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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


Twitter: @LauraCMorel

  1. 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....

  2. Tarpon Springs police to share data with Pinellas Sheriff's Office

    Public Safety

    TARPON SPRINGS — The city's police department is moving forward with a plan to integrate crime information and 911 calls with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

    "It's so important as we move forward for agencies to share data," Chief Robert Kochen said at a recent meeting. "That's the key. To be your own island anymore is really not conducive to what we do."

    City commissioners unanimously approved using $257,452 toward the upgrades, scheduled to be completed by Sept. 30....

  3. Cars for crack scheme lands former employee in jail



    Arthur Landau was fired from his job at Dimmitt Chevrolet in February when he stole an Impala from the dealership, arrest reports state.

    But on March 10, police say, he returned while the cleaning crew was working, slipped through an open gate, broke into a cabinet containing keys, and drove off in a 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe, which police located April 13 in Tarpon Springs....

  4. Clearwater police department's focus on cold cases pays off



    Bob Tuck remembers the call. It was Nov. 7, 2013, what would have been his cousin Vincent Lee's 45th birthday.

    Detective Joseph Ruhlin had news that Tuck and his family hoped to hear one day: an arrest was made in Lee's slaying, two years after he was shot and stabbed in his Eagle's Glen apartment.

    "We were overjoyed. I'll never forget it," said Tuck, of Asheville, N.C. "They worked their tails off on this case and we're going to be forever grateful, no matter how it turns out."...

    Gilberto Juarez-Hernandez
  5. Son's mental illness preceded decapitation of mother in Oldsmar (w/video)


    OLDSMAR — Christian Gomez liked to be alone. He watched TV, played video games, and sat outside for hours to stare at the grass and the sky. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, he sometimes heard echoes and flipped over his mattress at night when voices accosted him from under his bed.

    Gomez, 24, was taking medication, but it wasn't enough to stop him Dec. 31 when detectives say he grabbed an ax and decapitated his mother, Maria Suarez-Cassagne, in the family's Oldsmar home....

    Detectives say Christian Gomez, 24, grabbed an ax and decapitated his mother, Maria Suarez-Cassagne, in the family's Oldsmar home.
  6. Running from the cops? There's an app for that



    Running from the cops? There's an app for that

    An 18-year-old man accused of running from officers who saw him in a stolen car was using a police scanner phone app to "assist in the commission of his crime," according to arrest reports.

    Undercover detectives noticed Deandre Rushing of Clearwater April 27 inside a stolen 2010 Toyota 4Runner. While Rushing ran from the car, a K9 officer followed him and a police dog bit Rushing in the right leg, an arrest report states....

  7. Clearwater minister accused of aiding tax refund scams totaling $755,900


    TAMPA — The pastor of a small Clearwater church admits in a federal plea agreement to cashing $755,900 in tax refund checks that were obtained using stolen identities, while keeping a "small portion" for himself.

    Sylvester Banks Jr., 56, is scheduled to make his first appearance in court Wednesday and plead guilty to theft of government funds, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison....

    Sylvester Banks Jr. was charged with theft of government funds.
  8. Clearwater police announce murder arrest in 15-year-old case


    CLEARWATER — Detectives arrested a California man on charges that he killed a 31-year-old woman outside a motel 15 years ago, police said.

    In a news conference Thursday, homicide Sgt. Michael Ogliaruso said Rodney Dean Manley, 61, of Weaverville, Calif., is accused of beating Marion "Missy" Cato to death. He faces a charge of first-degree murder.

    "It was extreme blunt force trauma," Ogliaruso said. "It was definitely something that we would consider a heinous crime."...

  9. Officials approaching developers about Sponge Docks hotel


    TARPON SPRINGS — As the chamber of commerce president, Reggie Gibson gets calls from tourists asking the same question: Is there a hotel near the Sponge Docks district?

    The answer is no, but city officials hope that may change in the near future. Economic development manager Karen Lemmons has been approaching developers about the prospects of building a hotel in the city's busiest tourism area....

  10. Deputies searching for bicyclist accused of touching girls in Palm Harbor


    PALM HARBOR — Authorities are searching for a man seen riding a black BMX bicycle who touched one woman and two underage girls in the last two months near Carwise Middle School.

    In a news conference Monday, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the first incident happened March 24 when a 16-year-old girl who attends Palm Harbor University High School was jogging near Carwise, at 3301 Bentley Drive, and saw a man on a bike....

    Composite sketches of the bicyclist accused of groping females in Palm Harbor.
  11. Retail theft rings in Tampa Bay keeping detectives busy


    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....

  12. 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....

    The narrow hall in Donald Platz’s apartment leaves little room for his mobility scooter. He has lived at the Lemon Street complex for four years.
  13. 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....

    Front- Edwin Wong, and his son Christopher Wong, center, both of Barrie Ontario, Canada, fish for Florida Pompano, Sunday in the surf off of Madeira Beach, just north of John's Pass. "We visit here each April for the great weather and fishing," said Edwin Wong. "A few days ago the pompano were hitting your line almost every time you cast," he said. Pompano can be found along the beaches and near passes during the spring months. "They put up a good fight,"said Christopher Wong.
  14. At this blood-alcohol level, no wonder officers say he was stumbling



    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....

  15. 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]