An Option For Young Offenders
By Merab-Michal Favorite
Originally published in the Charlotte Sun Herald, April 13, 2013
PUNTA GORDA — Donald Witherall was hurt. He was disappointed that someone he considered a friend would ransack his home on Hilnick Drive in Punta Gorda, going through his drawers, flipping over his mattress, and stealing a multitude of items, including coins, rings, electronic equipment and tools.
But those things, Witherall said, were replaceable. The priceless items that were stolen were letters his uncle wrote to him from Germany while serving in World War II, and his medal, which he gave Witherall, when he was 9. Those items never were returned.
In a hearing late last month at the Charlotte County Human Services building in Port Charlotte, in front of a Neighborhood Accountability Board, Witherall said he did not want monetary restitution for the items taken. Instead, he wanted an apology from the offender .
Witherall’s home was one of four in the Washington Loop Road area east of Punta Gorda that allegedly were burglarized by two teens in August 2012, while the homeowners were away.
One of the boys, George Stuck, 17, of the 4000 block of Michigan Drive, Punta Gorda, faces multiple armed and unarmed burglary and grand theft charges. However the younger boy allegedly involved, an 11-year-old, will serve 60 community service hours, will pledge to do better in school, will pay $20 in restitution to two of the victims, and will undergo a psychiatric evaluation.
His sentence was determined at the NAB hearing, a community-based decision-making process that serves as an alternative to incarceration for minors.
The NAB receives its referrals from the Department of Juvenile Justice, with the State Attorney’s Office approving the recommendation. The bureau also runs a civil citation program. Under that program, referrals come directly from law enforcement officials who issue citations in lieu of an arrest for first-time offenders who commit a misdemeanor offense. Instead of going to jail, offenders are referred to the NAB for a sentencing case plan.
‘Each case is looked at independently,’ said Betzy Toro, NAB coordinator. ‘Every case plan is unique.’
After Toro meets with those offenders individually and goes over the crime in detail, a board of volunteers conducts a trial-like conference, during which board members and victims can ask about the crime. They come up with a plan that an offender must complete, or he will be reintroduced into the system.
‘It’s not really that innovative,’ said Emily Lewis, Family Services Division manager with county Human Services. ‘They have been using this process for over 20 years in other states, but in Florida, it’s something new.’
Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said referring youths to the NAB program not only speeds up an otherwise lengthy process (all sanctions of the case plan must be completed by the offender within 90 days), but also saves money.
‘When you think about all the hearings, the judges, bailiffs, attorneys and others that have to be present in that courtroom, you can get an idea of how expensive a trial is,’ Prummell said. ‘The NAB board is made up of volunteers, so it’s much, much cheaper.’
The program has been in place for over a year, and so far it has had a 100 percent success rate, meaning no one who completed the program has committed another crime, according to the sheriff.
Multiple facets of a case are addressed during the hearings. In the Washington Loop case, the youth’s parents were questioned about allowing their son, then 10, to spend the night with a 17-year-old. The board also requested that both parents get a psychiatric evaluation.
The board listed Witherall — a neighbor the boy had known all his life — as the contact who will make sure the juvenile completes his community service hours. Part of the case plan says the boy must spend at least 10 hours working on each of the homes he broke into.
But coming to a decision was difficult for the board members on the NAB because the youth first said he was forced by his friend to burglarize the four homes.
However, board members said they would put him back through the system if he didn’t first admit to breaking into the homes and stealing a multitude of items, including a Maytag washing machine, several motors, pocketknives, a riding mower, tools, a guitar and six harmonicas.
At one point, the boys also allegedly helped themselves to Eggo waffles and syrup, leaving dirty dishes in the kitchen sink of one of the houses.
‘We know you weren’t forced,’ Witherall said. ‘You sat down and ate beans and waffles.’
Tears streamed down the face of the 11-year-old boy as he apologized to Witherall.
‘I’m sorry I disappointed you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry that I violated your home and took those items.’
Toro said Wednesday that the boy has raised the restitution, and he and his family are undergoing mental health evaluations.
