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Families of two Pinellas murder victims sue Goodwill Industries

If Goodwill Industries-Suncoast had properly supervised inmates at its Largo work-release facility, Arthur Regula probably never would have been killed, according to a lawsuit filed this week.

Goodwill "failed in its duty" to keep track of Michael Scott Norris, according to the suit filed by attorney Steven K. Jonas, on behalf of Regula's estate.

Norris, who was a 36-year-old inmate serving a prison sentence for armed burglary and other charges, left the work-release center on Sept. 30, 2012, burglarized a St. Petersburg house, and killed two men inside it: Regula, 36; and Bruce Johnson, 51. Norris pleaded guilty to the murders and is serving a life sentence.

Johnson's estate filed a similar lawsuit this week, according to computerized court records. A copy could not immediately be reviewed.

In response to the lawsuits, Goodwill released a statement Friday. "Our community remains deeply saddened by the senseless violence that occurred in October 2012 when a resident of the Largo Residential Re-entry Center was arrested and subsequently convicted of killing two men while he was away from the center on work release. The state implemented electronic monitoring for all work-release programs after this incident, at Goodwill's urging. We would like to resolve this and create closure for all involved."

The new lawsuits are reminders of the controversy surrounding Goodwill's Largo center, which ultimately led Gov. Rick Scott to shut down the facility at 16432 U.S. 19 N.

Work-release inmates are generally allowed to leave their assigned centers to go to work, under a program that is open to a select group of state prison inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

In 2012, Goodwill operated the Largo center under contract from the DOC. It was the largest state-financed work release center in the state. It also operated a St. Petersburg center for female inmates.

The Largo center had long been controversial with nearby residents, who complained of lax supervision. The controversy deepened three months after the murders, when another inmate was arrested on charges of leaving the facility and raping a 17-year-old foreign exchange student.

An investigation by the Tampa Bay Times uncovered other instances of poor supervision, including inmates who got out while pretending to be at work. The newspaper also reported that while state work-release centers are often billed as programs for nonviolent offenders, they often housed violent criminals, including murderers. After that report, the state DOC stopped sending murderers to work-release centers.

Contact Curtis Krueger at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 892-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes.

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