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    PANAMA CITY — Seven arrests have been made in the case of a suspect who managed to escape police custody while handcuffed in the back of a squad car.

    Ryan William Farmer, 27, managed to snake his 160-pound body through a crack in the Panama City Police Department’s patrol car window on Saturday and appears to have met up with people in Springfield before he was arrested. Police had said at the time that he got out by “manipulating his body through a cracked rear window.”

    He was picked up without incident on Monday night in the residential part of Springfield — and so were those who helped him. Charges were filed against three people who aided Farmer’s escape and gave false information during a felony investigation and one additional person who only gave false information.
    At the scene, Panama City Police Department Maj. Mark Aviles said a “pile of arrests” were made and their names were released Tuesday afternoon.

    The arrests include:
    -Patrick Jolly, 23, charged with aiding escape
    -Steven Watson, 18, charged with aiding escape and false information during a felony investigation.
    -Allyson Hall, 44, charged with aiding escape and false information during a felony investigation
    -Justin Lanier, 24, charged with possession of drug paraphernalia
    -Bobby Lanier, 26, charged with violation of probation and false information during a felony investigation
    -William White, 35, arrested on an outstanding warrant for burglary
    -Seth Thompson, 18, charged with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia

    More charges may come, PCPD said in a news release.

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    PANAMA CITY — Panama City Police are investigating a Christmas Day slaying.

    Wilbert Angelo Faison, 56, was shot at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, according to the Panama City Police Department. He was taken to Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart Health System where he died at 1:31 a.m.

    Faison was shot at a house in the 500 block of E. 13th St. near Bay High School — the school where he graduated years earlier. He did not live at the address, but his home was in the neighborhood, a few streets away, police said.
    The police department gave few details because the shooting was still under investigation and declined to provide the incident report, saying it wasn’t ready yet.

    Sgt. Mike Brewer said they had leads, but could not provide any suspects’ names.

    “It’s a tragedy. Any time a murder happens it’s a tragedy,” he said.

    Brewer declined provide details on whether the shooter knew the victim.
    Faison’s aunt in Phoenix, who declined to give her first name, said she was woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night, giving her the news.

    She said Faison was shot in the back, and she didn’t know how many times. She said there was a confrontation of some sort, likely due to a robbery, and he tried to run before being shot.

    “On … Christmas, it was devastating, and my whole family is really devastated because, you know, you really just don’t expect that on Christmas,” she said.

    The aunt praised her nephew who she said served four years in the military and went to college in Boston at the University of Massachusetts. She said Faison was the oldest out of her mother and father’s 18 grandchildren.

    “He was a beautiful, loving nephew,” she said.

    The brown house where Faison was shot appeared empty Wednesday — no one answered the door and no cars were in the driveway. There were spray paint markings in the driveway that appeared to indicate where shell casings were found.
    Further up the street, plenty of neighbors were outside; kids were enjoying their new gifts; none of them though had even heard the shots, they said.

    Johnny Harris, 59, said he went to school and played basketball with Faison. He lives about a block away from where the shooting took place, but didn’t witness it.

    Harris said he saw the people who lived in the brown house walking down the street recently with guns on their side. He said they had been in prison and believed the shooting was the result of a drug deal gone wrong.

    “Them boys down there living a gangster life,” he said

    Harris said he knew Faison really well. He said he dressed nicely, but was no gangster. He said he would give people rides for money, like a taxi. He said he was sure Faison was in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn’t deserve what he got.

    “I know he was a quiet guy. … He’ll be missed. He’ll definitely be missed,” he said.

    Brewer said there would be talk in the community about the incident because that’s what happens after a shooting. He encouraged anyone with any information to call the Panama City Police Department or 872-3112 or CrimeStoppers at 850-785-TIPS. Reports can be made anonymously.

    An earlier version of this story is below:

    A Panama City man was shot and killed early Christmas morning and local police are searching for his killer, according to information released by the Panama City Police Department.

    Officers responded to gunshots in the 500 Block of E. 13th Street at about 1 a.m. and found that Wilbert Angelo Faison, 56, had been shot. Faison was rushed to a local hospital but died there of his injuries at about 1:31 a.m. 