PALMETTO –As children, my brother and I loved to scan the lofty branches of our favorite tree in search of the rusty handle of a knife fused into the wood. The moss-covered live oak was in my grandmother’s yard. She enjoyed telling the story of how a neighborhood boy once brought the knife over to the house and waved it around the other children, pretending to stab them. My uncle Ben Sutton, or Scooper as everyone called him, seized the knife and then climbed the tree, driving the blade into the trunk with such force so he was sure it could never be removed.
That was the kind of person Uncle Ben was. He was a sweet-natured child and a happy-go-lucky teenager, but he was also protective of his family and siblings. Born in 1946, Ben was a lifetime resident of Palmetto. He was the second of five children — four boys and a girl. He would delight his kid sister, Bonne’, by taking her around to local haunts, and he just brushed off any ragging from boys his own age. Ben liked to pack as many siblings and neighbors as he could fit in his 1959 Chevy to spend an evening watching movies at the old Palmetto Drive-in. He played varsity baseball and was in the band at Palmetto High School. The word was the girls considered Ben quite the heartthrob. Above all else, he was a friend to all. That’s what classmates who signed his PHS yearbook said — he was a great friend, one with whom they never wanted to lose touch with.
Ben possessed the same Sutton traits that marked the rest of the family — dark curly hair, narrow, laughing eyes, a dimple-enhanced smile and a small, athletic build. He breezed through life with a carefree attitude that enabled him to laugh off criticism and exude confidence. When he was 12, Ben tried out for the high school football team (high school comprised of sixth through twelfth grades back then). When he was fitted for his uniform, the coaches found the smallest shoe was three sizes too big for his size-5 feet. A newspaper article labeled 77.5-pound Scooper as PHS’s smallest player ever. After one year of football, he decided baseball was his game.
Ben rarely went straight home after school. Instead he would go to the A&W root beer stand, walk to the Boy’s Club or play in the park. He constantly left his trumpet here and there, such as on a park bench or at the soda counter. Usually someone would find the trumpet, knew it was Ben’s and bring it by the house. If he wasn’t forgetting something, he was daydreaming, once while riding his bicycle he ran into a parked car. Scooper practically lived at the park; it was just two blocks down from his home on Seventh Street West in Palmetto. My grandmother, Alice Sutton, would become irritated when she’d have to walk down the road after him when he was late for dinner.
Ben was what many would call a “man’s man;” he liked sports and being outdoors. He started hunting and fishing early on, and he would often go camping with his buddies in Parrish for the weekend, usually bringing fish or small game home for supper. Ben’s younger brother Alan was too small for hunting, and his older brother Charles wasn’t the outdoors type, so Scooper would often bring Bonne’, four years his junior, along. They would meet friends at dusk and hike along the orange groves until they spotted quail or rabbits. My grandfather, Ben Sutton Sr., taught him how to make castnets and young Ben would frequently wade Terra Ceia Bay to catch mullet.
After graduating PHS in 1964, Ben married his high-school sweetheart and became the father of a beautiful daughter, Michele. But things didn’t work out, and the marriage ended in divorce. As a married man, Ben had an exemption from military conscription. Now he was eligible for the Vietnam War draft. Ben moved to Alabama, wed another girl and started working for IBM. Nine months into the job, Uncle Sam came calling.
Ben then faced with a tough decision. He could wait and take his chances in the draft or volunteer. Ben decided to enlist in the Army, which allowed him to pick a specialty of his choice — the Army flight-training program. In 1967, he left his new wife and went off to win his wings so he could command a helicopter in Vietnam.
Two years later his wife, Harriet Jacks Sutton, received a dreaded visit from a military officer. Her husband, Chief Warrant Officer 2nd Class Ben Fredrick Sutton had been killed in action on Sept. 3, 1969, in a helicopter crash. At 23, he was already commander of his squadron. He was practicing maneuvers when the aircraft went down and burned. There was no way to tell what had gone wrong. Some of the men in his squadron believe it could have been sniper fire. Regardless of the circumstances, Palmetto lost a favorite son to the war.
In 1982, the Palmetto Junior Women’s Club wanted to dedicate the west side of the park on Main Street to a local veteran, so it seemed fitting to select the boy who had spent so much time there — Ben Sutton Jr., the only person from Palmetto to die in Vietnam. Sutton Park is dedicated to the memory of all veterans from Palmetto who have served in battle, ranging from the Seminole Wars in the 1800s to today’s war in Afghanistan.
