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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. Small arsenal found in home of Tarpon Springs backyard bombing suspect

    Crime

    TARPON SPRINGS — An 85-year-old man named as a suspect in an explosion that damaged his next-door neighbor's back yard Monday was keeping an arsenal of weapons — including functional grenades and mines — in his garage, police said.

    "This is extremely concerning," said Tarpon Springs Police Chief Robert Kochen in a news conference Tuesday. "We don't even know what he was capable of. We're still conducting the investigation. We have a lot of agencies involved."...

    Tarpon Springs police Detective Derek Anderson stands guard outside the home of William Vincent Metz, 85, at 1014 Stonefence Way on Monday. Metz was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm after a midnight explosion in the yard of his neighbors home at 1016 Stonefence Way. Police are questioning Metz about the explosion, which police believe was a targeted act. Two adults and a 2-year-old child were inside the house at 1016 Stonefence Way but unhurt in the explosion that knocked out windows and damaged the exterior.
  2. Police investigating suspicious explosion in backyard of Tarpon Springs home

    Crime

    TARPON SPRINGS — The person of interest in what authorities say was a targeted explosion in a home's back yard early Monday had called police twice to complain about his next-door neighbors at 1016 Stonefence Way.

    William Vincent Metz, 85, contacted the Tarpon Springs Police Department on Dec. 24 to report that someone was entering his backyard and trying to peek through his windows. A responding officer didn't see anyone outside, police said. Metz also called in February to report that religious music was playing on a loop, but an officer didn't hear anything....

    Tarpon Springs Police Detective Derek Anderson stands at 1014 Stonefence Way. See tampabay.com/video for more.
  3. Lightning strike claims life of former U.S. diplomat living in Largo, authorities say

    Public Safety

    LARGO — Jay Freres traveled the world as a U.S. diplomat, serving in some dangerous corners of the globe before retiring to Florida with his wife.

    On Friday morning, the 81-year-old U.S. Army veteran died steps from his home when a bolt of lightning struck him as he strolled alone on Egret Drive, Largo police said.

    Friends and family were left to grapple with the shock of the sudden — and statistically rare — way that the friendly, deeply religious man died. Mr. Freres was the eighth person to be killed in the United States by a lightning strike this year, according to the National Weather Service. ...

    Authorities and neighbors gather at the scene of the fatal lightning strike in Largo on Friday. “God decided to take him in a big, spectacular way,” a daughter of the victim said. 
  4. Pinellas Sheriff's Office seeking witnesses in 2001 unsolved murder (w/video)

    Crime

    LARGO — Detectives say they know who robbed and killed Marco Waters. The problem: they don't have enough evidence to prove it.

    In a news conference Friday, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Waters' family asked for witnesses in the 14-year-old cold case to come forward.

    "We know that there are people out there that have firsthand knowledge," Gualtieri said. "While people are reluctant, afraid sometimes to come forward, it's the right thing to do....

    Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is joined by Marco Waters’ sister Takethia Barthell and Waters’ family at a news conference Friday about the unsolved slaying.
  5. Some Pinellas jail inmates forced to stay longer because of 'negligence' in paperwork

    Public Safety

    LARGO — Several inmates were forced to stay in jail longer than required recently, ranging from a few hours to up to a week, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri acknowledged Thursday.

    The rash of overstays began last year, and about five Pinellas County jail employees were investigated at the supervisory level, where the most severe form of discipline is a written reprimand. But after learning of the cases this year, Gualtieri sent a memo to inmate records staff to announce that any future overstays would be investigated formally by internal affairs investigators and discipline would range from a five-day suspension to termination....

    “I am extremely frustrated by it. … You’re talking about people’s freedom.”
Bob Gualtieri,
Pinellas County sheriff
  6. Argument over ice cream cake doesn't have a sweet ending

    Crime

    PALM HARBOR

    Emily Ann Velilla wanted to return an ice cream cake at the Baskin-Robbins at 33240 U.S. 19, but a store employee explained that since she bought the cake from the corporate office, she needed to contact that office for a refund.

    Velilla, 46, "became irate and began yelling and cursing at the staff," an arrest report states. "Eventually, the defendant picked up the cake and threw it."...

  7. Clearwater officer suspended after 4 a.m. off-duty accident

    Public Safety

    CLEARWATER — Officer Dennis Shane Cason was off-duty, bar-hopping, and drinking Bud Light on Dec. 9. Although he felt a "buzz going," he got behind the wheel of his Ford pickup and crashed into a tree on Hercules Avenue just before 4 a.m.

    Several witnesses reported that he smelled of alcohol, had slurred speech, and an unsteady gait, but his blood-alcohol level was never measured and responding officers did not charge him with DUI, deciding instead to cite Cason for careless driving, according to internal affairs records released Wednesday by the Clearwater Police Department....

    Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said he was disappointed by an inquiry on an officer’s crash.
  8. St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral dean leaves church, priesthood

    Religion

    TARPON SPRINGS — The top religious leader at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral has disappeared, leaving behind only an email explaining that he is abandoning not only his job but also the priesthood.

