Defense says: Melissa Harding-Jones to stand trial

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Wednesday, May 15, 2013



PUNTA GORDA — The woman charged in connection with the 1999 death of 4-year-old Pilar Rodriguez finally will stand trial in September, after nearly two years of failed plea deals, her defense attorney, Robert Barrar, said Tuesday.

Attorneys on both sides appeared before 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Amy Hawthorne during a pretrial conference Tuesday at the Charlotte County Justice Center. Hawthorne officially will set the trial date Aug. 28.

Assistant State Attorney Daniel Feinberg and Barrar still are trying to hammer out the details before the trial, which is expected to take place sometime in September, and to last for more than two weeks.

Melissa Harding-Jones, the only person charged in the case, faces a count of aggravated manslaughter of a child. Harding-Jones, who was not present for Tuesday’s conference, officially was charged in August 2010. She lives in Lake Stevens, Wash., and is married with two children.

Pilar, whose body never has been found, was in the care of her baby sitter, Harding-Jones, formerly Melissa Cooper — who brought the child to Punta Gorda from Hollywood, Fla. — and her then-boyfriend, Keith Wilson.

According to a motion filed in August 2012, prosecutors will try to show that Wilson beat the child to death; however Harding-Jones is the only suspect currently charged in the case.

Two plea deals have failed so far — Harding-Jones backed out of one in June 2011, and then a judge rejected a proposed agreement in September of that year.

Barrar said he is prepared to go to trial, but anticipates selecting a jury will be a challenge.

‘This is going to be a tough trial selection because it is such a high-profile case,’ Barrar said. ‘There are not too many people over the age of 20 that haven’t heard of this case.’

Barrar said he wants to interview all 50 potential jurors individually, although Hawthorne recommended giving the potential jurors a questionnaire. A panel of six jurors will decide whether Harding-Jones is guilty.

Barrar said he his bringing in witnesses from all over the U.S., as far away as Wisconsin, to testify on Harding-Jones’ behalf.

Feinberg said jurors will have to review hours of defendant testimony recorded on different occasions over the course of a decade.

Report: Woman replaces drugs with water

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Tuesday, May 14, 2013


LEE COUNTY — A 24-year-old Port Charlotte pharmacy technician was arrested Wednesday in Lee County for allegedly stealing liquid narcotics and replacing them with sterile water while working at HealthPark Medical Center in Fort Myers.

Jessica Danielle Bramble, of the 22300 block of Oceanside Ave., faces charges of adulterating a drug for distribution, possession of a controlled substance without a prescription, and grand theft of a controlled substance, after she reportedly removed narcotics from a drug -dispensing machine at the hospital.

Bramble’s current employment is listed as a pharmacy technician at Lemon Bay Drugs North in North Port, according to a Lee County Sheriff’s report.

The medication-dispensing system at HealthPark maintains an electronic database that stores the user’s identity, via fingerprint, the report states. Bramble allegedly used her finger ID in order to obtain the narcotics, then replaced them with water -filled capsules.

Bramble was accused of more than 40 instances of stealing drugs from 2011 to 2012, the report states. The majority of those transactions involved Dilaudid, a derivative of morphine, according to the report.

Three employees who were present when Bramble allegedly was caught stealing the narcotics from the dispensing machine corroborated some of the allegations against Bramble and identified her from a photo lineup, according to the report.

Bramble told investigators in a telephone interview Feb. 1 that she stole the drugs for a family member who had both a medical condition and a drug addiction, the report shows. She reportedly said she would replace the drug with sterile water from vials around the hospital. She said she used sterile syringes to remove the drug from the capsules, then placed the narcotic fluid in empty capsules she found in the pharmaceutical waste can, according to the report.

Employees at Lemon Bay Drugs North declined to comment on Bramble’s employment status Monday.

As of Monday, Bramble’s pharmacy technician license was cataloged as active on the Florida Department of Health website and she was listed as working for the North Port pharmacy.

Investigators say Bramble admitted to similar thefts at Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers.

In a statement, Lee Memorial Health System officials said Bramble’s activity was flagged immediately and they launched an investigation, but did not find any patients who were impacted by her alleged drug activity.

Following the investigation, the hospital conducted a comprehensive review of employee handling of controlled substances to make sure that procedures were followed.

Bramble was arrested Wednesday and taken to Lee County Jail. She was released Thursday after posting $4,500 bond.

Bramble could not be reached for comment.

Man’s death stuns neighbors

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Saturday, May 11, 2013


PUNTA GORDA — Carl Edward Patrick, or ‘Ed’ as his friends called him, had a tough exterior. Neighbors said the 54-year-old Punta Gorda man often rode his Harley-Davidson to his favorite local haunt and lived a ‘biker lifestyle.’

However Patrick’s hardened shell melted like butter in the presence of children, and anytime the neighborhood youths were playing outside, he would stop, set his kickstand and come over for a few minutes to chat with the kids.

