1. Archive

Courts and crime

COE SUICIDE: Hillsborough State Attorney Harry Lee Coe killed himself in July, three days after news broke that he had asked for personal loans from his employees. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement found he had a negative net worth of $150,000. In the 15 months leading up to his suicide, Coe cashed more than $500,000 worth of checks at local dog tracks, bouncing $47,000 worth.

COURTHOUSE INVESTIGATIONS: Two Hillsborough judges resigned amid scandal and others came under investigation. Judge Ed Ward announced his resignation in June after the JQC found probable cause to file charges that he sexually harassed four women at the courthouse. Judge Robert Bonanno came under scrutiny after a bailiff found him in another judge's darkened office after hours in July. The grand jury looking into the Bonanno matter started asking questions about Judge Gasper Ficarrotta's affair with a bailiff and allegations that he collected money from local lawyers for the sheriff's campaign. Ficarrotta resigned effective at the end of the year.

VALESSA ROBINSON: A jury convicted Valessa Robinson of third-degree murder for her role in the killing of her mother, Vicki. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Her former boyfriend, Adam Davis, was previously convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

MEDICAL EXAMINER RETIRES: In June, Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner Joan Wood abruptly announced her retirement, ending a 20-year tenure as the circuit's chief medical examiner. The decision came after fierce criticism from prosecutors who dropped a criminal case against the Church of Scientology after Wood reversed her findings in the death of Scientologist Lisa McPherson.

BELLUSH MURDER: Allen Blackthorne was convicted of plotting the murder of his ex-wife, Sheila Bellush, a Sarasota mother of six, including quadruplets. It took three years to arrest and charge Blackthorne, a Texas millionaire. The guilty verdict came in July after 33 hours of deliberations and followed, by a few hours, an announcement in Florida by hitman Jose Luis Del Toro Jr. Del Toro confessed he murdered Mrs. Bellush. Blackthorne received two concurrent life terms.

QUEEN SHAHMIA: It started with a simple arrest of three men. It later turned out, police say, they were stealing for the "daughter of God," as she called herself. Queen Shahmia, whose real name is Richell Denise Bradshaw, also was arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for 25 years for orchestrating the robberies. One manservant and maidservant also have been convicted. Two other servants are scheduled to go to trial in February.

ROAD RAGE TRIAL: A jury found two Tarpon Springs men not guilty of attempted murder charges for the shovel-beating attack during a traffic altercation of two unarmed men whose skulls were cracked. A third defendant had previously been acquitted after a directed verdict by the judge.

HOUSING INDICTMENT: A federal grand jury indicts Robert Lee Norman, a home rehabber who arranged phony mortgage down payments and sold shoddy houses to dozens of low-income St. Petersburg residents. Norman subsequently pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to defraud the federal government for fabricating bogus down payments in the federal government's FHA program.

MISSING BOY: Zachary Bernhardt, 9, has been missing since Sept. 11, when he vanished from his Savannah Trace apartment in Clearwater, and police don't know whether he is dead or alive. Zachary's mother, Leah Hackett, reported going for a 15-minute walk around the complex at about 4 a.m. When she returned, her son was gone. Police say it's one of the most vexing cases they've encountered.


SCHOOL VOUCHERS: Florida's controversial school voucher program didn't have much impact on schoolchildren in 2000. But it certainly kept the lawyers busy. In March, a judge ruled the voucher program violated the state's constitution by providing taxpayer dollars for students to attend private schools. In October, however, an appeals court said the program passed constitutional muster, and that the state could spend public dollars to send kids to private schools. The case is expected to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court eventually.

FCAT TESTS: Despite all the court action, the voucher program for children at chronically failing schools didn't grow at all in 2000 _ because no new schools qualified for vouchers. Scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were way up in 2000. Some of the improvement was eye-popping. Two elementary schools jumped from an F grade last year to an A grade. That led critics to question whether the test is arbitrary. The same evidence led Gov. Jeb Bush to declare his A+ Education plan a success in motivating schools to improve.

SCHOOL DESEGREGATION: In August, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ended a 1964 desegregation lawsuit filed against the Pinellas schools. Merryday declared Pinellas schools free of discrimination and accepted a negotiated settlement between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Two months later, the School Board approved a plan to let parents start choosing their children's schools in fall 2003. In Hillsborough, the School Board approved a similar school choice plan in November and submitted it to the federal judge overseeing the district's desegregation efforts.

NEW SCHOOLS: Florida lawmakers approved a new medical college for Florida State University and new law schools at heavily Hispanic Florida International University and historically black Florida A&M University. FAMU had a law school until the mid-1960s, when it was shut down by the state and moved to predominantly white FSU. Tampa lobbied hard to become the FAMU law school site, but lost to Orlando.

REGENTS TO GO: The Republican-led Florida Legislature approved a restructuring of the state's education system that eliminates the Board of Regents no later than January 2003. The regents will be replaced by a new state Board of Education and boards of trustees at individual universities.

USF PRESIDENT: The state Board of Regents named Judy Genshaft the sixth president of the University of South Florida in March. Genshaft, the provost at the University at Albany, State University of New York, succeeded Betty Castor.


Bishop Cornelius L. Henderson, 66, leader of 340,000 United Methodists in Florida, died Dec. 7.

Robert Ray, 22, one of three young Florida brothers who gained nationwide attention after being infected with the AIDS virus from tainted blood, died Oct. 20.

Robert A. "Bob" Pfeiffer, 86, St. Petersburg High School's "Mr. Green Devil" mascot and an inspiration for the newsboy statue that graces the bayfront near The Pier, died Oct. 4.

Jan Abell, 55, a Tampa architect who long helped save historic homes and buildings, died Sept. 30 while on a fox hunt near Dade City.

Jim Ward, 83, of Seminole, one of the best-known triathletes in the world, collapsed and died 5 miles into a long-haul bicycle ride on the Pinellas Trail on Sept. 5.

A. Reynolds Morse, 85, who, with his wife, Eleanor, founded the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, died Aug. 15.

Retired Episcopal Bishop James L. Duncan, 86, a former rector of St. Peter's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, died July 20.

Art Pepin, 78, known as much for his philanthropy as for his Anheuser-Busch distributorship in Tampa, died June 7.

Dorothy Walker "Dot" Ruggles, 59, Pinellas County's supervisor of elections for 12 years, died May 16.

Fran Sutcliffe, 87, an advocate of elderly rights in Pinellas, Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., died April 30.

"Salty Sol" Fleischman, 89, a longtime radio and TV personality known as much for his fishing enthusiasm as his sports broadcasts, died April 20.

Mary Smith McClain, 97, a blues legend known to her fans as Diamond Teeth Mary, died April 4.

Clarence W. "Mac" McKee Jr., 75, a retired top executive of Florida Progress Corp. and once a force in St. Petersburg's political, civic and business life, died March 27.

E.R. Beall, 85, who created the chain of Beall's department stores and outlet stores, died March 22.

Alvin J. "Al" Downing, 83, an influential jazz musician, band leader and teacher in the Tampa Bay area, died Feb. 19.

John B. "Jack" Lake, 79, retired publisher of the St. Petersburg Times who helped build both the newspaper and the community it serves, died Jan. 15.

James W. "Jim" Walter, 77, who built one of the country's largest home-building companies from scratch, died Jan. 6.