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    PARKER -- A traffic crash at the foot of the DuPont Bridge in Parker injured one person and caused delays to commuters Thursday afternoon.

    The crash happened around 12:30 p.m. at the intersection of Tyndall Parkway and Third Court when the driver of a Toyota pickup failed to yield and crashed into a Honda, causing the car to flip into a utility pole, according to Parker Police Chief Charles Sweatt.

    The crash set off a chain reaction of sorts, as another pole fell into the roof of an unoccupied building and live power lines blocked all four lanes of traffic.

    The Toyota driver was cited for failure to yield. The driver of the Honda was taken by EMS to Bay Medical Center for treatment of what Sweatt believed to be non life-threatening injuries.

    The crashed knocked out power for 437 customers, according to Gulf Power, which had work crews on the scene for about five hours, Sweatt said.

    An earlier version of this story is posted below:


    PARKER - A traffic crash at the foot of the DuPont Bridge in Parker is slowing traffic and will delay school bus drop offs for at least an hour, officials said. 

    The incident happened in the southbound lane and destroyed a nearby power pole knocking out power to about 437 customers according to Gulf Power.

    Other details are not available at this time. Motorists should avoid the area if possible.  

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    PANAMA CITY — A judge dismissed several felony charges Thursday against a man and a woman suspected of meth trafficking after the state abandoned an appeal of the judge’s order to suppress key evidence in the case.

    Prosecutor Bob Pell said the state had no objection to a defense motion to dismiss charges against Paul Dan Smith III and Audrey Landree, and Judge Elijah Smiley dismissed the charges against them.

    Investigators with the sheriff’s office’s Criminal Investigation Division knew Smith as “Whiskey” and suspected he was perhaps the biggest distributor of high quality methamphetamine in Bay County when they arrested him outside a Panama City Beach home on a warrant that had been recalled weeks earlier.

    Landree, a Gulf War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, also was charged with meth trafficking, a first-degree felony with a minimum mandatory sentence and a maximum sentence of 30 years.

    Landree and Smith argued the evidence against them was seized by deputies who entered their house without a search warrant.

    In September, Smiley sided with the defense and ordered evidence seized by investigators, including 100 grams of meth, suppressed. Both were released from jail while prosecutors appealed Smiley’s ruling, and both were rearrested on new charges within the month.

    Smith was charged with battery for badly beating  a neighbor, a charge to which he pleaded no contest and was sentenced to two years in prison.

    Landree was arrested the day after the beating on accusations of tampering with the victim, and the charge is still pending. She allegedly sent someone to the neighbor with $3,000 cash to get his teeth fixed.

    When the victim declined the messenger allegedly said “he really needed to think about the offer, that there could be serious consequences,” according to an arrest report.

    Landree has pleaded not guilty.

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    PANAMA CITY -- Jurors convicted a 27-year-old Callaway man whose plan to rob a lottery winner was foiled when the victim told him she kept her money in the bank, not in her home, according to the State Attorney’s Office.

    Kelvin Jaquez Mack faces up to life in prison when Judge Michael Overstreet sentences him for armed home invasion, false imprisonment, grand theft auto and principal to armed home invasion. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for April 15.

    Mack and Rossi Armstead, who was convicted on similar charges in July, broke into Linda Marie Wilson’s home on Aug. 31, 2012. Wilson had recently won $90,000 in a lottery, and her cousin Mytrice Walker enlisted Mack and Armstead to rob her.

    Wilson woke up on her couch to a masked gunman tapping her shoulder and demanding money while the other gunman brought her teenaged daughter from her bedroom.

    When Wilson explained that her money was in the bank, Mack drove the daughter to several ATMs unsuccessfully trying to withdraw money. They eventually gave up and left the house with $150.

    Walker identified Mack and Armstead, and she was sentenced to six years in prison after she entered a plea to principal to home invasion robbery.

    Armstead also could be sentenced to life in prison. Judge James Fensom is scheduled to sentence him March 3.

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    PANAMA CITY — Attorneys on both sides of a case against a former Springfield mayor charged with a felony for allegedly violating a stop-work order from the state of Florida said during a hearing Thursday they expect the case to be resolved without a trial.

