Here are some of the top news events in Hernando County in 2009.
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Capt. Scott Bierwiler dies in collision
Andrew Morris, 16, took his parents' SUV without permission and left his Weeki Wachee home on Feb. 19. He headed to his school, Nature Coast Technical High, then drove around in the predawn darkness until he collided head-on on Powell Road with an unmarked cruiser driven by sheriff's Capt. Scott Bierwiler. The 42-year-old father of three and key member of Sheriff Richard Nugent's command staff was on his way to work when he was killed instantly.
Morris was seriously injured and charged with third-degree murder and grand theft. Scores of police officers from around the state attended memorial services for Bierwiler, who some said was destined to become the next Hernando County sheriff.
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Spc. Justin Coleman killed in Afghanistan
Army Spc. Justin Dean Coleman, 21, of Hernando Beach died July 24 in a fight with insurgents near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Mourners led by 113 motorcyclists rolled through Hernando County to Florida National Cemetery near Bushnell, where his body was laid to rest just five paces from Army Pfc. Cody Clark Grater of Spring Hill, who died in Iraq almost exactly a year earlier.
Coleman was the fourth person from Hernando County to be killed in action in either Iraq or Afghanistan, joining Army Staff Sgt. Michael W. Schafer, 25, Spring Hill; Marine Sgt. Lea Robert Mills, 21, Masaryktown; and Grater, 20.
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Shrinking budgets squeeze local government
From early leave packages and furloughs to drastic cuts in service, the story for Hernando County government was doing more with less.
County Administrator David Hamilton reshuffled the leadership deck, combining some positions and eliminating others. Employees, including Hamilton himself, took unpaid days off to cut personnel costs. Much of the massive budget shortfall was absorbed by tapping grants and reserve funds.
All year, tensions related to the shrinking budgets fueled heated exchanges between constitutional officers, including Sheriff Richard Nugent and Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, and members of the County Commission, which approves the funding for their operations.
Things are not expected to get any better. Property tax revenues are predicted to drop again, and estimates are that Hernando County already is facing an $11.6 million shortage for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, 2010.
The Hernando County School Board faced similar challenges, but balancing the budget would have been more painful if not for about $14 million in federal stimulus dollars, half of which were used this year.
The money helped save or create about 175 jobs. It also allowed the board to drop the millage rate slightly. Officials worry about a small unreserved fund balance and the threat of fund cuts by the state.
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Superintendent Wayne Alexander heads north
Wayne Alexander started 2009 on shaky ground with the Hernando School Board, and by mid September, he was gone.
Questions were raised about whether Alexander had properly notified the board about his job search in New England. His new family lived in Connecticut, but he told the board that he wanted to stay and the family was fighting a visitation dispute in court to allow them to move here.
He resigned in February, then changed his mind, saying he would serve out his contract through July 2010. At least two board members got angry when they found out Alexander was still looking for a job. He acknowledged that the court battle wasn't going well and he would have to move back north.
The teachers union in April asked the board to fire Alexander in part for fostering an atmosphere of favoritism, and two members were ready to do so. Dianne Bonfield said she'd lost faith in his ability to lead the district. Sandra Nicholson and John Sweeney said it was time to negotiate an early exit. The board chose Sonya Jackson as interim superintendent, and Alexander found a new job in Connecticut.
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Brush fire destroys artist's coastal home
In a few short hours in April, a brush fire reduced world-renowned artist James Rosenquist's Aripeka home, two studios and artwork to smoldering piles. Later estimates put the damage into the millions of dollars. Rosenquist quickly moved into a nearby guest house. Reached this week, he said he still is not sure whether he will build a new house or studio on the property. "I'm still kind of in shock," he said.
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Teen says he was imprisoned for 15 months and beaten
Investigators were horrified when a teenager said he escaped imprisonment and beatings by his own adopted family at a Spring Hill home in February. The teen's adopted mother, Tai-Ling Gigliotti, 51, and her fiance, Anton Angelo, 46, face charges of aggravated child abuse. Authorities say Gigliotti beat the teen with a piece of wood and a plastic-tipped hose, then locked him in a bathroom naked and bloodied. When the teen escaped from the barricaded bathroom, he told authorities he had spent almost 15 months imprisoned there. The Hernando County sheriff labeled it "incarceration with torture" and said they found bruises from repeated beatings that broke the teen's right forearm and left open wounds on his buttocks. Gigliotti was once married to Anthony Gigliotti, former principal clarinetist for the Philadelphia Orchestra and one of the most accomplished classical clarinet players of the 20th century.
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Instructors make headlines for the wrong reasons
- Jamie Joyner, Nature Coast Technical High School's head football coach, resigned in April after an investigation into his relationship with a 17-year-old female student. No charges were filed after the sheriff's office failed to find evidence that pointed to a sexual relationship before the girl turned 18.
- Rejecting pleas of mercy from former students, a judge in August sentenced former Nature Coast high band director Timothy Brightbill to more than nine years in prison for having sex with a 17-year-old girl in late 2008. Brightbill resigned in January.
- Parrott Middle School health and physical education teacher Michael Provost successfully fought to keep a job with the district after admitting to smoking marijuana but then almost lost his new assignment at the STAR Education Center, the district's alternative school for students with behavior problems, when he complained the district placed him there to further punish him and get him to quit.
- Eric Riggins, a Hernando High classroom aide and assistant coach who resigned in 2008 after allegations that he touched a girl inappropriately and sent sexually suggestive text messages to her phone, continued to fight for his teaching certificate. Riggins, who avoided criminal charges because the student chose not to pursue the case, had a hearing before an administrative law judge, who will make a recommendation to the state Department of Education that could include the revocation of his certificate.