    Police have not released any other details about the slaying but are asking anyone with information about the case to contact investigators at (850) 872-3112. Anonymous tips can be reported via CrimeStoppers at (850) 785-TIPS. 

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    The Panama City Police Department has named a "person of interest" in a Christmas Day slaying and is asking for help locating the man.

    A news release describes the person of interest as Stephen Trusty, a 32-year-old black man. Anyone with information about Trusty's location is asked to call Detective Mike Rossomondo at 850-872-3112. Anonymous tips can be reported to CrimeStoppers at 850-785-TIPS.

    Investigators said Wilbert Angelo Faison, 56, was shot at about 1 a.m. Wednesday morning. He was taken to Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart Health System where he died at 1:31 a.m.

    Faison was shot at a house in the 500 block of E. 13th St. near Bay High School — the school where he graduated years earlier. He did not live at the address, but his home was in the neighborhood, a few streets away, police said.

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    SPRINGFIELD — Officials are investigating whether a burglary sparked the destructive fire of a Springfield residence earlier this month.

    Besides missing electronics, jewelry and fur coats, the main cause for concern of homeowner Danny Bain was three missing rifles and a pistol from the living room closet.

    “Those are what is important because those can turn deadly,” he said.

    The fire engulfed the residence of 3735 Avon Road in Springfield on Dec. 5, and the Springfield Police Department and the state Fire Marshal’s Office have not yet ruled what caused the fire. Also undetermined is whether an alleged intrusion occurred before or after the blaze; the property’s owner reported items missing from the charred remains of the flame-ravaged home.

    The Springfield Fire Department attempted to douse the flames through a bedroom window because the doors were locked and windows barred, according to law enforcement reports. Firefighters gained entry to the home and conducted a search to find it empty of residents.

    Bain, 57, arrived to his home of 17 years four days after the Dec. 5 blaze, which “destroyed” the structure, he said.  Bain said nobody was injured in the fire but claimed it was a direct result of the burglary.

    “Even though no one was in the home at the time of the fire, the home was robbed, then set on fire and destroyed,” Bain said.

    Springfield officials did not say whether they have identified any suspects in the case, but investigators are following up on the complaints of burglary and arson. 

    Springfield Police Chief Phillip Thorne said an undetermined lapse in time occurred between the fire and the reported burglary. 

    “We don’t know when the burglary could have occurred,” Thorne said. “We have a two-day time frame … but we don’t know that it happened immediately before the fire or if the fire was caused during the burglary.”

    State fire marshal investigators still are trying to determine the fire’s cause, and after that is determined, Springfield police will decide whether suspects should be charged and what the charges would be.

    “If they determine it was intentionally set, we look to find out who and why,” Thorne said.

    Bain said he reported serial numbers attached to the missing guns but has not yet heard of them turning up in Bay County.

    “It’s hard to deal with this during this time of year,” he said. “But we want these people caught.”

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    NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The planned release Friday of thousands of pages of police documents from the investigation into last year's school massacre in Newtown could shed additional light on the world of the 20-year-old gunman.

    State police said their report totaling several thousand pages would be released at 3 p.m. The report "has been redacted according to law," and includes text, photos and 911 calls received by state police, they said Thursday.

    Prosecutors issued a summary of the investigation last month that portrayed the gunman, Adam Lanza, as obsessed with mass murders, but the report concluded that Lanza's motives for the massacre might never be known.

    The summary report referred to items found on a computer at Lanza's house that included writings detailing relationships, personal beliefs, a daily schedule, desires, goals and other topics.

    Lanza gunned down 20 first-graders and six educators with a semi-automatic rifle at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, after killing his mother inside their home. He committed suicide with a handgun as police arrived at the school.

    To try to figure out the motive, investigators said, they interviewed members of Lanza's family, teachers and others. They said they also tried within the limits of privacy laws to gather information on his medical treatment.

    Lanza "was undoubtedly afflicted with mental health problems; yet despite a fascination with mass shootings and firearms, he displayed no aggressive or threatening tendencies," it said.

    In fifth grade, Lanza wrote "The Big Book of Granny," in which the main character has a gun in her cane and shoots people, and another character talks of liking to hurt people, especially children. The book was among items seized from Lanza's home, but there was no indication he ever handed in the book at school.