    The Florida Department of Financial Services’ Fraud Division arrested 62-year-old Robert Walker last October on a count of workers’ compensation fraud for the alleged violation.

    Walker, who was Springfield’s mayor for 17 years until challenger Ralph Hammond defeated him in 2013, is accused of allowing an employee of his construction company, La Rew Enterprises Inc., to work without workers’ compensation insurance coverage, according to charging documents.

    Investigators issued a stop-work order on Nov. 6, 2012. They found the uninsured worker at a job site eight days later. They said they were protecting the building’s unfinished roof from a coming storm, and they had cleared it with Walker’s attorney.

    Investigators disagreed and charged him with a third-degree felony.

    Steve Meadows, Walker’s attorney, said in court Thursday he and prosecutor Christine Smallwood have been negotiating to resolve the case, but the defense is ready to go to trial if they can’t come to an agreement.

    “This case should resolve, but if not we’re ready to move forward toward trial,” Meadows told Judge Elijah Smiley.

    Walker has filed a waiver of appearance and was not in court Thursday. Smiley set his next court date for March 27.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH -- A two-month investigation by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office culminated with the seizure of two pounds of ICE methamphetamine and seven handguns and the arrests of four people.

    On Thursday, investigators doing surveillance saw a meeting between targets of the investigation in the 8000 block of Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach, BCSO said. Investigators saw an exchange of a package between two vehicles, and both vehicles left the area.

    One of the vehicles was stopped by officers as it traveled northbound on U.S. 231. A BCSO K9 alerted to the presence of drugs in the vehicle, and a search discovered a loaded .45-caliber handgun concealed under the seat of a passenger, and a loaded .45-caliber handgun along with marijuana was discovered on another passenger.

    Arrested were Richard Brigham, 37, and Antonio Bagley, 27, both from Albany, Ga. They told investigators they were in Panama City Beach to assist in the opening of a nightclub for Spring Break.

    The other vehicle observed by investigators also was stopped, and the driver, Kenny Thornton, 34, was arrested on a traffic violation. A passenger in the vehicle, Elizabeth Fulton, was allowed to leave the traffic stop. The vehicle was impounded, and a search warrant led to the seizure of a handgun from a purse. 

    On Friday, investigators arrested Fulton, 26, of Panama City on a warrant for felon in possession of a firearm and carrying a concealed weapon. A search of the vehicle discovered about two pounds of ICE methamphetamine, two currency counting devices, scales and four firearms.

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    GRACEVILLE — The managers of a Graceville dairy were arrested Friday on charges of neglecting about 90 dairy cattle.

    The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced the arrests of Joseph Dodge Harvey Clark, 75, Richard Kevin Clark, 51, and Nikki Slininger, 31, who managed the Wild Rose Dairy at 1230 Underwood Road in Graceville. The three Holmes County residents were charged with aggravated animal cruelty, a third-degree felony, and unlawful disposal of animal carcasses, a second-degree misdemeanor.

    At the time of the arrest, officers found Slininger with methamphetamine and charged her with possession of a controlled substance, agriculture officers said.

    The investigation stemmed from a routine food safety inspection at the dairy on Feb. 11. Inspectors detected unsanitary conditions at the dairy and immediately issued a stop sale order for violations of food safety regulations, according to a news release. Inspectors observed about 90 dairy cows in poor condition, and a veterinarian at the agriculture department later confirmed the poor condition of the cattle was due to neglect.

    On Feb. 17, law enforcement officers transferred the remaining dairy cattle to another local dairy, where they could live under proper care until the court can determine ownership and a long-term care solution.

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    PANAMA CITY - The Florida Highway Patrol spent Sunday investigating a man's death. 

    Officials found a truck on the water near the Shoreline Circle Boat Ramp Sunday morning. They found the man's body in the water Sunday afternoon. The man's name has not been officially released and further details about the incident were not available Sunday night. 

    Officials with the FHP said more details would be released at a later time. 

