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Ober brings solid reputation to boot camp probe

As a prosecutor, Mark Ober put criminals away. As a private lawyer, he kept defendants out of jail. In his current role as Hillsborough County state attorney, he played a role in freeing a man wrongly imprisoned for 24 years.

During his nearly 30-year legal career, Ober, 54, has developed a reputation as a straight shooter.

That could come in handy as he takes on his latest task: an assignment from Gov. Jeb Bush to investigate the controversial death of a teenager at a North Florida juvenile boot camp.

"The governor couldn't have picked a better one for it," said Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. "Mark was a good prosecutor when he was young. He became a good defense lawyer in his middle years. Now he's a good state attorney. He's a straight-arrow guy."

Bay County State Attorney Steve Meadows bowed out of the case because of his close relationship with the local sheriff. Bush tapped Ober on Tuesday to step in.

"It's very common," said Ober's spokeswoman, Pam Bondi. "Other circuits conflict off cases all the time. We conflict off for various reasons."

Those cases usually aren't as polarizing as this one. Bondi said they typically involve drunken driving or misdemeanors. Ober, a Republican, has worked on 50 such cases since becoming state attorney, Bondi said.

But the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson has attracted state and national attention. The teenager died Jan. 6, the day after he was roughed up by guards at the Panama City boot camp. The incident was caught on videotape. Bay County's medical examiner ruled that Martin died from complications of sickle cell trait, not the beating. Bush has questioned the report.

Ober already has asked Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Vern Adams to assist him in the investigation, Adams' office said.

Since being elected state attorney in 2000, Ober has been credited with cleaning up the office and restoring a reputation that suffered under his predecessor, Harry Lee Coe. Coe killed himself in July 2000, after the governor asked for an investigation into his gambling habits.

During his first week on the job, Ober notified nearly 30 defendants and their lawyers that their cases might have been tainted by bad work by the FBI's crime lab.

Ober fired a high-ranking Hillsborough homicide prosecutor in 2002 after she was accused of lying to him about charges she filed in the death of a Sickles High School student.

Most recently, Ober's office asked a judge to throw out the 1982 conviction of Alan Crotzer of St. Petersburg. Crotzer spent 24 years in state prison insisting he hadn't raped two women in Tampa. DNA evidence ultimately backed his contention, and he walked free last month.

Ober personally prosecuted Paula Gutierrez for her role in the shooting death of Tampa police Officer Lois Marrero on July 6, 2001. Her boyfriend shot Marrero and then turned the gun on himself after he and Gutierrez, who is serving life in state prison, robbed a South Tampa bank.

Last year, Ober's office took some heat in deciding how to charge Jennifer Porter, a white schoolteacher involved in a hit-and-run accident that left two black brothers dead. Prosecutors charged Porter with leaving the scene of an accident, not the more serious vehicular homicide that some in the community had urged. Prosecutors said they didn't have enough evidence to convict on vehicular homicide. Porter was sentenced to house arrest.

An Iowa native who grew up in Brandon, Ober graduated from Brandon High School and interned at the State Attorney's Office before graduating from South Texas College of Law in 1977. He was a Democrat until 1996.

His off hours are often spent fishing and crabbing in Tampa Bay.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.

Kevin Graham can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or kgraham@spttmes.com.

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