The local word on texting ban

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, May 30, 2013

SUN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a  new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.
Local authorities are trying to educate the public on a new law will go into effect October 1, which puts a state-wide ban on texting while driving.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Brandon Staack, 24, uses his smartphone for everything. When he’s not texting, his GPS helps him find his way around town, and he often sorts through his extensive iTunes music selection at the same time.

‘I’m usually just trying to decide what I want to listen to, but then my wife yells at me for not paying attention to the road,’ he said.

Staack knows it’s not a good idea to multitask while he’s driving, but with all that technology at his fingertips, it’s hard to resist.

‘Sometimes I’ll be texting and I won’t remember the length of road I just traveled,’ he admitted. ‘I think I’m being careful and I try to look up every few seconds, but the reality is when you are texting, you are focused more on your phone than you are on whatever else you are doing.’

On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a statewide ban on texting while driving, which will go into effect Oct. 1.

The law makes it a secondary offense to read or send a text, email or instant message on an electronic device while a vehicle is in motion. That means law enforcement officers will have to first pull a driver over for another offense, like swerving or not wearing a seat belt, before the officer can issue a ticket.

‘Having it as a secondary offense puts police officers in an unfair position,’ said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert ‘Butch’ Arenal. ‘Even if it’s completely evident that a driver is texting and not paying attention, my officers are going to have to look for a pretextual reason to pull them over.’

The bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said the bill is comparable with the seatbelt law, which began as a secondary offense but is now a primary offense.

‘We just want to change people’s behavior,’ she said. ‘It worked with the seatbelt law, now we are hoping it works for texting.’

Critics anticipate that officers will have a tough time determining whether a person is reading a text or just using GPS to find an address.

‘If your phone is in your hand and your head is down, then police have every right to assume you were texting,’ Detert said.

However, Detert pointed out the House added a provision to the bill that prevents the access of phone records without a search warrant unless the driver’s offense results in a crash or personal injury.

‘If someone wanted to fight a ticket, they could just bring their phone records to court to prove that they weren’t texting,’ she said.

Arenal isn’t discouraged by the search warrant provision.

‘I think it was the right decision because there is so much personal information stored in phones these days,’ he said, adding that if a law enforcement agency establishes probable cause it can legally retrieve phone records. ‘The good thing is that the justice system is keeping up with criminal technology, and now they have the ability to deliver search warrants electronically.’

Both the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office and the Punta Gorda Police Department anticipate a lot of promotion before the bill takes effect in October.

‘Right now, we are going to be focusing on educating the public about this new law,’ said Debbie Bowe, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office. ‘During that period, we will also be determining enforcement practices.’

Despite the efforts of lawmakers and authorities, Staack doesn’t think drivers will text any less.

‘It won’t change anything,’ he said. ‘Instead of people becoming more aware of the dangers of texting, they will instead become more aware of who is watching. It’s like when you see a patrol car in your rearview and you hurry up and put on your seat belt.’

Paying tribute to the fallen in Punta Gorda

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Caleb Waller sits next to his grandfather's plaque during a Memorial Day Ceremony at Laisley Park on Monday.
Caleb Waller sits next to his grandfather’s plaque during a Memorial Day Ceremony at Laisley Park on Monday.

PUNTA GORDA — Every person in attendance had a story; it didn’t matter how young or old they were.

Caleb Waller, 5, of Bradenton, came to Laishley Park on Monday with his mother, Kristen Waller, and grandmother, Vikki Carpenter, of Punta Gorda, for the Memorial Day ceremony and to visit a plaque in the park that was recently dedicated to his grandfather, whom Caleb lovingly referred to as ‘Grandpa Salute.’

Carpenter said Caleb’s grandfather, Col. Paul Vnencak, served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He received the Purple Heart for his service in Korea. He died in 2012.

‘Caleb calls him ‘Grandpa Salute’ because he never learned to pronounce his last name and they would always salute each other,’ said Carpenter.

When asked why he thought it was important to remember the fallen veterans, Caleb said because they ‘protected the country so we can be safe and free.’

Hundreds of people attended the event. Some were veterans themselves, some had family members who served, and some just came to show their appreciation.

‘There are a lot of stories here,’ said Richard Vogel, who has four grandsons in different branches of the military.

The ceremony opened with a prayer, the Vietnam Veterans of America presented the colors, Celene Galvan belted out the national anthem, and the American Legion Post 110 fired a gun salute.

One of the speakers, Bill ‘Buff’ Martin, said, ‘Today is not about the living. Today we honor the fallen, those who died to keep this country free.’