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    LYNN HAVEN - The Florida Highway Patrol has released a few more details about an incident that left a Lynn Haven man dead Sunday.

    Bay County Sheriff's deputies were called to the Shoreline Circle Boat Ramp shortly after 7 a.m. Sunday where they found a 2007 Chevrolet truck completely submerged in the water. Sometime later they found the body of Leo Ronald Smith, 65, in the water near the truck.

    "Smith is currently believed to have been the driver and sole occupant of the vehicle at the time it entered the water," the news release states.

    The incident is under investigation.

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    Troopers and deputies are awaiting autopsy results and an official determination into what caused the death of a 65-year-old man whose body was discovered early Sunday morning, a trooper said Monday.

    Bay County Sheriff’s Deputies responded to the

    Shoreline Circle
    Boat Ramp at about 7 a.m. Sunday after someone reported a vehicle in the water nearly submerged. The BCSO dive team recovered the vehicle and discovered the body of Leo Ronald Smith, of Lynn Haven, in the water nearby.

    Lt. Rick Warden with the Florida Highway Patrol said it’s not yet clear if Smith’s death was suicide, homicide or accidental, but he said he was not aware of any evidence of foul play.

    “Right now everything’s pending,” Warden said.

    Investigators believe Smith was the driver and sole occupant of the 2007 Chevrolet Silverado when it went into the water. 

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  • 03/04/14--06:34: FDLE lab fallout continues
  • PANAMA CITY — Prosecutors had a lot of work dropped on their plate in the wake of the arrest of a former state crime lab drug analyst accused of stealing prescription drugs submitted as criminal evidence.

    The attorney for one man convicted in part by his testimony said they’re making new mistakes and further contaminating evidence.
    Chief Assistant State Attorney Greg Wilson said prosecutors in the 14th Judicial Circuit have identified 349 closed cases and another 18 pending cases which the Pensacola-based analyst, Joseph Graves, was involved.

    “Obviously, his credibility is an issue for anything,” Wilson said of Graves.

    Prosecutors are focusing first on the pending cases to make sure they are still viable, Wilson said. The next priority is closed cases that might have gone to trial, and prosecutors in the 14th circuit already have identified two of those that resulted in convictions, Wilson said.

    Prosecutors filed motions in those two cases asking the judge to order the Clerk of Courts, which maintains criminal evidence for a prescribed period of time after a case is closed, to release the evidence to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for retesting in Orlando.

    The results of the retest will determine whether prosecutors actually have the evidence they thought. Even if the pills they believe are prescription-only oxycodones turned out to be over-the-counter aspirins, for example, prosecutors might have other options to prove their cases: the results of field testing that police perform at the time of the seizure, for instance, or photographs of the pills, Wilson said. 

    “All is not lost as far as prosecution goes, but you see all the hoops we have to jump through,” Wilson said.

    Wilson pointed out that prosecutors have a legal duty to disclose any exculpatory or favorable evidence, as well as any evidence that might lead to exculpatory or favorable evidence.

    “All that has to be disclosed, and we’re going to disclose anything we find,” Wilson said.

    Attorney Walter Smith isn’t ready to take Wilson at his word. Last summer, Smith defended Jeremiah Beazley against drug trafficking and, ironically, evidence tampering charges. Beazley is one of the two cases that went to trial and resulted in conviction based in part on the testimony of Joseph Graves.

    “I’m supposed to trust these people?” Smith said. “Do you think they got this order to protect [Beazley’s] rights? … I don’t think so. I think they’re trying to protect their conviction.”

    Beazley case

    Beazley is in prison until 2028 for a drug conviction based in part on the testimony of the now-discredited lab analyst. He’d been charged with trafficking, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence, but jurors found him guilty of the lesser offense of possession.

    Judge James Fensom gave him 15 years, the maximum sentence available on the lesser charges. Beazley appealed to the 1st District Court of Appeal.

    Smith said he would have objected to certain aspects of the state’s proposal to retest the evidence, but he was never given the chance.