    But the lengthy message from Father Anastasios Gounaris offers no answers to the questions being raised by puzzled parishioners: Why did Gounaris quit? Where is he now?

    Parish council president Nikitas Manias said he doesn't know....

    Father Anastasios Gounaris, left, watches as Theodora Lialios releases the dove during the 109th Epiphany celebration in Tarpon Springs in January.
  9. Slain Officer Charles Kondek's name added to Tarpon Springs police building

    Public Safety

    TARPON SPRINGS — The Tarpon Springs Police Department on Friday unveiled the engraving of Officer Charles Kondek's name on the agency's building and a memorial stone dedicated to fallen officers.

    Kondek, 45, was fatally shot Dec. 21 while responding to a noise complaint at the Glen's Eureka Apartments. His wife, Teresa, and their children were among dozens, including members of several law enforcement agencies, who gathered Friday outside the police department at 444 S Huey Ave....

    Tarpon Springs police Sgt. Scott Brockew, left, officer Steven Van Schaick, center, and officer Tommy Nguyen join a salute after placing a wreath in memory of slain Officer Charles Kondek during Friday’s memorial ceremony in Tarpon Springs. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times] 
  10. Lawyer questions intrusiveness of Pinellas Sheriff's Office car burglary prevention method

    Public Safety

    Police have tried it all: fliers, billboards, undercover surveillance and meetings with neighborhood watch groups. But residents continue to leave their cars unlocked, leading to high numbers of vehicle burglaries and thefts.

    The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office has been trying a different method. Since the program's inception six years ago, deputies are routinely assigned to walk in neighborhoods and lift the door handles of cars. If a car's locked, they walk away. If not, the deputy cracks the door open and slips a bright yellow flier on the driver's seat that reads, "Be sure it's secure, lock it up!" before locking the car and closing the door....

    Pinellas deputies leave these fliers inside cars they find unlocked.
  11. East Lake firefighters training for submerged car rescues

    Public Safety

    EAST LAKE — It was past 3 a.m. when the 911 caller noticed tail lights glowing inside the retention pond at Forelock Drive and Misty Hollow Lane.

    East Lake Fire Rescue arrived that early morning of Nov. 15, 2014. It was dark, it was cold, and bubbles were not rising from the water's surface, an indication that the Toyota Camry had been submerged for a while. With a cable and hook, a fire vehicle eventually pulled it to land....

    East Lake Fire Rescue is organizing a team of a dozen firefighters equipped with lightweight scuba gear who will rescue people from submerged cars.
  12. Police: iPhone app leads to man's arrest

    Crime

    ST. PETERSBURG

    Police: iPhone app leads to homeless man's arrest

    A 52-year-old homeless man was arrested May 26 after officers found him asleep with a stolen phone, an arrest report states.

    The rightful owner tracked down the iPhone 6 by using an app used to find lost phones. It led police to Robert Warren Birkbeck, who was found sleeping on Central Avenue with the phone sticking out of his pocket, a report says....

  13. Trial of man accused of fatal beating in jail transport van begins

    Crime

    LARGO — Thomas Morrow entered a Pinellas sheriff's jail transport van conscious and left on a stretcher. He was comatose with a lacerated liver, cerebral bleeding, a collapsed lung and cuts across his body.

    The married father from Treasure Island died months later.

    On the first day of a second-degree murder trial Tuesday, assistant state attorney David Tobiassen told the jury of six, plus two alternates, that Morrow was savagely beaten by Leonard Lanni, 38, as the two men sat in the van on July 6, 2013....

    Leonard Lanni, right, is shown in court Tuesday at the start of his trial for second-degree murder. Lanni is accused of fatally beating a man in a jail transport van two years ago.
  14. Tarpon Springs neighbors baffled by house, trees covered in aluminum foil

    Human Interest

    TARPON SPRINGS — Neighbors haven't quite wrapped their heads around what's going on at 402 Ashland Ave., where aluminum foil covers every inch of a house on three sides and dangles like silver earrings from trees.

    They've asked resident Piotr Janowski: Is he installing new insulation, pest control, antennas? He explains that it's an outdoor art project, inspired by Florida's beauty....

    An eagle sculpture over Vienna artist Piotr Janowski's garage door is covered in foil. The artist has wrapped three walls of his Tarpon Springs house in aluminum foil as well as two trees. Some neighbors are upset. He's also made some ear shaped aluminum foil sculptures that are attached to some trees on his property. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
  15. Family of Oldsmar man who died in jail suing Pinellas Sheriff's Office

    Public Safety

    It started as a typical DUI traffic stop. George Arthur Hunt IV had been driving off the road in East Lake Woodlands on May 18, 2013, when a deputy stopped him.

    Seven hours later, the 41-year-old married father of four with no criminal history was dead inside a cell at the Pinellas County Jail.

    His family is now suing the Sheriff's Office, claiming deputies and medical staff did not hospitalize Hunt despite his worsening medical condition....

    George Hunt IV, 41, died in 2013 inside a cell at the Pinellas County Jail after his DUI arrest.