‘He adored my 20-month-old daughter, Serenity,’ said Chris Boyd, who lives just down the street on Oliphant Lane. ‘Anytime we were outside he would stop and talk to us. He was a really nice guy.’

Friends and neighbors were shocked to hear of Patrick’s death Friday.

Patrick was riding his motorcycle around 10 p.m. Thursday when he was hit and killed while traveling south on U.S. 41 near Con-stitution Boulevard, south of Fort Myers, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report.

The woman who hit him dragged his body and his motorcycle for about three miles before she was stopped by a Lee County Sheriff’s deputy, the report shows.

‘I just hope that he died quickly,’ neighbor Scott Ditota said with tears in his eyes. ‘He was a good person, and I hate to think that he suffered.’



Donna Lynne Brown, 54, of Estero, reportedly was charged with DUI manslaughter, DUI with property damage, hit and run with death, DUI and careless driving, in connection with the accident that resulted in Patrick’s death. She was taken to the Lee County Jail, where she is being held on $70,000 bond.

Brown is scheduled to appear in court June 10.

According to the FHP report, Brown did not see Patrick while making a U-turn at Constitution, and struck the rear of Patrick’s Harley-Davidson. After impact, Brown reportedly failed to stop at the crash scene and continued on U.S. 41 for approximately three miles, dragging Brown and his motorcycle under her Lexus SUV.

An LCSO deputy witnessed sparks coming from the undercarriage of her vehicle and pulled Brown over just north of Corkscrew Road, according to the report.

Patrick’s friend Brandon Logsdon, 21, was shocked when he heard the news.

‘Ed wasn’t just another biker,’ Logsdon said. ‘Ed was my neighbor and Ed was my friend.’

Logsdon and his stepfather, Patrick’s neighbor Ditota, remembered Patrick with fondness. They teared up, then chuckled at the thought of Patrick’s prized goats terrorizing the neighborhood.

‘He loved those goats, but they would always jump the fence and get out,’ Ditota said. ‘Once I came home and one of them was sitting on my couch in the garage.’

Logsdon said while Patrick’s farm animals annoyed the adult neighbors by eating up their landscaping, they delighted the neighborhood children.

‘Ed loved those animals so much because they were the link to the kids,’ Logsdon said. ‘He loved when the kids would come up the street to his house to see his animals.’

Logsdon said Patrick was a great friend.

‘He was laid back and friendly,’ Logsdon said. ‘People talk about karma, but it doesn’t apply in this case. Ed was one of the good guys.’

Authorities seize 85-90 farm animals

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Friday, May 10, 2013



SOUTH OF PUNTA GORDA — New details have emerged in the animal -cruelty investigation that turned into a marijuana grow house bust April 23, according to Charlotte County Animal Control.

Pablo Cauz, 49, of the 32600 block of Oil Well Road, Punta Gorda, could face animal neglect and cruelty charges after authorities seized nearly 90 animals from his farm, including many that were malnourished and abused, according to Animal Control.

Eight of those animals later died.

‘Some were euthanized,’ said Animal Control Officer Reannon Juergensen. ‘It would have been cruel to keep them alive. The others were so far gone, they just didn’t make it.’

Animal Control officers found a grisly scene when they arrived at Cauz’s home April 23, after receiving complaints from neighbors that his livestock was being neglected.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY CHARLOTTE COUNTY ANIMAL CONTROL Nearly 90 animals were reportedly malnourished and mistreated at a farm off of Oil Well Road in Punta Gorda.

Nearly 90 animals were reportedly malnourished and mistreated at a farm off of Oil Well Road in Punta Gorda.

Juergensen described 85 to 90 animals loose on the 2.5-acre property. There were pigs, goats, chickens and one horse, in addition to two baby alligators that were kept as pets in an outdoor tub.

‘It was a sad sight,’ Juergensen said. ‘There were a multitude of issues; animals were underweight and malnourished, and the living conditions were deplorable.’

Juergensen said Cauz was feeding the animals buckets of what she described as ‘rotting slop.’ She said maggots had gotten into the sealed food containers and were seeping out of cracks.

‘He was feeding the animals , but the food was unsubstantial and unsafe to eat,’ she said.

The animals also were living in unsafe conditions and existing among garbage, nails and construction materials that posed a threat to their health, Juergensen said.

In addition to the animals , Animal Control officers found a marijuana grow house in a detached garage containing more than 80 plants and nearly 10 pounds of marijuana, a previous Charlotte County Sheriff’s report stated. Deputies arrested Cauz, who reportedly told a CCSO detective that he set up the marijuana grow house for personal use.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY THE CHARLOTTE COUNTY ANIMAL CONTROL The Charlotte County Animal Control found 85 to 90 animals living in deplorable conditions at a farm on Oil Well Road in Punta Gorda April 23.