    On Feb. 20 in response to a motion by prosecutors that noted there’s reason to believe the evidence against Beazley has been tampered with, Fensom ordered the clerk’s office to release evidence against Beazley to FDLE for retesting.
    But it wasn’t until last week the 1st District Court of Appeal relinquished jurisdiction to the trial court for 90 days — not so prosecutors can retest the evidence, but so Beazley can file a motion for post-conviction relief.

    “They have further contaminated the chain of custody by releasing it back to the people that tampered with it in the first place,” Smith said.

    Fensom, Smith said, had no legal authority to release the evidence because he didn’t have jurisdiction over the case. Smith never had an opportunity to ask that the evidence be tested by an independent third-party; there was never a hearing.
    Fensom did not respond to a request for comment; his assistant said he would not comment on a pending case.
    Smith said the order to release the evidence is just another mistake in a “comedy of errors,” but he wasn’t laughing; he said Beazley’s right to due process is being violated.

    “This is evidence in a trial; this isn’t some plea,” he said. “We have a right to be there whenever they’re messing with it.”

    The Trial

    When Beazley went to trial last year, Graves — the FDLE analyst arrested last month on suspicion of stealing and selling drugs submitted as criminal evidence to the Pensacola lab he supervised — testified against him.
    During the trial, Smith pointed out that deputies reported submitting 378 pills, but only 288 pills came back from the lab.

    “Back in June, everybody knew the 90 pills disappeared,” Smith said. “We established — not them — that this evidence had been tampered with.”

    At the time of Beazley’s trial, Smith said, neither Fensom nor anyone from the sheriff’s office, the FDLE or the State Attorney’s Office cared about the missing pills. Beazley was convicted and Fensom gave him the maximum sentence.

    The investigator who arrested Beazley testified he submitted 288 pills to FDLE, but on a sworn statement five days after Beazley’s arrest he wrote down that he had submitted 378. He explained he may have miscounted the pills or mistakenly written the wrong number.

    Smith hoped the judge, investigator, analyst and prosecutor would’ve been “slapping themselves on the forehead” and seriously considering the possibility that the state’s evidence against Beazley had been tampered with. Instead, he said, everybody looked for an out.

    Graves said FDLE weighed pills but didn’t bother to count them. The weight of a controlled substance is what determines whether a defendant will be charged with a trafficking offense that carries a minimum mandatory sentence.

    The investigator told the jury he might have miscounted, or he might have written the wrong number down in his report. Smith hammered the investigator on the witness stand about the missing pills.

    “It worked to the extent the jury heard it and said, ‘We’re not going to convict this guy of trafficking,’ ” Smith said.

    Smith remembers thinking at the time that the problem must have been with the investigator or the evidence custodian at the sheriff’s office, but he was looking in the wrong direction.

    “It just never occurred to me that there was junkie working at the crime lab,” Smith said.

    Smith Monday filed a motion asking Fensom to set Beazley’s conviction aside because of the probability Graves tampered with it. The fact that the state’s evidence was “unlawfully released” to the FDLE is “another reason that the conviction should be set aside,” he said.

    Smith argues the onus is on the state now to prove the pills have not been tampered with.

    “The state can’t prove that it wasn’t tampered with,” he said, “and I can prove the evidence was tampered with.”

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    In the early hours of July 25, 2010, a Hillsborough jail deputy snapped a routine booking photo of Meagan Simmons, who had been arrested on a DUI charge. In the picture, her head appeared slightly and seductively cocked. Her hair, tousled just the right way. Her eyes, hazel and piercing.

    The mug shot turned out like a glamor shot, and it launched a thousand memes. ”Guilty of taking my breath away.” ”This is what a model inmate looks like.” ”Arrested for breaking and entering your heart.” On countless websites, Simmons, 28, became known as the ”attractive convict.”

    None of this escaped her notice. Last year, the mother of four from Zephyrhills tweeted ” look who made the cut!” when her photo was part of an Inside Edition special about hot mug shots. She did interviews with the Huffington Post and the Daily Mail in April. There was even chatter she’d pose for Playboy if given the opportunity.