At the park’s dedication ceremony, former Mayor Ken Burton Sr. said, “Ben Sutton Jr. represents the many young men and women who have given their lives to preserve America’s heritage. It is fitting that we remember these patriots on this day of celebration and renew our pledge to see that they will not have died in vain.”
My family will forever hold Ben’s memory in our hearts, and we appreciate that Sutton Park now will forever be a place of honor, a tribute to the little boy who grew into a man there.
A few months ago the old live oak that withheld the knife fell down in my grandmother’s back yard. I hadn’t thought of the dagger until after the men came to chainsaw the tree to pieces. It saddened me to think I would never again get to locate the handle among the leaves. When I walked outside to mourn the loss of my favorite landmark, I saw the section of wood containing the familiar rusty handle. The workers had saved it for me, carefully setting it on the porch steps where I would easily see it. I guess they figured there was a good story behind it.
Fresh Face on Crime Scene
By Merab-Michal Favorite
Originally published in the Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Saturday, June 8, 2013
PUNTA GORDA — For the first time in more than 18 years, the Punta Gorda Police Department has a new crime scene investigator.
Ashley Handley, 22, of Punta Gorda, is young, she’s fun, and she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. (Her predecessor, Pat Anthony, retired March 1.)
‘Ashley has a fresh , new, energetic approach and the initiative and motivation to light up a room,’ said Punta Gorda Police Chief Albert ‘Butch’ Arenal. ‘ Crime scene investigation is one of the areas in the department we have been wanting to take in a new direction, and she is just the person to do it.’
While the job sometimes can require assessing gruesome scenes and blood-soaked evidence, Handley seems like the perfect person to stomach it. She has been an avid hunter since she was 10.
‘I’m daddy’s little boy,’ she joked.
Handley adores all things outdoors. As an only child, it was common for Handley to accompany her father on hunting and fishing trips. But don’t think it was dad who did all the dirty work.
‘I can gut and field dress a hog in 15 minutes,’ Handley said. ‘I am very proud of that.’
While her dad taught her the basics of hunting, working as a butcher at Publix helped her become an expert at filleting fish. However it was her experience taking classes at Edison State College Charlotte Campus in Punta Gorda that got her interested in law enforcement. Also, her mother Allison Handley is a clerk with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office.
Growing up, Handley always enjoyed watching John Walsh host ‘America’s Most Wanted’ and sitting through the show ‘To Catch a Predator.’ That intrigue inspired her to take some electives in criminology and law while pursuing a nursing degree.
‘I found myself doing better and putting more time into my electives,’ she said. ‘I was grasping all the legal concepts and having so much fun that I decided to change my major.’
After getting her associate degree, Handley applied for the CSI position on her 22nd birthday. On April Fool’s Day, she received the job offer. She started April 22, the anniversary of her grandmother’s death.
‘I thought it was a good omen,’ Handley said. ‘It seemed like she was sending me a sign.’
Handley still was pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Edison State when she applied for the PGPD position.
‘Initially, we thought she was kind of young for the position,’ Arenal said. ‘But by the time the interview was over, she had simply bowled us over with her talents.’
Handley isn’t the type to let skepticism hinder her drive. She maintained a place on the dean’s list while attending Charlotte High School and Edison, and was part of the National Honor Society while studying at Florida Gulf Coast University.
‘She is a very serious girl,’ Jack Handley, Ashley’s father, said. ‘I never worry about her. She knows her surroundings everywhere she goes, a trait I taught her because she was an only child and not one to spare.’
Recently, her skill set was put to the test when she processed the entire crime scene at St. Andrew’s South Golf Club after six people vandalized the course. Ashley’s smile was even brighter when she was covered in black fingerprinting dust after lifting readable prints off the golf carts that were taken.
All the suspects were arrested and charged with burglary, grand theft and criminal mischief after authorities said they took the carts and destroyed portions of the 18th fairway and green, the irrigation system and the fiberglass carts.
‘It was my first big, extensive investigation,’ Ashley said. ‘It was great.’
Ashley has only three more classes until she graduates with her bachelor’s degree, then she plans to become the sixth certified female police officer on the PGPD force.
‘I’m excited to be the new face of crime scene investigation,’ she said.