Many of the same people who were at the Laishley Park service hurried over to Fishermen’s Village for another memorial service at noon. The service featured singer Marcella Brown and the Punta Gorda Police Department Honor Guard, along with many other military speakers and groups.

‘It’s a tremendous turnout,’ said Kim Lovejoy, executive director of the Military Heritage Museum. ‘Every seat in the house is full.’

Charlotte County Commission Chairman Christopher Constance said Memorial Day should be a time of contemplation, not celebration.

‘It’s a time when we should ask ourselves where we would be if these people hadn’t done what they did.’

Constance was referring to veterans like Phillip Lockwood, 89, of Port Charlotte, who was at Omaha Beach on D-Day, when Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy.

‘When they opened the front of the landing craft for us to attack, a wall of machine gun fire met the troops, demolishing them,’ he said. ‘I decided I would go off the side of the craft, to avoid being killed.’

Lockwood said he lost everything he had, his gun, his helmet and his ammunition. However, when he got to the beach, there were so many dead bodies that he was able to grab everything he needed from the fallen.

‘It’s something I will never forget,’ he said. ‘I never saw many of the men I had come there with again.’

The ceremony concluded with several members singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to a 94-year-old WWII hero, Jules Gervan. Gervan had a smile from ear to ear after the song was over.

Everyone in attendance was invited to the Military Heritage Museum for a reception and cake.

‘The pieces are going to have to be very small,’ Lovejoy said. ‘We weren’t expecting this many people, but we are grateful for everyone who attended and most of all, we are grateful for our veterans.’

Report: Man punches pregnant wife

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Thursday, May 23, 2013


PORT CHARLOTTE — A man is accused of hitting his pregnant wife in the back of the head after she doused him with rubbing alcohol, according to a Charlotte County Sheriff’s report.

Warren Carter, 30, of the 21200 block of Meehan Avenue, Port Charlotte, was charged with aggravated battery on a victim known to be pregnant, after a struggle broke out between the two over his pants, the report stated.

When deputies arrived at his home Wednesday, they found Carter sitting outside in his underwear.

Carter had called 911 and claimed his wife, who is eight months pregnant, poured a bottle of rubbing alcohol over him as he lay in bed, the report shows. He told deputies the fluid got in his eyes and mouth.

The fight reportedly started after Carter came home around 9:30 p.m. from TGI Fridays. Carter spit on his wife, and she told Carter that if he wanted to drink she ‘had more alcohol for him,’ and then went to get the bottle of alcohol, the report stated.

He had tried to leave, but his wife refused to give him his pants, the report states. She told deputies she knew his car keys were in the pocket and didn’t want him to drive while intoxicated. The two were struggling over the pants when Carter punched her in the back of the head, according to the report.

The deputy determined Carter was the primary aggressor and arrested him early Wednesday. Carter was taken to the Charlotte County Jail, where he posted $5,000 bond and was released the same day.

Local crime in decline

Englewood Sun (FL) – Tuesday, May 21, 2013


800px-Do_Not_Cross,_Crime_SceneFolks in the Englewood area can sleep a little better tonight. A recent survey shows the overall Charlotte County crime rate dropped more than 13.4 percent from 2011 to 2012. Sarasota County’s rate fell 17.7 percent.

The overall statewide decrease recorded during that time is less than half that, decreasing 6.5 percent from 2011, according to the annual uniform crime report conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

‘It was tough to tell what the crime rate was going to be like this year,’ said Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell. ‘This year, it was sort of an anomaly because when the economy tanks, the trend is usually just the opposite — crime rates usually go up.’

Prummell said violent crime isn’t prevalent in Charlotte County.

‘We are very pleased that burglaries are down. This year started off a little rocky when a man went on a burglarizing spree in east Englewood. One person like that can really mess up your rating,’ he said.

Prummell was referring to Christopher David Straw, 33, of the 3700 block of El Jobean Road, who was charged with multiple counts of burglary and grand theft in connection with some 25 burglaries — a string that began Feb. 10 — in the East Englewood area

Statistics show the number of violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault that occurred in Florida in 2012 decreased by 4.3 percent.

In Charlotte County, the number of forcible rapes was down to 24 in 2012 from 31 in 2011; however, numbers show that aggravated assaults went up from 310 in 2011 to 337 in 2012.

According to the report, there was only one homicide reported in Charlotte County in 2012 compared with two the year before.