    This week, however, she indicated she’s had enough publicity. In a lawsuit filed in Hillsborough County, Simmons accused the background check website of using her picture for commercial and advertising purposes, without compensating her or even getting her permission.

    Simmons declined to comment to the Tampa Bay Times and spoke through her attorney, Matthew Crist.

    ”At the end of the day, this is actually about intellectual property,” Crist said. ”If someone is going to use your image, they need to pay you for it.”

    He likened the issue to Colgate using Tom Cruise’s image to sell toothpaste without his permission.

    Interest in the photo simmered up in August 2012, when a compilation of images was posted to men’s interest site the Chive under the headline: ”Who knew mugshots could be so attractive.” From there, Simmons’ face made its way through various photo sharing sites. On April 3, a user named Vestra on Reddit posted her picture with the caption, ”Can I have her cell number.” Another user quickly followed with ”I guess it’s true, looks do kill.” It went on from there.

    Even today, Simmons has a strong social media presence — she has 1,182 Instagram followers and 2,434 Twitter followers. She told the Daily Mail last year she didn’t much like the photo that has become so admired.

    ”I don’t think it’s that good a picture. There are other ones I would prefer,” she said in the Daily Mail story.

    So why does Simmons have an issue with the exposure now, when before she seemed to embrace it?

    The distinction, Crist said, is that is using her image for obvious financial gain. The other pictures floating around are more for fun and enjoyment.

    An ad attached to the lawsuit shows Simmons’ photo with the caption ”Sometimes the cute ones aren’t that innocent.” The Checkmate logo is displayed next to a button that says ”check now.” did not return a call for comment.

    In the suit, Simmons alleges the exposure has disturbed her peace of mind, invaded her privacy and caused her anguish. The suit seeks monetary damages and an injunction to prevent further use of her picture.
    When asked how the situation caused her mental anguish, Crist said it was early in the lawsuit and the main point was that what was doing was illegal.

    ”The legal issue is it’s your face, and your name. You own it,” he said. ”You can use it, you control it and when someone misappropriates it — that’s when you’re violating Florida law.”

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH -- The Bay County Sheriff’s Office is looking for a missing Spring Break visitor and is asking for the help of the public to locate him.

    Reny Jose, a 21-year-old student of Rice University, has not been seen since Monday at 7 p.m. Jose has been on Panama City Beach with friends since Saturday.

    The BCSO was contacted at 11:26 a.m. Tuesday by friends of Jose to report him missing from the beach-front home he was renting. The home is located in the 21000 block of Front Beach Road. Jose’s clothing and personal items were found in a garbage can near the home.

    The BCSO Air Unit has been covering the area near the home and surrounding beaches to find Jose.

    Anyone with information about Reny Jose is asked to contact the Bay County Sheriff’s Office at 747-4700 or Crime Stoppers at 785-TIPS.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — Cock-A-Doodle-Do, a team in the Monday night billiards league at Foghorn’s, started shooting before two of its members arrived.

    “They were on their way here,” bartender Amy Calloway said Tuesday.

    The rumors got to the bar quickly: Missy DeBerry and Scotty Davis had been killed in a wreck.

    Johnny Adams left the bar and went to the home where they lived. He found a woman he didn’t know and a state trooper. Adams told the trooper he’d heard a rumor. The rumor was true, the trooper told him.

    Back at Foghorn’s, Cock-A-Doodle-Do forfeited its match. Friends at the bar drank shots of Fireball, the cinnamon whiskey Davis drank, in tribute to their lost friends.

    “They’re going to be missed,” Calloway said.

    DeBerry was on the back of Davis’ black Harley Davidson Road King when 71-year-old Joyce Mickschl of La Crosse, Wis. crossed their path at the intersection on Moylan Road and they crashed into the front of her Chevrolet Equinox. DeBerry, 48, and Davis, 54 were killed. Neither was wearing a helmet. FHP is investigating.

    DeBerry and Davis are going to be missed by the people they knew from their rides and the haunts they frequented when they killed their engines and bellied up to the various biker bars of Panama City Beach.