    Lanza became obsessed with the 1999 bloodbath at Columbine High in Colorado and other mass killings, the report said. He also kept a spreadsheet ranking mass murders.

    The report also said that in 2005, Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger's disorder — an autism-like condition that is not associated with violence — and that he lacked empathy for others and behaved strangely. Nobody was allowed into his room, not even to clean, according to the report. It said Lanza also disliked birthdays, Christmas and holidays and did not like to have his hair cut.

    He also wouldn't touch doorknobs, his food had to be arranged on the plate in a certain way, and he changed clothes often during the day. He was a loner at school and was repelled by crowds and loud noises.

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    WINTER HAVEN — Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden’s grandson was one of two men killed when their car flipped into a small ditch off a central Florida road, officials said Thursday.

    Taylor Jeffrey Bowden, 23, and driver Rafael Fernandes De Aguiar Valim, 25, died in the crash, according to a news release from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. A third man in the crash — 22-year-old Robert Lewis Edwards — was rescued after spending hours in water up to his neck.

    “Our whole family had just celebrated Christmas together in Panama City, as well as celebrated T.J.’s graduation from Florida State just three weeks ago,” Bobby Bowden said in a statement released by the University of Akron, where son Terry is the football coach. “We will cherish those last memories together with T.J. forever.”

    T.J. Bowden was the son of Jeff Bowden, a former Florida State assistant coach under his father who is now on brother Terry’s staff at Akron.

    “I can’t express the grief I feel right now,” Jeff Bowden said in a statement. “Please keep us in your prayers.”

    A trash collector reported the submerged car at 7:47 a.m. The Mitsubishi wasn’t very visible from the road, but the Florida Refuse truck was high enough to allow the worker to see it.

    At first, Winter Haven police, sheriff’s deputies, paramedics and the sheriff’s office dive team who responded couldn’t find survivors. The front end of the care was completely submerged, while part of the back end was sticking up out of the water.

    More than three hours later, dive team members in the water heard noises coming from in the car. They were able to communicate with Edwards, who said he was cold and needed help. After several minutes, Edwards was out of the water and he was being treated for hypothermia and other injuries at a hospital.

    The dive team then located the bodies of Bowden and De Aguiar Valim.

    The details of the crash were being investigated, but alcohol appears to be a factor, the sheriff’s office reported.

    Deputies have attempted to talk to Edwards about what happened but said he wasn’t lucid. It appears that the car was heading north on Country Club Road when it cross the southbound lane, crashed through a fence, went down an embankment and came to a rest upside down in the water.

    Bobby Bowden led the Seminoles from 1976 to 2009. The 84-year-old holds the NCAA Division I record for career wins and bowl victories and won two national championships.

    In September 2004, Bobby Bowden’s grandson, 15-year-old Bowden Madden, and former son-in-law, John Allen Madden, were killed when their car was hit a by a utility truck that was helping to restore power outages caused by Hurricane Frances. 

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — A 35-year-old Panama City Beach man under investigation since early this month has been arrested on suspicion of several sex crimes, according to the Panama City Beach Police Department.

    Police began investigating Jakobi Holmes in early December after the mother of a 14-year-old victim came forward with suspicions that Holmes had been exchanging sexually explicit messages with the child via text and social media. An investigator assumed the child’s online identity and communicated with Holmes, who offered to perform sex acts on the child, police reported.

    Holmes was arrested when he attempted to meet the child at a local business for the alleged purpose of having sex. He made incriminating statements during an interview with investigators, according to police.

    He was booked into the Bay County Jail to await first appearance on charges of traveling to meet a minor for unlawful sexual conduct, solicitation of a minor for unlawful sexual conduct and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

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    NEW ORLEANS — Nearly six months after a federal judge appointed former FBI director Louis Freeh to investigate alleged misconduct inside the settlement program for compensating victims of BP's 2010 Gulf oil spill, the targets of his inquiry are questioning his independence and trying to rebut his findings.

    Lionel "Tiger" Sutton III, a lawyer whose resignation from the staff of claims administrator Patrick Juneau spawned the investigation, urged U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier last week to throw out a scathing report that Freeh issued in September. The report concluded that top members of Juneau's staff, including Sutton, engaged in conduct that was improper, unethical and possibly criminal.