Juan Reyes was charged with second-degree murder in May for allegedly killing William F. Taylor and burying him in the yard of his Port Charlotte home. Authorities said Reyes, 47, wanted to be reunited with his girlfriend, Anna Nangle, who was living in Taylor’s home as a caregiver.

While law enforcement authorities are happy violent crimes are falling off, they said they were more surprised to see the number of burglaries, robberies and larceny offenses has decreased as well.

The Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office, too, showed a decrease of 17.7 percent of its overall crime index, from 8,681 reported offenses in 2011 to 7,148 total offenses in 2012.

Murders were up in the county year over year, from eight to 11, but the SCSO posted decreases in all violent crime categories, along with fewer burglaries, vehicle thefts and larcenies.

Prison guard who videotaped woman gets probation; Woman who skewered husband convicted

Prison guard who videotaped woman gets probation

PUNTA GORDA — A former corrections officer charged with videotaping a sexual encounter with a woman and uploading it to the Internet without her permission was sentenced to 12 months of probation at the Charlotte County Justice Center on Tuesday.

Nicholas Robert Fornaro, 26, of Edgewater, Md., pleaded no contest to a second-degree misdemeanor charge of distributing obscene material. Another charge of video voyeurism was dropped. Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne said Fornaro must undergo a psychiatric evaluation and pay a $500 fine, as well as $200 in court costs and $50 for prosecution charges.

Fornaro met the victim through a personal ad on an Internet website, then invited her to his Punta Gorda home in September, where he videotaped them having sex. Before she left, the victim said she asked for $60 in ‘gas money,’ and he gave her a shark’s tooth, a report said.

The victim’s brother found the video of her having sex with Fornaro while surfing a pornographic website, according to the report.

Fornaro had been formerly worked at Charlotte Correctional Institution, but had quit to move to Maryland.

Woman who skewered husband convicted

PUNTA GORDA — The woman who grabbed a food skewer and stabbed her husband a half-dozen times on his arms and stomach in November was sentenced to 12 months of probation on Tuesday.

Tammy Ellen Chance, 29, of the 900 block of Silver Springs Terrace, Port Charlotte, pleaded no contest to a charge of aggravated battery at the Charlotte County Justice Center. She must also take anger management classes and donate to the local Red Cross and domestic violence fund as well as pay court and attorney fees, 20th Circuit Court Judge Amy Hawthorne ruled Tuesday.

Father avoids jail time: Man charged with negligence after son, 2, shoots himself

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Wednesday, May 22, 2013


PUNTA GORDA — The father of a 2-year-old boy who shot and killed himself with an unsecured firearm in November will not go to jail, authorities said Tuesday.

Christopher Davis, 24, of Port Charlotte, was charged in January with culpable negligence, a third-degree felony, after he allegedly left his Glock .40 handgun unsecured in his closet and his son, Christopher Eli, grabbed it and accidentally shot himself.

In court Monday, lawyers announced they’d reached a plea deal for Davis and he will avoid incarceration. On Tuesday, Davis’ defense lawyer, Russell Kirshy, would not give any specifics of the deal. Davis is expected to formally plea during his next court appearance July 18, according to Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the 20th Circuit State Attorney’s Office.

Kirshy said that he and prosecutors took several factors into account before coming to an agreement, including the wishes of the family, the fact that Davis had no prior record, and the traumatic nature of the incident.

‘We worked together to reach a fair alternative to incarceration,’ Kirshy said.

Around 3 a.m. Nov. 18, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office responded to Davis’ home on the 21300 block of Hubbard Avenue in Port Charlotte, in reference to a medical call related to a small boy who was not breathing and reportedly had blood on him.

When deputies arrived, the child’s mother, Lisset Elias, 22, was standing in the driveway with the child wrapped in a blanket, according to a sheriff’s report.

The child, Christopher Eli, did not have a pulse and was taken to Peace River Regional Medical Center in Port Charlotte, where he was pronounced dead.

Davis also has a 1-year-old daughter. The family since has moved and now lives with Davis’ mother, according to neighbors.

‘They are really good, hardworking people,’ said neighbor Kala Hemphill, 20. ‘All the kids in the neighborhood play at their house. They are very family oriented and very close with (Davis’) mother.’

Report: Employee showed up to school drunk

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Wednesday, May 22, 2013


PUNTA GORDA — A school employee was charged with DUI Tuesday after she allegedly showed up to work so intoxicated she could barely get out of her car, according to the Punta Gorda Police Department.

Noreen Patricia Freeman, 57, 1300 block of Saxony Circle, Punta Gorda, was arrested in the parking lot of the Baker Center early childhood learning facility, on East Charlotte Avenue.