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Animal rescue shelter is raided
After a monthlong investigation into animal neglect accusations, Hernando County Animal Services officers removed by court order more than 200 animals from the property of Carol Mas and her husband, Estebahn Agustinho.
Their home on 12 acres east of Brooksville had been serving as a nonprofit animal shelter known as Our Animal Haus since January, 2006. Animal Services had received several complaints earlier in the year that the shelter was in financial distress and that several animals weren't receiving proper care by the owners.
Mas has maintained that she was unfairly targeted in the investigation and accused the county of wrongfully removing and euthanizing an elderly horse that it had determined was too malnourished and weak to save.
The State Attorney's Office charged Mas and Agustinho with several counts of misdemeanor animal cruelty.
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Justice comes for John "The Walker" Kelly
Declaring "the community needs to be protected," a judge in May sent Jamie Lynn Tyson to prison for 45 years for the brutal 2007 attack on John Kelly, the eccentric man known as "the walker."
Tyson and two friends stalked and beat Kelly, 50, as he walked along State Road 50, taking his wallet and leaving him bleeding and near death in a roadside ditch.
The attack shocked residents familiar with Kelly, known for walking the county's streets and highways. The publicity prompted Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing to move the trial to Lake County, where Tyson was found guilty of armed robbery, conspiracy to commit armed robbery and tampering with evidence. Anthony Hawkins, 19, took a plea deal for a juvenile sentence in exchange for his testimony. Citing a lack of evidence, the state dropped charges against Michael Vann, 24, who one prosecutor believed was the instigator of the attack.
John Kelly is recovering from his wounds and his brother George Kelly has been trying to find full-time care for John, who cannot look after himself and now gets lost on his walks.
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Andrew Altringer kills himself after a hit-run accident
Soon after buying beer at a gas station one night in February, Andrew Altringer, 18, and his friend, Kyle Case, 17, drove on a dark country road where Altringer struck a woman, knocking her into a ditch. He dropped Case off, went home and wrote his mother a note. Mom, he wrote, it's not your fault. Please say goodbye to everybody for me.
He climbed out his bedroom window, got back into his 2008 Mazda and drove off. About 40 miles north on U.S. 19, a Levy County sheriff's deputy pulled him over for speeding. As the deputy got out of his car, he heard a loud pop. Altringer shot himself in the head with a rifle that, unknown to his mother, he had bought on his birthday a few weeks before.
Altringer was to graduate from Central High in May, then move in with his older brother in Orlando for two years of community college before heading into the Army. The woman Altringer struck, Alicia Anderson, 22, recovered from her injuries.
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Out-of-county students attend Nature Coast
Parents shouted, students cried and School Board members fumed over an apparent oversight that led to ineligible students attending Nature Coast Technical High School. The board avoided a court battle by voting in August to allow those students and a dozen others to return despite a policy forbidding students from out of Hernando County to attend the Brooksville magnet school. The board lifted the attendance cap and invited all the eligible students on the waiting list, about 260 of them, to attend in the fall, prompting worries the already packed school would reach breaking point. About 80 students took the offer, bringing the attendance to a little more than 1,500 - a number school administrators said was manageable.
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Spring Hill Fire District becomes independent
In June, eight months after Spring Hill residents voted to make their Spring Hill Fire District independent, the state Legislature made it official. The Property Appraiser's Office said, however, that tax revenues were down 11.2 percent, leaving the fire board scrambling to fill a $1.3 million budget shortfall.
Some board members pushed for a new tangible tax on businesses, but the effort died when the County Commission voted to block the district from collecting the tax while it remains under the county's taxing authority. The county's legislative delegation agreed to add a provision next year making it clear the district does not have the power to levy a tangible property tax.
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Brooksville's red light cameras under fire
Looking to shore up its budget shortfall while improving traffic safety, Brooksville installed red light cameras at five of its busiest intersections. The measure nets a $125 civil fine from the car owner, $80 of which goes to the city and the rest to American Traffic Solutions of Scottsdale, Ariz. The cameras are expected to raise about $800,000 for Brooksville this year.
City Council member Joe Johnston said he's heard from numerous drivers who complained that making right turns without stopping and being fined the same amount as someone speeding through a red light isn't fair. Bill Eppley, the hearing officer for such complaints, resigned his position in part because he concluded that the enforcement was unfair.
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The Hernando Beach Channel dredge finally gets going
After years of planning, the dredging of the Hernando Beach Channel began this fall. The project had been mired in problems until the County Commission chose to dump the dredged material at the former wastewater treatment plant on Shoal Line Boulevard instead of a waterfront site owned by the Manuel family. Commissioners agreed to let the Manuels have sand dredged from the channel and pay them $196,000. The project is expected to cost less than $9 million, with the state paying two thirds of the bill. Work to deepen, lengthen and straighten the channel could be finished this year.
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Sinkhole nearly swallows house
Jim and Joan Bates heard cracking in their 23-year-old Spring Hill home one day in May, so they hired an engineer and a contractor to look into it. Too late. A nearly 15-foot-deep sinkhole opened at 2133 Orchard Park Drive, devouring the garage and the front of the sprawling, ranch-style house.
"Hey, it happens," Bates said. "We've got a home with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a sunken garage." The family had a "sinkhole sale" before the remaining structure was demolished.
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Springstead basketball team makes history
Springstead High School's boys basketball team went on an amazing run and brought an unblemished 31-0 record into the state championship game in Lakeland in March.
The Eagles lost to Cocoa High, but the group of skilled and dedicated athletes earned the praise of many longtime observers of area high school talent as the best team Hernando County has ever produced, in any sport.