Sunday Favorites: Caution and Prospect flow from Florida Springs
BRADENTON – In the midst of the 1980’s, City of Bradenton lawmakers decided to cover Manatee Mineral Springs with a concrete slab. It was a terrible end for what many considered one of the county’s true jewels, a natural treasure that served generations of people, including the original settlers and native peoples before them, who felt it held medicinal powers to heal and cure.
History has a way of is repeating itself. In North Port, a local attraction known as Warm Mineral Springs is facing its own uncertain future. The popular destination, which is owned jointly by city and county government, touts a revitalizing reputation. The attraction currently brings thousands of visitors each year to Sarasota County, many of whom come to heal their ailments with the fabled restorative powers of the 87-degree water.
While it’s highly unlikely that Warm Mineral Springs will ever one day be a parking lot, the attraction is currently embroiled in a bitter if not confusing struggle between North Port and Sarasota County leaders, a battle that is sure to leave the springs up for grabs.
On a recent weekend visit there with my boyfriend, Drew, we saw hundreds of people utilizing the facility, soaking in the water, basking in the sun, getting pampered at Spa Donya, the onsite spa, and enjoying wine and lunch at the privately-owned resturant Evergreen Café.
The place was packed with people from around the world, eastern Europeans floating alongside with Latin folks, all the dialects melding together like some foreign mélange that, should you close your eyes and just listen, became a melodic accompaniment to the relaxing harmonies coming over the sound system.
I couldn’t help but think back to Manatee Mineral Spring and wonder if the experience wasn’t similar. With the array of people that used the spring, from aborigines to Seminole Indians and pioneers, I wondered if the sensation I felt while soaking in the warm water of the mineral springs, was the same feeling those forgotten residents felt as well. I wondered if they too sensed that they were somehow converging with history and nature.
Once upon a time, a lone pine rose above a canopy of live oaks and palms that shaded the thick brush along the Manatee River. That tall tree acted as a marker for the Manatee Mineral Spring. I looked out around Warm Mineral Springs and saw live oaks and palms lining the perimeter. Both bodies of water were utilized by Native Americans for medicinal purposes, both held the secrets of countless ages of residents who flocked to its waters.
But most importantly, men have struggled to control both bodies of water, with largely failed results.
For instance, in 1846, Dr. Franklin Branch purchased the portion of Gates’ acreage that included the spring. Branch was a Vermont-born businessman who moved to Manatee specifically to build a sanatorium and utilize the healing properties of the mineral spring to treat patients. However, before the sanatorium could be completed, the buildings he constructed were instead fortified with sable palm trunks for protection against the Seminoles as the Third Seminole War raged around those harbored inside. Instead of the relaxing rehabilitation center Branch envisioned, the walls became a prison where disease and death plagued those within.
The efforts of Branch are not unlike the hopes of his modern equivalent, a Brooklyn, N.Y. based doctor by the name of Gigory Pogrebinsky, who envisions sinking $60 million into the Warm Mineral Springs to build his own wellness center with the natural attraction as the center piece.
Pogrebinsky pictures the springs as being the jewel of not only the county’s premier destination, but like the physicians before him, the ultimate healing tool, one that can aid countless individuals in overcoming their ailments.
A hotel, conference center and wellness center are just a few of the pieces of Pogrebinsky’s overall plan, something he feels would be an economic driver for the city of North Port.
Yet, whether or not Pogrebinsky will even be able to officially pitch his idea to North Port leaders will hinge on both the county and the city coming to a solution before July 1, a deadline that will spell the end of an interlocal agreement between the two boards who currently act as co-owners of the 83-acre property.
While the threat of shutdown plagues North Port’s spring, a new hope for Manatee Mineral Spring could emerge.
After Branch departed Bradenton for Tampa to practice medicine, the spring changed hands several times before it was annexed into a park in 1904. However, playgrounds and picnic tables were the focus of the park, and in later years and the area that surrounded the spring went up for sale. In the 1980s, it was an eyesore, an unwanted burden for the city to keep up. Its healing properties were completely forgotten and its history obscured by the new development surrounding it.
The City of Bradenton said it was polluted and insisted it was a safety hazard, so they covered it up. However, the tenacious spring has still pumped its mineral-infused water for all these years; it has just done so cloaked by cement, from beneath the concrete slab. In 1998, a small group of history enthusiasts called Reflections of Manatee purchased the spring and has owned it ever since.
