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Tony Marrero, Times Staff Writer

Tony Marrero

Tony Marrero covers breaking news and general assignment stories in Hillsborough County. A Baltimore native, he joined the Times in 2009.

Phone: (813) 226-3374

Email: tmarrero@tampabay.com

Twitter: @TMarreroTimes

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  1. Former Palma Ceia United Methodist member gets prison for embezzling church funds

    Criminal

    TAMPA — As Juliet Suzanne Ellis waited to find out her punishment for stealing from her former church, the judge reminded her she had an even higher power to consider.

    "You literally stole from God," U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara told Ellis in a federal courtroom Friday. "And what really bothers me is you grew up in this church."

    Moments later, Lazzara sentenced Ellis to a year and a day in federal prison for what he called a sophisticated, systematic scheme to swindle Palma Ceia United Methodist Church. It was less than what the sentencing guidelines called for: a prison term of 15 to 21 months....

  2. As La Niña takes the stage, what happened to 2016's epic El Niño?

    Weather

    TAMPA — As warm waters swirled in the Pacific Ocean last fall, forecasters put Floridians on alert.

    An El Niño of epic proportions was forming, bringing the promise of nasty weather in the form of storms, flooding and tornados. Visions of 1998, the last strong El Niño winter, flashed in the minds of Floridians who experienced that year's devastation.

    Now Pacific waters are starting to cool and Floridians are gearing up for hurricane season. As La Niña arrives and El Niño fades away, did those predictions pan out?...

     A plume of tainted water from Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River laps the shore of Captiva, left, and Sanibel Islands off the southwest coast of Florida in February. [Photo by John Moran/Springs Eternal Project]
  3. Activists call for independent investigation of Pinellas deputies after three teens die in pond crash

    Public Safety

    ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of activists called Thursday for an outside investigation of the events leading up to the deaths last month of three teenage girls who drowned while fleeing from Pinellas sheriff's deputies.

    The Bay Area Dream Defenders believe the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office was negligent in its actions and "misreported" how Dominique Battle, 16, and 15-year-olds Ashaunti Butler and LaNiya Miller died March 31, when the stolen car they were riding in plunged into a pond....

    Ciara Butler, seated, mother of Ashaunti Butler, 15, one of three girls who drowned after the stolen car they were driving went into a pond while being pursued by Pinellas County Sheriff's deputies on March 31, is comforted by Butler's aunt, Sadiyyah Butler, right. during a news conference Thursday at the Uhuru House in St. Petersburg. In the background is community organizer Ashley Green. Omali Yeshitela, founder of the Uhuru movement, called for the resignation of Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
  4. In Hillsborough courtroom, attempt to dismiss evidence in child porn case goes badly for defendant

    Criminal

    TAMPA — The case against a Tarpon Springs man accused of possessing dozens of images of child pornography will go forward after a judge denied his request to toss out evidence he said police obtained illegally.

    Attorneys for Justin Murdock argued this week that Tampa police officers didn't have legal grounds to search a computer tablet found in his Honda Prelude during a traffic stop in December that ended with Murdock's arrest on charges of marijuana possession and, later, 100 counts of possession of child pornography....

    Justin Murdock listens in court Tuesday as the state and defense argue over whether the evidence in his child pornography case should be thrown out.  [MONICA HERNDON | Times] 
  5. Tampa mother charged with manslaughter after sick child dies

    Crime

    TAMPA — A Tampa mother is facing a manslaughter charge after she failed to seek medical care for her sick daughter, authorities said.

    Jolanda Stridiron, 39, was arrested Sunday after a more than yearlong investigation in the death of her 6-year-old daughter in February 2015, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cristal Nunez said.

    The girl had previously been diagnosed with Dandy-Walker Syndrome, which causes the brain to develop abnormally, Nunez said. ...

    Jolanda Stridiron
  6. Illness — not alcohol or drugs — may have contributed to fatal wrong-way crash

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — When Larry Thompson drove the wrong way up an interstate exit ramp more than two months ago and collided head-on with a sport-utility vehicle, he had no alcohol in his system and just one drug: caffeine.

    The toxicology results from his autopsy shed no new light on why Thompson, a 47-year-old father of six, tried to drive north onto Interstate 275 using the southbound downtown exit ramp on the morning of Feb. 12. The violent wrong-way collision killed Thompson and the other driver, Gene Fischer, 65, a security guard on his way to work....

    Illness may have led to Thomp?son’s crash, his brother says.
  7. Chance of rain today, then lots of sun and high temperatures near 90 this week

    Weather

    Here's a number we haven't seen in the forecast in a while: 90.

    That's how high temperatures could get in the Tampa Bay area later this week, according to 10Weather WTSP meteorologist Ashley Batey.

    There's a roughly 30 percent chance of scattered showers, some possibly with rumbles of thunder, popping up this afternoon through about 11 p.m. tonight, Batey said. High temperatures will linger in the mid 80s....

