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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. 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.
  2. 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]

  3. Florida Bar report aims at eliminating gender bias in legal profession


    The Florida Bar will release a report today that outlines widespread recommendations on how to eliminate gender bias throughout law firms in the state.

    The report is in response to a survey by the Young Lawyers Division of the Bar that showed 43 percent of women who responded had experienced gender bias. It also included anonymous anecdotes that ranged from being called a "cute assistant" or "sweetheart" in court or the office to sexual harassment by bosses and pay inequity....

    Kristin Norse, co-chair of the Bar’s special committee, says she’s excited about the toolkits.
  4. Missing swan sculpture stolen by naked man found near Lakeland pond


    A $25,000 swan sculpture that Polk Sheriff’s deputies say was stolen by a naked man last weekend was found near a pond in Lakeland on Thursday.

    A woman called the Sheriff’s Office Friday morning and said her husband and her son spotted the statue Thursday when they were fishing in a nearby pond. They saw the swan, but didn’t know it was stolen.

    On Friday morning, the woman saw the story about the stolen swan on TV and reported the swan sighting to the Sheriff’s Office....

  5. Meadowlawn Middle School teacher arrested on molestation charges


    ST. PETERSBURG — A Meadowlawn Middle School science teacher was arrested Wednesday morning on charges that he molested three students, police said.

    Joseph Zavalnak, 41, faces five counts of lewd and lascivious molestation. The victims were ages 13 and 14, according to arrest reports. St. Petersburg police said they began their investigation after one victim's parents called them.

    Zavalnak has worked for the Pinellas County School District since 2009. ...

    Joseph Zavalnak, 41,  has worked in the district since 2009.
  6. Drought forces tougher watering restrictions around Tampa Bay


    Water restrictions will go into effect next month as the region grapples with the driest dry season on record in 103 years, the Southwest Florida Water Management District said Tuesday.

    The new restrictions will remain in place in 16 counties, including Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando and Pasco, through Aug. 1. Lawn watering will be limited to one day a week. Car washing will also be limited and homeowners' associations will not be allowed to enforce deed restrictions that could cause an increase in water use by requiring residents to keep their lawns green....

    Clouds build in downtown St. Petersburg on Tuesday ahead of storms forecast to bring much-needed rain. The National Weather Service issued a coastal flood watch for Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties that runs through Thursday morning. Forecasters say the best chance for severe storms is Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by localized flooding, frequent lightning, gusty winds and dangerous surf.
  7. Florida Bar revokes former state representative's law license


    The Florida Bar revoked former state Rep. Larry Crow's license in light of allegations that he misappropriated client funds and mishandled an estate case, according to court records.

    A petition filed in the Florida Bar case provides details of the disciplinary charges against Crow, who was elected to the Florida House in 1994 as a Republican from Palm Harbor and served four terms. In one case, an audit showed that Crow misappropriated at least $161,396 of client funds from his trust account. In a separate case, Crow "failed to act with diligence in settling an estate which has been pending for over two years," the records state....

    Crow was elected in 1994 and served four terms.
  8. Florida Bar revokes former state representative's law license


    The Florida Bar revoked former state representative Larry Crow’s license in light of allegations that he misappropriated client funds and mishandled an estate case, according to court records.

    A petition filed in the Florida Bar case provides details of the disciplinary charges against Crow, who was elected to the Florida House in 1994 as a Republican from Palm Harbor and served four terms. In one case, an audit showed that Crow misappropriated at least $161,396 of client funds from his trust account. In a separate case, Crow “failed to act with diligence in settling an estate which has been pending for over two years,” the records state....

    Larry Crow, a former Republican state representative from Palm Harbor.
  9. In prison for stealing from dad, man now makes claim to will in Pinellas court


    In the last years of his life, James ZeBranek grappled with his oldest son's decision to steal $800,000 from him.

    Jim ZeBranek Jr. was already serving his 20-year sentence when his 89-year-old father died in 2014. The retired doctor left his estate to his youngest son, Joel ZeBranek.

    But now, from the confines of a prison cell, Jim is trying to pocket more of his father's funds after he was written out of the will....