But, according to Trudy Williams, executive director of Reflections Manatee, plans could call for one day reopening Manatee Mineral Spring, a move that would undoubtedly delight residents and restore one of the region’s historical treasures.
I can only hope that Sarasota leaders don’t have to face similar struggles, to one day have to correct the course of their decisions that, a generation from now, could have Warm Mineral Springs trying to rebuild something that was never broken to begin with.
There is still hope for Warm Mineral Springs, if leaders are able to lean on the lessons of the past. Williams said that, if they do re-open Manatee Springs, visitors won’t be able to soak in its fabled healing waters and the spring would instead be a mere focal point for a historical park, a museum piece not to be touched or enjoyed, merely looked at.
Right now, Warm Mineral Springs is open and available, ready to accept all guests. If the wrong decisions are made, then Warm Mineral Springs could suffer a fate not far removed from that of Manatee Spring, a tragedy that might not be felt, or realized, for generations.
Pilot Cat Program Takes Off
Charlotte Sun (Port Charlotte, FL) – Monday, June 10, 2013
PORT CHARLOTTE — Diana Santi, 66, of Punta Gorda, has been an animal lover since she was a little girl, a characteristic that followed her into adulthood.
When Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, she adopted an abandoned dog that had been roaming the streets. Then, over the last few years, she began feeding stray cats around her neighborhood. However, the feral felines kept breeding, becoming more of a financial burden.
‘Everyone always tells them to ‘shoo’ and turns them away,’ Santi said, ‘I didn’t have the heart for that. But they wouldn’t stop having kittens and I got in way over my head.’
Santi, who was suffering from cancer and dealing with medical bills, couldn’t afford to have the cats fixed. Yet every evening more and more cats would appear at her doorstep, meowing and purring for dinner.
Santi was at a loss until she heard about Community Cats of Charlotte, an organization dedicated to reducing the number of feral and free-roaming cats throughout the county. The cats are spayed or neutered and vaccinated so they can continue a healthy existence in the wild without multiplying.
On Sunday, the last of Santi’s 10 cats were neutered, at no cost, during a pilot program that traps and treats feral cats on a monthly basis.
About 36 predominately female, free-roaming cats underwent surgery at the Pampered Pet Health Center in Port Charlotte. Dr. Anita Holt, who owns the clinic, and other local veterinarians volunteered to perform the procedures, which included three-year rabies and distemper shots.
After being treated, the cats ‘ ears were clipped so people would know they had received their shots, and they were released back into the wild.
‘ Feral cats can’t be taken into a shelter,’ said Bob Starr, a former Charlotte County commissioner who funded the launch of the program by donating nearly $3,000 to the cause. ‘They are not adoptable; they’re too wild and crazy. This way they can live out their days in the wild, but the nuisance behavior and the explosive population growth stops.’
Starr theorizes that once the ferals are released, the cat population will stabilize and decrease over time. The Community Cats of Charlotte organization keeps a watchful eye over their former feline patients by assigning a volunteer caregiver to feed and manage each of the feral cat colonies located throughout the county.
‘The community has embraced this program because no harm comes to the cats ,’ said Janet Gould, president of Community Cats of Charlotte. ‘The only way to effectively address the problem is to offer a life-saving program like this one.’
Dr. Ronald Lott, a volunteer veterinarian at the clinic, said that treating the cats is an issue of public health. According to Lott, there were over 104 cases of rabies last year in Florida.
‘The disease is passed primarily through raccoons and bats,’ he said. ‘This way domestic animals aren’t exposed.’
In May, Port Charlotte was put on a rabies alert after a dog had been exposed to a bat that tested positive for the rabies virus in Charlotte County.
While doctors and animal control specialists address the well-being of local residents and their pets, Santi is happy her burden has been lifted.
‘I just hope that the word spreads about this wonderful program,’ she said. ‘Euthanization is not the answer, neutering and spaying is.’
Slave Rebellion Leads to War and Cost Country Millions
Published Sunday, May 19, 2013 12:05 am
by Merab-Michal Favorite
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 http://www.blackhorse.com.
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 email@example.com.