The Charlotte County Animal Control found 85 to 90 animals living in deplorable conditions at a farm on Oil Well Road in Punta Gorda April 23.

Cauz was charged with manufacturing marijuana, possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana and illegal possession of an American alligator. He currently is being held at the Charlotte County Jail on $42,500 bond.

The alligators were turned over to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, but the other animals were taken in by Animal Control.

Animal Control completed its investigation Thursday and sent its findings to the 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office. Samantha Syoen, spokeswoman for the SAO, said the office is reviewing the investigation and will decide whether Cauz will face additional charges in the next couple of weeks.

As for the surviving animals , all but three dogs have been adopted to new homes.

‘You can tell (the dogs) are damaged,’ said Lori Johnson, who works at the Animal Welfare League in Charlotte Harbor. ‘You go to pet them, and they immediately cower.’

Johnson said the dogs will not be adoptable until they complete an animal -rehabilitation program.

Business owner recovering after tractor mishap

Originally published in Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Saturday, May 4, 2013


Judy Massing, 63, owner of Massing Sheds & Garages, is recovering after she was run over by a tractor and trapped facedown in the dirt outside her business.

PORT CHARLOTTE — The owners of Covertrends, a flooring business in Port Charlotte, like to keep the store quiet. Eerily quiet, with no white noise from a radio and no one talking on a phone in the background.

Unless there is a customer in the flooring shop, one could hear a pin drop.

But Thursday afternoon, co-owner Chad Wilson’s soundless office was filled with the screams of a neighbor in trouble.

Judy Massing, 63, owner of Massing Sheds & Garages, was facedown in the dirt outside her business, screaming for someone to help her after she got trapped under a tractor with a front-end loader.

Wilson heard the woman’s screams and came out to see what happened.

‘She was pinned from her ribs and her neck under a 15,000-pound tractor ,’ Wilson said.

Wilson immediately called 911, then ran to get a jack from one of his work trucks. He and Massing’s husband, Larry Massing, jacked the trailer up off her.

‘We didn’t want to touch her because it was obvious that she was injured, but we relieved the pressure and she stopped screaming, so I think it helped,’ Wilson said.

Wilson said Judy was using the tractor to move one of the sheds located on the property. He said when she went to unhook one of the chains, the back wheel knocked her to the ground, ran over her and then hit the shed, pinning Judy under the front wheel of the vehicle. The tractor eventually stalled out, but Judy still was trapped underneath.

Charlotte County Fire/EMS responded to the scene around 3 p.m. Wilson said a rescue team jacked the trailer up farther, then loaded Judy on a stretcher.

A helicopter landed on Toledo Blade Boulevard between U.S. 41 and State Road 776, and Judy was airlifted to Blake Medical Center in Bradenton with serious injuries, according to Dee Hawkins-Garland, Fire/EMS spokeswoman.

Greg Summerall, who works for the Massings, said Judy suffered a broken collar bone, broken ribs, a broken pelvis and a partially collapsed lung.

‘She is in (the) ICU, but she’s doing fine,’ Summerall said. ‘She will probably want to come back to work Monday — that woman is tough.’

Trina Casa, owner of the building, 929 Tamiami Trail, where Covertrends is located, said Judy was lucky Wilson likes to sit in silence.

‘She is just so lucky he was here and likes the quiet,’ she said. ‘There was no one else to hear her.’

‘The neighborly thing to do’: Bounty hunter holds burglary suspect at gunpoint

Originally published in the Charlotte Sun Wednesday, May 8, 2013


Morris Emory stands in front of the home on Harbor Boulevard in Port Charlotte where he prevented a burglary from occurring by holding the suspect at gunpoint until deputies could arrive early Friday morning.

PORT CHARLOTTE — Some residents get welcomed to a new neighborhood with cookies or cake. Sometimes, it’s a simpler gesture, like a wave hello or a knock on the door and a friendly greeting.

The first time Juan and Maria Martinez met their neighbor across the street, it was at 3:30 a .m. Friday, and he was holding a man at gunpoint in the middle of their driveway.

‘Usually when you welcome someone new to the neighborhood, you usually bring a pie or something,’ Maria said. ‘This guy brought a gun and stopped our car from being burglarized! It’s not the norm, but I’ll take it.’

The couple had lived at their home on Harbor Boulevard for only about two months before becoming a target of an alleged burglary. Alvin Anthony Jeanty, 37, of the 2100 block of Bragg Street, Port Charlotte, reportedly was burglarizing their van when he was caught by their neighbor, Morris Emory.

Emory, 45, lives across the street and is a self-professed night owl. As a professional bounty hunter, Emory tends to keep strange hours, and said he often paces around his home in the middle of the night. Sometimes he goes outside to smoke a cigarette, even though he’s trying to quit.