Charlotte County school district spokesman Mike Riley said Freeman is a community health advocate, which is similar to a school nurse.

Around 7 a.m., another driver had called police and reported that a gold-and-black car was driving ‘all over the roadway’ and had pulled into the Baker Center parking lot. When an officer arrived and asked Freeman to get out of the car, she ‘rolled’ out of the front seat and onto the pavement, then had to brace herself against the car to comply with the officer’s instructions, a report stated.

Freeman told the officer that she didn’t feel well. The officer smelled alcohol on her breath and observed she was slurring her words, the report said.

Freeman denied drinking that morning but said she had had a vodka and coke the prior evening, a report stated. She said she was taking Meclizine, an antihistamine, and had recently had arm surgery and was under a doctor’s care for high blood pressure ‘for, you know, blah blah blah,’ a report stated.

After failing field sobriety tests, Freeman was taken to the Charlotte County Jail, where her blood-alcohol level registered on a Breathalyzer test as 0.275, which is over three times the legal limit of 0.08. During a second attempt, she only pretended to blow, the report states.

Freeman remained in jail Tuesday on $750 bond.

Riley said Freeman’s case will be reviewed by the human resources department. She is unlikely to be terminated, but the consequences could be exacerbated by the fact she was arrested on school grounds, Riley said, adding the district will recommend that Freeman attend substance abuse classes.

Woman gets probation in church scam

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, May 21, 2013

DuncanPORT CHARLOTTE — A North Port woman accused of scamming church members by falsely claiming her sons were killed fighting overseas has been sentenced to three years’ probation.

Shirley Ann Duncan, 50, of the 2200 block of Ryecroft Street, North Port, pleaded no contest to attempted criminal use of personal identification during a pre-trial hearing May 14 at the Charlotte County Justice Center, according to Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office.

Prose-cutors dropped a charge of obtaining less than $20,000 of property by fraud.

Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne adjudicated Duncan guilty. In addition to serving probation, Duncan must pay restitution to and have no contact with her victims, pay court costs and undergo a mental health examination, authorities said. The value of the cash and gifts she received was more than $1,000, but the amount of restitution will be determined later, Syoen said.

Duncan could not be reached for comment Monday.

In September, Duncan began telling members of Community Life Center on Edgewater Drive in Port Charlotte that she had lost three sons to wars in the Middle East, and a fourth was wounded and not expected to survive, according to a Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office report. A few weeks later she reportedly claimed the fourth son had died.

To authenticate her story, Duncan altered an old document sent by an adjutant general in the Secretary of War’s office to notify a mother of a son lost during World War II. Duncan made the letter look like it was addressed to her, authorities said. However, CCSO detectives later discovered the man who had signed the document, Gen. J.A. Ulio, had been dead for more than 50 years.

A group at the church organized a memorial service for all four sons. Duncan collected numerous donations of cash, housewares, clothing and furniture worth more than $1,000 from church members, according to the report.

But at least one church member was suspicious and contacted Duncan’s son, who was alive and well and serving in the Army at Fort Knox, Ky. The son contacted local authorities about his mother’s claims, informing them that he only has one brother, who had never served in the military.

Duncan was arrested and charged Jan. 24.

Mark Coffey, pastor at Community Life Center, said that even after Duncan was charged, members of the church gave her the option of returning to the congregation.

‘Our intent was never to close our doors on her,’ Coffey said Monday. ‘We just pray that she has learned from her mistakes and that she can move on with her life.’

Report: Waitress reports herself for smoking pot

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, May 21, 2013


PORT CHARLOTTE — A 20-year-old waitress was arrested Saturday after she became paranoid that someone was following her after she allegedly smoked pot.

So, she called the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office, telling authorities she had just smoked marijuana and was not feeling well, according to a report.

Bethanie Mary Wark, 1100 block of Sandy St., Port Charlotte, believed she was being followed by a man named ‘Joey’ and stopped at a Circle K, 1783 Tamiami Trail, in Port Charlotte to call authorities.

When a deputy arrived around 10:30 p.m., she told him she had just smoked weed and was afraid it was laced with another drug, a report said. Wark pulled a clear baggie containing approximately 6 grams of marijuana from the pocket of her work apron and handed it to the deputy, saying she had just purchased it and did not want it, according to the report.

Charlotte County Fire/EMS transported Wark to Fawcett Memorial Hospital because she was having difficulty breathing and possibly hallucinations, the report states. The deputy followed her to the hospital.

