris Helinger set the trial date for Feb. 5, 2018.

    The date was chosen taking into consideration Jonchuck's treatment schedule at the state hospital in Gainesville. His doctors inject him with medicine every 28 days, said Assistant Public Defender Jessica Manuele....

    John Jonchuck is accused of throwing his daughter off the Dick Misener Bridge.
  2. Former Pinellas teacher acquitted in ex-husband's slaying faces wrongful death lawsuit


    Two months ago, a jury acquitted Cara Ryan of murdering her ex-husband, a former St. Petersburg police officer.

    But Ryan may go to court again for the 2015 shooting — this time because of wrongful death lawsuit recently filed by the daughter of Sgt. John "J.J." Rush.

    Meghan Rush's attorney, Christian Waugh, said it's a chance for the 23-year-old to find closure in the 2015 slaying of her father....

    Cara Ryan, a former Clearwater High School teacher, was acquitted of second-degree murder in January in the 2015 shooting death of her ex-husband. Now the daughter of former St. Petersburg police Sgt. John "J.J." Rush is suing her in civil court. [SCOTT KEELER   |   TIMES]
  3. Three decades later, son of prominent criminal defense lawyer takes on his father's 1983 murder case


    Frank McDermott remembers the picture his father showed him when he was a teenager. It was a school photo of a thin boy in a collared shirt with dark, straight hair framing his pale face.

    The 15-year-old, David Michaud, had been charged with murder. McDermott's father, a criminal defense lawyer, was going to represent him.

    "I was doing some of the same things that this kid was doing in terms of skipping school, running around with friends at night, getting into a little minor trouble," the younger McDermott said....

    At 15, David Michaud and a friend broke into a Largo home, stole $400 and choked the 79-year-old man who confronted them.
  4. In third try, man accused of shooting someone 25 times is acquitted


    LARGO — In his third trial in the 2013 murder of a man who was shot 25 times, a jury acquitted Oscar Fowler on Thursday after deliberating for roughly 12 hours.

    As the not guilty verdict was announced in court, Fowler burst into tears and embraced his defense attorney. "I would never kill my friend, man!" he yelled.

    A few rows behind him, his mother, Peggy Burge, cried, "Thank you, Lord!"...

    Oscar Fowler was found not guilty of killing 31-year-old Naykee Bostic in 2014.
  5. Jury deliberating in third trial of Oscar Fowler, accused of shooting St. Petersburg man 25 times


    For a third time in two years, the case of Oscar Fowler was presented to a jury.

    His first trial over the slaying of Naykee Bostic, shot 25 times in St. Petersburg's Old Southeast neighborhood, ended in a hung jury. Last month, a judge declared a mistrial.

    After a third trial spanning nearly two weeks, Fowler's fate is once again in the hands of a jury that began deliberations Wednesday afternoon....

    Oscar Fowler, 41, is accused of shooting a St. Petersburg man 25 times in 2014. Last week, he went on trial for first-degree murder. This is the third time the case has been in court. There was a hung jury in 2015 and last month a mistrial was declared. [Courtesy of Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
  6. Leo Schofield granted new hearing after convicted murderer confesses to 1987 Polk County stabbing


    Leo Schofield, sentenced to life in prison 28 years ago for killing his wife in Polk County, has been granted a hearing to show new evidence that another man confessed to the brutal stabbing.

    Last year, St. Petersburg lawyer Andrew Crawford filed court records stating that murderer Jeremy Lynn Scott described to him during a prison phone call how he killed Michelle Saum Schofield. A lawyer unrelated to the case listened in as a witness and signed an affidavit swearing he heard the confession....

    Jeremy Lynn Scott describes how his palm print could have ended up on the inside of the abandoned Mazda owned by Michelle Saum Schofield during a 2010 hearing. Years later, in a prison phone call with lawyer Andrew Crawford, Scott allegedly described how he killed Michelle Saum Schofield.
  7. Conditions set for treatment of former Army major with brain trauma accused of murder


    LARGO — Chris Lee has counted the days since his older brother, Vincent Lee, was shot and stabbed to death inside his Clearwater condo in 2011.

    "It has been 1,935 days since Vince was taken from us," he said. "It's been a long time that the family has wanted justice and closure."

    Lee and other family members traveled from North Carolina to attend the final hearing regarding the competency of Roman Izzo, a U.S. Army major charged with the murder....

    Former Tampa Police officers Eric Houston and his wife LaJoyce Houston walk into the Sam Gibbons U.S. District Courthouse in Tampa in 2015. The couple face charges relating to stolen identity tax refund fraud. SCOTT KEELER    |      TIMES
  8. Judge finds John Jonchuck competent to stand trial in death of 5-year-old daughter Phoebe


    After two years of receiving psychiatric treatment at a state hospital, the man charged with dropping his 5-year-old daughter, Phoebe Jonchuck, off the Dick Misener bridge in 2015 is ready to stand trial.

    During a brief hearing Friday morning, Pinellas Circuit Judge Joseph Bulone ruled that John Jonchuck was competent after reading evaluation reports by doctors.

    "I don't know how to put it into words," said Michelle Kerr, Phoebe's mother, after hearing the news. "I've been waiting for this day for a long time."...