    Sutton's lawyer, Michael Walsh, argued in a Dec. 18 court filing that Freeh doesn't have any evidence that his client broke any laws or had a conflict of interest during his work on the settlement.

    "When one is able to see through the innuendo, out of context statements, factual mistakes, incorrect assumptions, faulty legal analysis, lack of evidence, self-dealing and fantasies that make up the Freeh report, the conclusion is clear. At no time did Sutton commit any crime or knowingly violate the written terms of his Employment Agreement or the Settlement Agreement," Walsh wrote.

    Freeh's report also accused two private attorneys, Glen Lerner and Jon Andry, of using Sutton's position in the settlement program to benefit their clients' claims. In return, the report said, Sutton received more than $40,000 in fees for referring a claimant to their law firm before he joined Juneau's staff.

    Lerner's lawyers said there is no evidence that Sutton tried to provide any "improper advantage" to any of the clients that Lerner and Andry represented.

    "The evidence shows that the payments made to Sutton were not the product of any agreement among the three lawyers, but were made based on a good faith understanding that Sutton was entitled to the payments and that his receipt of them had been disclosed and approved by Mr. Juneau," they wrote earlier this month.

    Also cited in Freeh's report is Sutton's wife, Christine Reitano, who worked as a lawyer on Juneau's staff. Freeh said Reitano had a conflict of interest when she recommended that a vendor for the settlement program hire her husband. Additionally, Freeh questioned Reitano's truthfulness when she denied having a role in arranging the payments to her husband from Lerner and Andry's firm.

    Juneau fired Reitano in June, shortly after her husband resigned.

    Freeh recommended disqualifying Sutton, Reitano, Andry and Lerner from representing anyone with spill-related settlement claims and called for the Justice Department to investigate whether they broke any laws.

    Barbier allowed the four attorneys to respond in writing to the report's allegations before he rules on Freeh's recommendations.

    Reitano's attorney, Mary Olive Pierson, argued in a Dec. 16 court filing that Freeh's investigation methods are "unexplained and incomplete."

    "Mr. Freeh made no effort at objectivity and his report was obviously result driven," Pierson wrote.

    In an interview, Pierson said Freeh is BP's "man on the job."

    "He is running the claims office now," she said. "BP is getting exactly what it wants."

    Before Barbier appointed him to lead the investigation, Freeh disclosed that he is a partner at a law firm that is working on an unrelated case with lawyers for Kirkland & Ellis, a firm that represents BP.

    Andry's lawyers questioned Freeh's impartiality and said they need more information about his connection to the firm to determine if he should be disqualified from leading the investigation of the settlement program. One of Andry's attorneys, Lewis Unglesby, said Freeh's "one-sided presentation of the facts" omits and misstates evidence that would clear Andry of any wrongdoing.

    "Mr. Freeh's report reads more like a BP opinion than a measured, objective evaluation of all the evidence," Unglesby wrote.

    Barbier ultimately rejected Andry's request for more information after Freeh said he already has "fully and accurately" disclosed any relationships with the parties and their attorneys.

    Freeh's investigation isn't done. In an advertisement that ran Monday in three major newspapers, BP said Freeh is expected to issue his next report shortly after Jan. 1.

    "With new problems constantly surfacing, his findings on the integrity of the claims process are now more important than ever," the ad says.

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    RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Pat McCrory granted pardons on Friday to two men who completed their sentences at least 30 years ago and have each become parts of their respective communities.

    McCrory's office announced that pardons were granted to Linwood Paul Britton, 52, of Edenton and Richard Allen Brown, 58, of Panama City.

    At age 17, Britton pleaded guilty in 1979 to armed robbery of a store in Edenton and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in prison, he earned his GED and took classes in electrical wiring.

    Britton joined a work release program at a local peanut company and has been with the firm ever since. He is currently vice president of plant operations.

    In 1974, the 18-year-old Brown pleaded guilty in Guilford County to possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute. He received a five-year suspended sentence and a $1,500 fine.

    Brown's suspended sentence was terminated the next year so he could enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he served for 30 years. He rose to the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer, and also served as a U.S. Navy SEAL.

    After retiring from the Navy in 2005, Brown worked as a private contractor for the U.S. State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance Program and the Department of Homeland Security.

