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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. 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....

  2. 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....

    This complex at Lemon and Safford is the first of four Tarpon Springs Housing Authority’s complexes that will be gutted and completely renovated.
  3. 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....

    Clearwater Beach Patrol water safety supervisor Patrick Brafford demonstrates the stingray shuffle. Learn the moves on page 4.
  4. 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....

  5. 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]
  6. 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....

  7. 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....

    Jonathan Zakel, 29, of Land O’Lakes is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl.
  8. 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."...

    Over the weekend, one of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Office’s new mobile fingerprint scanners identified a man wanted in two states.
  9. 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.
  10. 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....

    A Pinellas County Sheriff's Office forensics specialist carries equipment to the scene of a homicide investigation at a Tarpon Springs mansion.
  11. 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.
  12. Clearwater officer who lived on street as teen helps the homeless

    Public Safety

    CLEARWATER

    Officer Eric Mitchell watched as the homeless gathered in a grassy lot on Pierce Street.

    On a recent Tuesday, dozens of men and women, some on bikes and others in wheelchairs or on crutches, formed a line and waited to receive plates of rice, beans and pasta salad from organizers with the Hearts on Fire Ministry.

    Mitchell was there as part of the Clearwater Police Department's bike team, which primarily focuses on homeless outreach. As a teenager, he used to stand in lines like this at food pantries and lived in a car for a year, but eventually got off the streets and hopes he can help others to do the same in his new role on the team....

    Clearwater police Officer Eric Mitchell, 36, talks with Robert Geno, 57, from left, Terrell Shelton, 50, and Robert Frederick, 44, last week at Crest Lake Park on S Glenwood Avenue. The men all said they have been homeless for years.
  13. Court records reveal more details in Clearwater slaying of 82-year-old man

    Crime

    CLEARWATER — The four Hernando County men accused of robbing and killing an 82-year-old man in January targeted him after learning from a former girlfriend that the victim kept money in a safe.

    Stacey Zagurski, 40, whom officials described as having "a romantic relationship'' with Allen Usher of Clearwater, is serving three years in prison for, among other things, stealing from him....

    Allen Usher, 82, was killed Jan. 9 in his Clearwater home.
  14. Arson at Zorba's in Tarpon Springs brings back memories, good and bad

    Fire

    TARPON SPRINGS — More than 30 years ago, an arsonist broke into Zorba's nightclub on a Monday night, poured kerosene throughout the property, and ignited one of Tarpon Springs' gems of Greek nostalgia.

    "I was blown away," said George Patides, whose parents owned the establishment at the time and rebuilt it following the blaze. "I saw the cymbals of the drum set were all melted."...

    The interior of Zorba’s was declared a total loss after the March 18 arson. The Tarpon Springs club was closed at the time and no one was hurt, police said.
  15. Clearwater detectives make arrest in 2006 killing of hotel security guard

    Crime

    CLEARWATER — Kenneth Robert Missey, a sex offender with a lengthy criminal record, tried to convince detectives someone else fatally shot an unarmed security guard in 2006.

    "He played a game of misdirection and false information," Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said during a news conference Tuesday.

    But that game ended when detectives discovered Missey, 50, was giving false alibis and pointing them toward a potential suspect who was in prison at the time of William "Bill" Williams' slaying....

    Missey