    John Jonchuck’s murder trial can now move ahead, likely this fall.
  9. Pinellas group calls for local representative's support of youth citation bill

    Public Safety

    PALM HARBOR — At 26, Samantha Hernandez still remembers her 12-year-old self perusing the jewelry section of the Beall's store in Lehigh Acres and spotting the $8 necklace with its fake sparkly diamonds.

    She says she had the money and wanted to buy it. But an employee approached Hernandez and told her to leave. As she and a friend stepped outside, Hernandez realized she still had the necklace....

    Pastor Willie McClendon of Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Largo leads a prayer outside Rep Chris Sprowls office Thursday afternoon 3?2/17 before Sami Hernandez along with clergy and leaders from area churches involved with FAST (Faith and Action for Strength Together) of Pinellas met with a representative from Rep. Chris Sprowls office. FAST clergy and leaders also delivered thousands of postcards to Rep. Sprowls to ask for his support for House Bill 205 and an end to unnecessary youth arrests. Last year over 9,000 children who committed non-violent, first time misdemeanor offenses were arrested in Florida. They are now branded for life with criminal records which will make it harder for them to get access to future educational and job opportunities. Rep. Ahern from Pinellas County filed House Bill 205 to address this problem. The companion bill SB 196 is moving along in the Senate with support from the Senate President. However, HB 205 appears to be held up by Rep. Sprowls from Pinellas County who chairs the Judiciary Committee. Constituent Sami Hernandez, who was arrested for stealing a bracelet from Beall?•s when she was 12 years old, tried to meet with Rep. Sprowls to try to convince him to support the bill. The bill clarifies that instead of arrest children should be sent to a Civil Citation or other diversion program. DJJ data shows that children sent to these programs are twice as likely not to get in trouble again as children arrested. And tax payers save $4,500 for every child sent to a diversion program.
  10. Florida lawmakers bring back bill to reform how juveniles are tried as adults


    A proposal to limit the discretionary power prosecutors wield in charging juveniles as adults in Florida has surfaced once again in the Legislature.

    For several years, versions of a bill to change how minors end up in adult court have failed. But state Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, a co-sponsor of this year's SB 192, said he is optimistic the measure will move forward this time given the shift in valuing rehabilitation over punishment....

    State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, is sponsoring a bill that would change how minors wind up in adult court. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
  11. Retrial of former Jabil executive facing death penalty can move forward, Florida Supreme Court rules


    The Florida Supreme Court ruled Monday that the retrial of a former Jabil executive charged with killing his estranged wife and her friend can move forward.

    Patrick Evans' case came to a halt last year after the state's highest court ruled that only unanimous juries can sentence defendants to death and that the current law requiring a 10-2 jury vote for the death penalty can't be applied to pending trials....

    The murder conviction of Patrick Evans, a former Jabil executive, was overturned in 2015.
  12. Mistrial declared in trial of St. Petersburg man charged with fatal shooting


    A Pinellas circuit judge declared a mistrial Friday in the trial of Oscar Fowler, charged with shooting a man 25 times.

    On Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys will pick a new trial date, which will be Fowler's third time in court for Naykee Bostic's death. In 2015, his first trial ended in a hung jury when they couldn't reach a verdict after six hours' deliberation.

    Fowler is charged with first-degree murder. He faces up to life in prison....

  13. Oscar Fowler, charged with shooting a man 25 times, goes back on trial after hung jury


    LARGO — Bertha Bostic watched as her grandson slipped into a car waiting for him in the driveway about 4:30 a.m. on July, 28, 2013.

    Hours later, police told her he was dead. They found Naykee Bostic's body, riddled with 25 bullets, in St. Petersburg's Old Southeast neighborhood about 4 miles away.

    As investigators lifted him from the ground that Sunday morning, they found his phone wedged underneath him. It would soon reveal information that led police to the suspected shooter: Oscar Fowler....

    Oscar Fowler is charged with fatally shooting a man more than 20 times in St. Petersburg.
  14. After hung jury, St. Petersburg man charged with murder faces trial again


    LARGO — By 8:50 p.m., a juror scribbled a message for Pinellas circuit judge Chris Helinger on a legal pad: "We have not been able to come to an agreement."

    After six hours of deliberating on July 28, 2015, the jury in Oscar Fowler's first-degree murder trial couldn't come to a verdict. Fowler is charged with shooting a St. Petersburg man more than 20 times in the summer of 2013.

    This week, prosecutors are scheduled to present the mostly circumstantial case, built on cellphone records and witnesses who spoke to Fowler after the killing, to a new jury....

    Oscar Fowler is accused of shooting a man more than 20 times.
  15. Teacher found not guilty in fatal shooting of husband, a former St. Petersburg police officer


    LARGO — A jury found former teacher Cara Ryan not guilty of fatally shooting her ex-husband, a former St. Petersburg police officer, after two hours of deliberations Friday.

    No one disputed that it was Ryan who pulled the trigger. But her lawyers argued that she shot Sgt. John "J.J." Rush in self-defense.

    "We never doubted her innocence, from moment one," defense attorney Roger Futerman said. "It was a very quick verdict. I think they made their minds up early on that, that this woman should never have been arrested."...

    Cara Ryan, shown at a 2015 hearing, shot John Rush, her lawyer said, after Rush angrily left her home, then returned.