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    MARIANNA -- Police are looking for a man who robbed a Marianna home with a long rifle Friday, a Marianna Police Department news release stated.

    The robbery happened at about 9:27 p.m. Friday at a home on Cedar Street, the release stated. The suspect is described as a medium built black man; about six foot three inches tall and 200 pounds.

    He was armed with a long rifle and wearing a black ski mask at the time of the robbery, the release stated.

    If you have any information on the incident, contact the Marianna Police Department at 526-3125 or Crime Stoppers at 526-5000.   

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    PANAMA CITY — Mandatory minimum sentencing reform for drug offenses will pass the state Legislature in 2014, its Senate co-sponsor predicts.

    State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, is confident the bill (SB 360) strikes the right balance, ensuring drug addicts get the help they need and the state saves money.

    “I think we’ve established some definite principles to where … it will become law this year,” he said.

    The bill would create a separate category in state statute called “trafficking in illegal prescription drugs,” but the name is deceiving. The law would apply to anyone possessing the drugs, not just buyers and sellers.

    One reason its proponents say it’s needed is that, in determining the mandatory minimum senctence, the weight of the pills’ inert ingredients are included; sometimes heavier pills have the same amount of the active drug as the lighter ones.
    Evers referenced a 2012 study that showed, under current law, seven pills could crack the 4-gram weight mark and land a three-year minimum prison sentence.

    “It’s not being soft on crime; it’s actually being smart on crime,” he said of the proposed bill.

    He said the reform would do more than save the state money; it would decrease the amount of drug-related crime.

    “It’s just being smart, using your money more wisely,” Evers said.

    The bill’s scope is narrow, focusing only on oxycodone and hydrocodone, which are opioids used to treat pain but also can provide a heroin-like high to drug abusers. Most prominently, it would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for those caught with less than 14 grams of the prescription narcotics.

    Right now, if suspects are convicted of illegal possession of just 4 grams of oxycodone or hydrocodone, they receive a minimum 3-year prison sentence and a $50,000 fine.

    The bill would leave mandatory minimums in place, though, but reduce their severity.
    If passed, 14 to 27 grams would yield a minimum three years and a $50,000 fine instead of 15 years and a $100,000 fine; 28 to 49 grams would be seven years and a $100,000 fine instead of 25 years and a $500,000 fine; and 50 to 199 grams would be 15 years and a $500,000 fine instead of 25 years and a $500,000 fine.

    For more than 200 grams, the bill would levy a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years and a $750,000 fine, in line with current law.

    The bill also would remove oxycodone and hydrocodone possession from the harshest punishment — life imprisonment — when holding 30 kilograms or more.

    The bill is scheduled for an early hearing in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice on Jan. 8. Identical companion legislation (HB 99) has been filed in the House and will be workshopped in the Criminal Justice Subcommittee next month.

    “I think this shows the relevant leadership in the House and Senate is taking this seriously and wants to get something done,” said Greg Newburn, Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

    Second try

    This is the second year the proposal will be taken up; it was hammered out late in the session last year and died due to lack of time, Newburn said.

    Last session, the bill only passed out of the Criminal Justice Committee in the Senate, but it made it all the way to the floor in the House, though it never received a vote.

    Newburn shared Evers’ optimism about the bill passing, though he was slightly more reserved.

    “We are, I think, in the best position we’ve been in in the last few years,” he said. “This language was endorsed by Attorney General Pam Bondi last year; it was supported by the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.”
    The Florida Sheriffs Association, traditionally opposed to weakening drug laws, never took a side, Newburn said.

    “These are allies in this fight that we haven’t had in a long time — we’re happy to have them — and with their support, we’re hopeful that the Legislature will do the right thing,” he said.

    Newburn also acknowledged the bill represents a compromise. His group would like to see drug sentencing mandatory minimums eliminated. He said there’s no evidence they work, and they’re inefficient and unjustifiably expensive. He said judicial discretion is “easily the better alternative.”

    Regardless, it would be a step in the right direction if the bill passed and it would bring some satisfaction, Newburn said.
    “It does meaningfully improve our completely indefensible drug-sentencing laws,” he said.

    But it would only be the first of many victories his group hopes to achieve.