Emory was smoking in his garage around 3:15 a .m. Friday morning, he said, when he saw Jeanty trying vehicle doors to see if they were unlocked. When Jeanty got to the Martinez home, he was able to gain access to their van, Emory told authorities.

Emory put out his cigarette and pulled his Glock .40 handgun from its holster. He told his roommate to call 911 and headed across the street.

When Emory got to his neighbor’s driveway, he reportedly saw Jeanty’s leg sticking out of the van and a light moving around inside.

Emory ordered him to ‘get out of the car and get on the ground,’ pointing the gun at Jeanty and holding him there until deputies arrived, he said.

In his mind, it was the neighborly thing to do .

‘I just thought, I’d want them to do the same for me,’ Emory said. ‘Nine times out of 10, by the time CCSO gets to the scene, the thief is gone, then you have to go through a manhunt and all that.’

When Juan walked outside and saw Emory pointing the Glock at Jeanty, it was the first time the neighbors had ever met.

‘It was wild,’ Juan said. ‘It really took me by surprise, but it also gave me a new outlook on things . I see it as an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive.’

Deputies soon arrived and told Emory to put the gun back in his holster.

As a bail bondsman, Emory said he has a ‘working relationship’ with the Sheriff’s Office. He doesn’t recommend that citizens without professional training hold suspects at gunpoint.

Jeanty was arrested on charges of burglary, and loitering and prowling, and was taken to the Charlotte County Jail. He later bonded out. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The Martinezes, both ordained ministers, said they want to talk to Jeanty and help him ‘get on the right track.’

‘We are all part of the same community,’ Juan said. ‘We are all basically neighbors — we should all be helping each other.’

As for Emory, Juan has a more traditional way of repaying his selfless deed.

‘I can’t wait to cook up a nice dinner and take him over a plate and say thank you,’ Juan said. ‘It looks like my wife is seasoning up something real good right now.’

Two charged in child abuse case

Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Wednesday, May 9, 2013



PORT CHARLOTTE — A mother and her live- in boyfriend were arrested Wednesday and charged with abusing the woman’s two children , a boy, 13, and a girl, 9, according to a Charlotte County Sheriff’s report.

Linda Mae Capps, 34, of the 2300 block of Gimlet Street, Port Charlotte; and Manuel Vincente Antuna, 37, who the CCSO lists as having a North Fort Myers address, although he reportedly lives with Capps, both face two counts of child abuse without great harm, after they allegedly beat the children with a belt on several occasions and punished them by making them hold cans with their arms raised for several hours at a time.

The children lived with their mother and Antuna during the week and traveled to Riverview, Fla., on the weekends to stay with their father. On April 7, they were taken to South Bay Hospital in Sun City Center, Fla., after their father found bruises on their buttocks and legs, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Bowe.



A doctor believed the injuries were the result of child abuse , and contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, according to the report. The children were placed into their father’s custody.

During a forensic interview with CCSO detectives on April 11, the two children said Antuna often hit them with a black leather belt with metal-rimmed holes, a report states. They reportedly said their mother allowed the abuse to occur.

The boy sustained the most significant bruises, according to the report. He reportedly told authorities he was hit on a daily basis, and said sometimes Antuna made him change into basketball shorts so it would hurt more.

The boy told authorities Antuna hit him with the belt April 2 for not holding up a can of beans, the report shows. The victim reportedly said Antuna would make him hold bean cans while standing and facing the wall with his arms raised for four to five hours at a time. He said Antuna last beat him April 5 for ’emptying an oil pan too slowly,’ the report states.

Antuna reportedly had specific cans for the children to hold: green beans for the boy, tomato sauce and tomato soup for the girl. If they moved their arms or lowered the cans, they were hit with the belt, the report quotes the children as telling authorities. This happened on an almost daily basis in March, according to the report.

The girl told authorities she sustained bruises when she was beaten twice on April 1, once for moving her arms while holding the cans and another time for ‘cleaning the house too slowly,’ the report states. When the girl told her mother about the abrasions, she said Capps told her not to tell her father because ‘he would be upset,’ according to the report.

The boy also reportedly said that on at least one occasion, both Capps and Antuna wrote, ‘I lie to my mom all the time,’ on his arms in permanent marker and made him attend school that way. He said if he washed it off, he was told he would be hit with the belt, the report shows.

Both children said the abuse started shortly after their mother became involved in a relationship with Antuna. The 9-year-old told officials she thought Antuna began living at the residence on Gimlet Street in September or October 2012.

In interviews with detectives, Capps and Antuna reportedly admitted to hitting the children with the belt and making them hold cans as punishment. Capps even said she tried holding the bean cans herself but her arms hurt after 30 to 45 minutes, according to the report.

Both Capps and Antuna were arrested Wednesday and taken to Charlotte County Jail, where they remain without bond.