After Wark was treated and released at the emergency room, she was arrested early Sunday morning on charges of possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia and taken to Charlotte County Jail, according to the report.

On the way to the jail, she stated that ‘Joey’ was following her and had recorded her conversation with the paramedics while she was inside the ambulance. The deputy assured her that no one was following her or recording her, a report states.

Ward posted a $2,000 bond and was released Sunday.

Sunday Favorites: Maroons Unchained

Slave Rebellion Leads to War and Cost Country Millions

Published Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:05 am

MANATEE COUNTY – The largest slave rebellion in American history is seldom talked about. It is a story of self-emancipated Africans, knocking down the bounds of pain and degradation, freeing themselves to grab the most basic of our freedoms: that all men, no matter what race, creed or color, are created equal.

The story starts not on those often famed and largely misunderstood Civil War battlefields, nor in the Oval Office where Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation not long before his assassination. This story starts in the untamed wilds of Florida, where those freed slaves first encountered the natives of the land.

Nearly a century before Harriet Tubman secretly led more than 300 slaves north to freedom, slaves were escaping south into the Florida wilderness and forming alliances with another group of exiled people, the Seminole natives.

The Seminole Nation was the collective name given to the combination of various groups of Native Americans and black people who settled in Florida in the early 18th century — who were the first associated with Alachua County (of which Manatee County was part of).
Over time, the groups melded together and formed what history refers to as a race of “maroon people.”

While many have heard the term Black Seminoles, their efforts against the U.S. Government have been suppressed and are hardly mentioned in history books. However, according to to Dr. Martha Bireda, founder of the Blanchard House Museum in Punta Gorda, they produced the largest slave rebellion; there was no other effort in the U.S. that compared in size or duration, she said.

‘This is the story of self-emancipated Africans,’ Bireda said. ‘No one helped these people escape; they did it on their own.’

The fugitive slaves and free blacks besmirched the country’s leading generals and inspired fear across the South, according to the Black Seminole Rebellion exhibit at

In the 50 years preceding the Civil War, blacks had the most significant influence shaping Seminole affairs, including the First and Second Seminole wars. But the alliance of the Africans and Native Seminoles was a source of concern to the U.S. Government because the Seminoles were seen as a major threat to the institution of slavery.

The relationship between escaped slaves and Seminoles was a fundamental concern during the Second Seminole War, the longest and most costly of any Native American War in history. The war was initiated by the slave industry and fought specifically over the issue of slavery and removal of Seminole peoples west to “Indian Territory.”

History books refer to two events that supposedly ignited the war. The first being the U.S. government’s decision to enforce the Treaty of Payne’s Landing at Fort Gibson; that is, an agreement made by seven Seminole Leaders who agreed to move west to Arkansas territory and join their known archenemy, the Creek Indians, in exile. The greater majority of natives violently opposed this migration. The Seminole Nation was outraged; it was the beginning of the Second Seminole War, or the Seven Year War, which lasted from 1835-1842.

Abraham, a famous “maroon” leader, was one of the seven who signed the treaty. Historians have theorized that the leaders were tricked into signing the agreement. However, Bireda said the allegiance was only a ploy for Abraham to receive the supplies he needed to attack U.S. Troops. Abraham gave the impression that he was in favor of enforcing the treaty. He requested gun powder, and arms from Cuba and secretly instructed slaves still living on plantations to revolt when the war began and join forces with the native nation.

U.S. Troops initiated a policy designed to separate the African and Native Seminoles. This policy called for the re-enslavement of Africans in addition to the deportation of natives.
Abraham led his troop of half breeds, strategizing Guerrilla war tactics, which were used to attack U.S. Troops, and negotiating with U.S. Military when necessary.

For the most part, Abraham’s military tactics were successful during the war, but he was forced to surrender during the Battle of Big Cyprus in the Everglades. Abraham eventually worked with General Jessup to convince members of the Seminole Nation that emigration was the only way to truly find peace. Abraham left Florida in 1839 accompanied by his family and 90 other black Seminoles.

During the Second Seminole War, the U.S. government lost 1,500 troops and spent $40 million to return 300 to 500 slaves to their masters. Bireda estimates that the capture of each slave cost the U.S. $80,000 and the lives of three soldiers.
Most of the Seminole Nation left Florida, but a few stayed. Those holdouts still exist in the deep swamps of Big Cypress, the same place where their ancestors had raised a white flag so many years ago.

Merab Favorite is a published author and columnist for the Bradenton Times. She can be reached at