    “This one-size-fits-all, central-planning-sentencing policy — it needs to be reformed; it needs to be changed,” he said. “This is a good step in the right direction, but it’s not the last step — at least it shouldn’t be.”

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    The News Herald is publishing its annual countdown of the top 10 stories of the year.

    These were the stories reporters and editors felt were the most important in Bay County in 2013. The series will end on New Year’s Eve, with the top story of the year. Also on that day, The News Herald will list the top 10 stories as ranked by readers in an online poll. Voting is now closed. 



    10. Sunday: Florida State University Panama City opens to freshmen, sophomores

    9. Monday: Arrival of F-22s, Air Force personnel delayed for a year

    8. Tuesday: Big changes at The Rescue Mission

    7. Wednesday: Development boom at Pier Park

    6. Thursday: Region raked in BP money

    5. Friday: County takes over ambulance service

    4. Saturday: Panama City Marina developments

    3. Sunday: Historic rainfall flooded Bay County

    2. Today: Parasailing crash

    PANAMA CITY BEACH — It’s been six months since an internet video brought national attention to a gruesome scene on a beautiful beach.

    On July 1, tourist Alexis Fairchild tweeted her excitment about a planned parasailing adventure later that day with her friend Sidney Good. Their excitement turned to terror when the line that tethered the teens to a boat detached and sent the girls sailing with the winds from a strong storm. They crashed into the top of multi-story condominium and sailed into a power line before smashing several vehicles in the parking lot.

    Fairchild didn’t tweet again for almost a month. She and Good spent more than a week in the hospital before they returned home to Indiana.

    When reached by Twitter Fairchild declined to comment, saying she was still focusing on her recovery from the numerous injuries she suffered. Attempts to reach Good were unsuccessful.

    The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigation into the incident is still at least a month from completion, said FWC spokesman Stan Kirkland. Portions of the investigation being handled by federal agencies—the National Transporation Safety Board and the U.S. Coast Guard — were delayed by the sequester earlier in the year, Kirkland said.

    “There are still some technical things that we’re waiting on,” Kirkland said.

    A portion of the crash was captured on video footage that spread quickly over the Internet and captured the attention of media outlets around the world. Lawmakers said the incident was an example of why the state should pass a law placing restrictions on who can operate a parasailing business and the safety precautions operators should take.

    There are currently no restrictions on parasail operators. They are not licensed or required to carry liability insurance, there are no safety inspections, and there are no prohibitions against operating in dangerous weather. A bill that would have imposed restrictions on operating in dangerous weather and required operators to carry insurance died in a senate subcommittee earlier this year.

    The Coast Guard released a preliminary report less than a month after the crash that said the weather and the proximity to the shore off the “Why Knot,” the vessel towing the girls, contributed to the crash. The Coast Guard also distributed a safety checklist to local operators reminding them to diligently monitor weather conditions, check their equipment and be prepared for emergencies.
    Lawmakers Gwyndolen Clarke-Reed, a democratic representative from Deerfield Beach, and Maria Sachs, a democratic senator from South Florida, pledged to refile bills to regulate the industry, and both have made good on that promise. The bill is scheduled for its first hearing Jan. 9 in front of a senate subcommittee.

    Sachs addressed parasail operators at an industry symposium in St. Petersburg recently. The industry response to the proposed regulation was favorable, according to her website.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — On New Year’s Eve in 1982 Richard “Spud” White, the owner of White’s Wrecker Service, responded to a car accident that involved an entire family.

    He found two adults and a two-year-old boy dead on the scene of the crash, which was caused by a drunk driver.

    Since then, White’s Wrecker Service has offered a free tow and ride home on New Year’s Eve to anyone who needs it in Bay and Gulf County.

    “We take about 50 calls on New Years,” said White’s daughter, Hassie White. “It may not seem like a lot, but that’s 50 people off the road that shouldn’t be driving.”

    According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, three people are killed in alcohol-related highway crashes every two hours, and the risk is higher on holidays like New Year’s.

    To prepare, law enforcement agencies throughout Bay County are beefing up patrol for the holiday.

    Panama City Beach Police Chief Drew Whitman said the department will increase patrol presence throughout the city, especially in and around the Pier Park area for the New Year’s Eve Beach Ball Drop.