  8. Body found in bay confirmed to be missing Navy sailor

    Accidents

    Allison Gates implored a higher power to bring her son back to her.

    That plea, she believes, was heard.

    The body of a man who fit the description of her son, Navy Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Gates, was pulled from Tampa Bay around 5:45 p.m. Thursday, two days after he disappeared while trying to retrieve his boat's stuck anchor.

    The Hillsborough County medical examiner on Friday afternoon confirmed that it was Gates, 32, who was assigned to MacDill Air Force Base. But his mother, Allison Gates, already knew....

    Kenneth Gates had been fishing with a friend aboard his 19-foot boat, launched from a ramp at MacDill.
  9. Fight between men leads to fatal stabbing in Brandon

    Public Safety

    BRANDON — Authorities are investigating the fatal stabbing of a 39-year-old man this week to determine whether criminal charges should be filed.

    Octavius Dean Ware was stabbed by his girlfriend's son about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday after an argument at an apartment at 1602 Harvard Woods Drive, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

    Ware was arguing with his girlfriend when her 20-year-old son intervened. The son armed himself with a small paring knife and the two men went outside. Ware began pushing the other man and then swung at him with a closed fist but missed, deputies said....

  10. Search suspended for missing boater, a Navy sailor who loved the water

    Public Safety

    RUSKIN — Navy Chief Petty Officer Kenneth Gates didn't just love the water. He thrived there.

    Assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, the 32-year-old was a certified diver and a strong swimmer in peak health, said his mother Allison Gates.

    "The sea and the water, that's his second home," she said.

    So she and her husband Joseph Gates were stunned when two Navy personnel in dress whites showed up Wednesday morning on their doorstep in Biloxi, Miss., to report that their son had vanished beneath the waters of Tampa Bay....

    Kenneth Gates, 32, disappeared in the waters of Tampa Bay Tuesday after diving off his boat to dislodge an anchor.
  11. Former Tampa funeral home owners charged with theft, racketeering after keeping funeral contract money, authorities say

    Crime

    TAMPA — Two former funeral home operators face theft and fraud charges for stealing at least $181,000 from customers who signed pre-need funeral contracts with them, authorities said.

    Julio Gonzalez-Roel and Lucia Gonzalez-Roel, the previous owners of JGR Funeral Services, Inc., stole from more than 50 pre-need contracts before selling the business in 2014, according to a news release from Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. They were arrested Monday....

    Julio Gonzalez-Roel
  12. Search continues for missing military man who disappeared off coast of Ruskin (w/video)

    Public Safety

    RUSKIN — The search continued Wednesday for a military man who disappeared more than 24 hours earlier after he dived off his boat about 2 miles west of Little Harbor.

    The missing boater disappeared shortly before noon Tuesday after diving from a boat in an effort to jar loose an anchor that had become stuck below the surface, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

    The unidentified man serves in the military and is assigned to U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base. Military officials asked the Sheriff's Office not to identify him, and sheriff's officials said they would comply with that request until today....

  13. Jeanette Lee, the 'Black Widow' of billiards, is taking her next shot in Tampa (w/video)

    Human Interest

    TAMPA

    Parker Lakilak walked into Robertson Billiards, took one look at the tall woman with the long black hair and bright red lipstick and knew it was her.

    The Black Widow.

    "It's like Peyton Manning in football," said Lakilak, 25, of Largo.

    It's that kind of recognition that Jeanette Lee, arguably the most famous professional pool player in the world, is banking on as she begins a second career of sorts....

    Jeanette Lee, 44, shown at Robertson Billiard Supplies in Tampa, turned pro at age 21 and soon was ranked No. 1 in the world. She chose to move her family to Tampa’s warmer climate to alleviate severe arthritis symptoms.
  14. Two Tampa police cars involved in minor crashes during pursuit of stolen car

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Two police officers were involved in minor traffic crashes as they pursued a stolen car Sunday, Tampa police said.

    About 5:45 p.m., police said, officers spotted a car that had been reported stolen in an armed carjacking Friday. Officers said the driver of the stolen vehicle refused to stop, resulting in a brief pursuit.

    Tampa police said the chase lasted less than five minutes. But during that time, officials said, one officer's police cruiser struck a fence and a telephone pole near the intersection of Columbus Drive and N 40th Street. Another police vehicle struck the bumper of a private citizen's car, officials said. There were no injuries in either crash....

  15. Handyman arrested in Kentucky, charged with murder of retired Dover couple

    Crime

    DOVER — The cows had been mooing for days. Envelopes piled atop the mailbox outside John and Nancy Engelhart's 10-acre spread on McIntosh Road. Their phone, attached to an outdoor ringer, rang and rang.

    On Thursday, neighbors began asking each other if anyone had seen the retirees. They phoned the couple's niece in Atlanta, who hadn't heard from them either. Someone called the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office....

    Michael Anthony Herald, 48, a handyman, was arrested in Kentucky.