    NP_354878_KEEL_ZEBRANEK_SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES (05/31/2012 LARGO)  3. James Zebranek Jr., who allegedly stole $800,000 from his father and fled to Panama was in Pinellas Circuit Court, Thursday in front of Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady, during a hearing, Thursday.        SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES
  10. Kathleen Steele sentenced to probation in connection to baby's death at the hands of 6-year-old brother


    LARGO — The case of a 13-day-old baby girl who was beaten to death by her 6-year-old brother in a locked minivan last August concluded Monday morning when their mother was sentenced to five years' probation.

    In a brief hearing in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews' courtroom, Kathleen Steele pleaded guilty to a felony charge of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle causing injury....

    Kathleen Steele will continue to see her children in supervised visits during her probation.
  11. Three Bears have their day in Pinellas court against home invader

    Human Interest

    CLEARWATER — Once upon a time in Pinellas County, a girl named Gold E. Locks was picking flowers when she smelled something scrumptious.

    She followed the aroma all the way to a house. The front door was unlocked, so Gold E. Locks slipped inside and ate a bowl of porridge. Full from her meal, she accidentally fell asleep.

    "The next thing I remember is waking up and the bears were all standing around me," she told a jury of third-graders during her trial Friday morning. "I ran out of the house."...

    Gold E. Locks, played by real life judge Kim Campbell, is handcuffed to be taken away by Deputy Kelvin Hunter as counsel David Ellis, can’t believe she was sentenced to ten years in a mock trial observed by private school elementary students.  -  Gold E. Locks tried to attempt to prove her innocence in this mock trial for grade school students in a fun and educational trial for local school children. Presided over by Judge Myriam Irizarry and acted out with Mom A. Bear, played by Kristine Reighard,, Pop A. Bear, played by Daren Stotts and Baby Bear, played by Martha Evans, all local lawyers in full bear costume, along with their able counsel Staci Chisholm and Gold E. Locks, played by Judge Kim Campbell, represented by her counsel Daniel Parri and David Ellis, The mock trial took place in the Old Clearwater Courthouse in downtown Clearwater Friday morning 5/5/17. Local grade school children served as the jury.
  12. Jailhouse informants have a powerful incentive to help, or hurt, a criminal case: Freedom


    LARGO — Jamison Bell is a good listener.

    In the recreation yard of the Pinellas County Jail, one inmate told him about stabbing a neighbor at a mobile home park. Inside a cell, another confided in Bell that he killed a man who owed him money for cocaine.

    Bell was a jailhouse informant who peddled their confessions to prosecutors for a price: a chance to reduce his 15-year federal sentence....

    Jamison Bell, 43, was a jailhouse informant who testified in two Pinellas murder trials.
  13. Why was 'Saved by the Bell' star in Wesley Chapel on Saturday?

    Human Interest

    The Pasco County Sheriff's Office Twitter is updated almost hourly with SWAT training videos, mugshots, and deputies trying Unicorn frappuccinos from Starbucks.

    Then on Saturday, a deputy snapped a selfie with Saved by the Bell star Mario Lopez during a Wesley Chapel dealership event.

    ".@MarioLopezExtra didn't have to be #savedbythebell cause instead Lt. Joe Irizarry was there to protect him," one tweet read. "Mario, welcome to #Pasco."...

    Mario Lopez poses with Pasco Sheriff's deputies at a car dealership event in Wesley Chapel on Saturday. (Photo from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office Twitter)
  14. After two decades in prison, St. Petersburg father will try to prove a medical condition caused his infant son's injuries


    For a quarter century, James Duncan has maintained his innocence, even after a judge sentenced him to 70 years in prison for beating his infant son.

    Now, 21 years after he was found guilty of aggravated child abuse, the father will have the opportunity to prove he wasn't responsible for his son's injuries. The 2nd District Court of Appeal on Friday granted Duncan's request for a hearing to present new evidence....

  15. Pasco basketball coach arrested, accused of unlawful sexual activity with student


    ZEPHYRHILLS — A girls junior varsity basketball coach at Zephyrhills High School was arrested Friday night on charges that he had sex with a 17-year-old student, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said.

    Samuel M. Walker Jr., 39, faces two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor. He was also arrested on six warrants for the same charges out of Hillsborough County, where authorities say he had sex with the same student between February and April this year....

    Samuel M. Walker Jr. has no criminal record in Florida.