    “We have increased patrol both inside the park and on the road for more of a presence and more proactive law enforcement,” he said.

    With 40,000 attendees at Pier Park last year and even more anticipated tonight, Whitman said PCBPD will also be using a new 21-foot portable security tower to aid in crowd control.

    “It’s getting larger and larger,” Whitman said of the event. “We will have a detail inside of Pier Park to help out with the crowds and also for traffic control after.”

    Whitman also warned partygoers to plan ahead before heading out.

    “Take a designated driver if you plan on drinking or call a friend or family member to come pick you up,” he said. “It’s not worth taking a risk.”

    Need a ride home?

    Call White’s Wrecker Service at (850) 215-8695 for a free tow and ride home anywhere in Bay or Gulf County on New Year’s Eve.

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    PANAMA CITY — Detectives investigating the Christmas morning shooting death of a Panama City man have released a man described as a “person of interest” without charges, and arrested another man for lying to detectives.

    Police said Stephen Trusty was at

    511 E. 13th St.
    about 1 a.m. on Dec. 25 when 56-year-old Wilbert “Cadillac Will” Faison was fatally shot outside the home. Trusty, who lives in Gainesville, voluntarily came forward to speak with detectives, said Sgt. Mike Brewer with the Panama City Police Department.

    Another man, Michael Davis, was arrested Dec. 26 and charged with providing false information to law enforcement, a misdemeanor. Brewer would not divulge what Davis allegedly lied about.

    Davis lives at the address where Faison was shot and was standing near Faison when police arrived at the scene of the shooting, according to a PCPD incident report obtained Monday by The News Herald.

    Attempts to reach Trusty, who once lived at the home where Faison was killed, were unsuccessful Monday. Brewer would not disclose what Trusty told detectives, and police are not saying if they consider Faison’s death a criminal act.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — A long-awaited report from an animal advocacy group might put to rest fears someone has been mutilating house cats in Bay Point.

    Analysts with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) linked the deaths to a coyote, backing up an earlier report. The Bay County Sheriff’s Office had submitted the partial remains from two cats found mutilated in Bay Point in September and October. Officials asked the group to perform a DNA analysis on the remains after neighbors who found them suspected the animals’ injuries were made by humans. Neighbors said the body parts appeared to have been cleanly severed, as if with a blade, and called on deputies to investigate.

    The ASPCA analyst tested the remains of the animals for the presence of DNA from other animals. If found, it would be a strong indication the cats were killed by the coyotes, foxes or alligators known to live in the area.

    DNA from a coyote was present on one of the cats, and the other had puncture wounds consistent with a coyote’s teeth. That, coupled with the recovery of numerous other partial cat remains in the area, suggested the cats most likely were killed by coyotes, forensic veterinarian Dr. Rhonda Windham wrote in the report released Tuesday.

    “DNA evidence identified puncture marks and similar partial feline remains found in close proximity to each other are all supportive that a predator, in this case a coyote, was likely responsible for the deaths of these animals,” Windham wrote.

    The ASPCA released a preliminary report earlier that also suggested animal predators were killing the cats, but the Sheriff’s Office left the investigation open until the DNA results were in.

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    NEW ORLEANS — Lawyers for a former BP engineer convicted of trying to obstruct a federal probe of the company's 2010 Gulf oil spill claim juror misconduct tainted the guilty verdict and warrants a new trial.

    In a court filing Thursday, defense attorneys ask U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval Jr. to throw out the jury's Dec. 18 verdict convicting Kurt Mix of one count of obstruction of justice for deleting text messages to and from a BP supervisor.

    Mix's lawyers said they interviewed jurors after the verdict and learned that one juror told the others during their deliberations about overhearing a conversation in a courthouse elevator that made that juror feel more comfortable about convicting Mix.

    Mix's attorneys also said some jurors apparently engaged in "horse trading" that would ensure a split verdict.

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  • 01/02/14--15:57: UPDATE: Missing man found
  • SOUTHPORT — Albert Earnest Burkey was found Friday morning unharmed and in good condition, the Bay County Sheriff's Office reported.


    Below in an earlier version of this story:

    SOUTHPORT -- The Bay County Sheriff’s Office is looking for a man missing since Wednesday from his home on County 2321.

    Albert Earnest Burkey, 71, was last seen about 1:30 p.m. by a family member at his home on County 2321, Lot 2. He is believed to be driving a white 2000 Chevrolet Astro van, Florida tag number 007YZJ. Burkey left behind his cell phone and medications. Burkey has to use an oxygen tank continuously and family members are concerned he may soon run out of oxygen.

    Burkey is described as 6-feet, 2-inches tall, about 210 pounds, with a full head of short gray hair and hazel eyes. He was wearing a shirt, blue jeans and sandals.

    Anyone with information is asked to call Investigator Dennis Rozier at BCSO at 248-2147 or Crime Stoppers at 785-TIPS.

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    MARIANNA — One of the four women who died in a New Year’s Day house fire had rushed back into the burning home attempting to save the people trapped inside, her brother said Thursday.

    Cynthia Pete, 46, had escaped the blaze that engulfed the home on Jackson Street around 8 a.m. Wednesday before she went back inside, said Robert Pete, her brother. Cynthia Pete was one of four women who died in the fire, he said.

    Marianna Police still are investigating and have not released any details, including the names of the dead, but Robert Pete identified them as Gertrude Pete, his mother; Sarah Johnson and Ruth Pete, who was often called Elis.

    Six children and three other adults escaped the house, where the family lived for about 15 years, said Ruth Byrd, Cynthia Pete’s sister. The remaining members of what Robert Pete described as a very large extended family gathered in a temporary residence across town, where they were accepting visitors and donations of food, clothing and toys for the numerous children.

    Despite the tragic loss, Robert Pete was in remarkably good spirits, which he attributed to the grace of God.

    “We appreciate everybody who has donated, whether it was a phone call, monetary or prayers,” Robert Pete said. “God says ‘What you do unto others you have done unto me,’ so God is grateful for what’s been done for this family.”

    Celeste Myrick works part time at the Sweet Stuff Bakery across the street. She said she arrived to work Wednesday just after fire crews had extinguished the flames.

    “I’ve never seen nothing like it in my life,” Myrick said.

    Gertrude Pete and Johnson would spend a lot of time outside the home on the porch, Myrick said. Their presence comforted Myrick when she was out alone after dark in a neighborhood she said is not the best. Myrick brought the family some food Thursday.

    Cheryl Holmes isn’t a relative by blood, but she’s family nonetheless. Gertrude Pete raised Holmes after her mother became too ill, she said.

    “Gertrude was known as a community mom. She raised a lot of us,” said Holmes. “She blessed this city; everywhere you look you can see some Miss Gertrude.”

    Everything in the home was destroyed, Robert Pete said.

    The family has received assistance from the American Red Cross, Robert Pete said, and an account has been set up to help as well. Donations to the Pete Family Fire Fund can be made at Regions Bank.

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    MARIANNA — A passenger in a minivan was killed Thursday afternoon in a collision on Interstate 10 in Jackson County, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

    The victim was identified as Doris Krupp 50, of Mims.

    Troopers said the 2001 Dodge Caravan Krupp was in was traveling eastbound at 1:30 p.m. when it entered the median and crossed into the westbound lanes and collided with two other cars. Krupp, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected, FHP said.

    The van was being driven by Melissa Montesano, 21, also of Mims. She and five other people were injured. Most of the injuries were minor, although passengerChristina Montesano, 19, Warrior, Ala., received serious injuries and was taken to a Tallahassee hospital, FHP said.

    Alcohol was not believed to be a factor in the crash, FHP said.

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  • 01/03/14--17:47: Three injured in car crash
  • ALTHA -- A Hosford man was taken to Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart Health System on Friday in critical condition, and two others were seriously injured after a crash east of Altha, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.

    Jason Brown, 33, failed to stop a Ford F-150 at a stop sign at the intersection of State 69 and County 286/274 and collided with a Nissan Frontier around 10:35 a.m. Friday. Christopher Coleman, 36, and Sandy Coleman, 30, were taken to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital with serious injuries, and 1-year-old Grace Coleman was also taken to Tallahassee Memorial with minor injuries.

    Brown, who was not wearing a safety belt, was cited for running a stop sign.

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