     “He was always happy, always nice and friendly. So was she,” said Kathy Haley, who works at Ms. Newby’s, another bar Davis and DeBerry liked to frequent. Davis organized the bar’s Old School Bike Show twice a year during Thunder Beach, Haley said.

    Friends said if it wasn’t dumping rain, Davis was on his motorcycle. He was passionate about motorcycles, Haley said.

    Beth Sherman rode over to Mardi Gras in St. Andrews with Davis and DeBerry. She said the loss of her friends had her considering whether she would still ride.

    “They keep going down around this town, seems like more and more,” Sherman said Tuesday.

    He was craftsman by trade, and he’d recently started a passion project, a motorcycle and auto shop called Hawgbodys that he ran out of the shop behind his home on Joan Avenue. Parked out back Tuesday was a van with a bumper sticker warning motorists to look twice for motorcycles and a bright orange canoe.

    If he wasn’t on his motorcycle, he had that distinctive canoe with him, and he was always ready to drop it in the water.

    “You knew where he was because of that damn canoe,” Calloway said.

    “He used to say, ‘you never know when you’re going to go canoeing,’ ” said Foghorn’s owner Bill York. “All you had to do was mention it and he was ready to go.”

    Davis and DeBerry were at the Salty Goat Saloon Sunday evening, owner Gary Gault said. The tavern is a popular spot with bikers, particularly on Sunday evenings when that last ride of the weekend winds down.

    “They were good people,” Gault said. “It’s a sad loss for us all.”

    Calloway woke up Tuesday morning and started looking back through Davis’ pictures on Facebook. She laughed when she described seeing her long-haired, tattooed friend in leather chaps and a g-string. She was at a loss to explain the picture, so York chimed in.

    “Because that was Scotty,” York laughed. “That’s why.”

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  • 03/04/14--18:23: Biomedical waste burns
  • PANAMA CITY -- Nobody was injured when a biomedical waste bin burned in Panama City Tuesday night.

    Susan Trout, who is visiting her daughter from Virginia, was passing EnviroMed of Bay County at 1625 N. East Ave. around 6 p.m. Tuesday when she spotted the flames and called 911.

    Bay County Fire and Rescue crews responded and got the fire under control.

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    PANAMA CITY -- A Bay County jury convicted Charles E. Cannon on Tuesday of robbing an elderly woman in her Youngstown home.

    Assistant State Attorney Christa Diviney told jurors in her opening statement that the victim, a 90-year-old woman, was walking from her bathroom to her bedroom the morning of Dec. 9, 2012, when she saw a stranger standing in the bedroom doorway. The man, later identified as Cannon, made her give him the cash from her purse, according to a press release from the state attorney’s office.

    Investigators identified Cannon through a surveillance video from a Youngstown convenience store. A registered sex offender, Cannon was being tracked by an ankle monitor, which recorded his presence in the woman’s home.

    Cannon, 36, of Youngstown, was found guilty as charged of burglary with an assault or battery, robbery and false imprisonment. He faces up to life in prison when Circuit Judge Elijah Smiley sentences him March 27.

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  • 03/05/14--16:28: K9 memorial service set
  • CALLAWAY -- The Bay County Sheriff’s Office is sponsoring a K9 Veterans Memorial Service Sunday at 1 p.m. at Veterans Park, 5916 Cherry St. in Callaway.

    The event is held each year to honor past, present, and future working dogs, including military, law enforcement, and civilian K9 dogs.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — The search for a spring breaker missing since Monday evening continued Wednesday without results.

    Members of Reny Jose’s family were in Bay County Wednesday to assist the Sheriff’s Office in the search for the 21-year-old student at Rice University in Houston. Jose was last seen by friends near the home on the west end of Front Beach Road where they stayed since Saturday.

    A man at the home identified himself as Jose’s father and declined to speak with reporters. He appeared upset as he left the home with several adults.

    They all drove away in a minivan as about a dozen members of Bay County Search and Rescue lingered in the home’s driveway with their dogs. A few minutes later, the search and rescue team left the home as well.

    Jose was wearing black athletic pants and a green sweater when last seen, but his clothes, wallet and phone were discovered in a trash bin near the house.

    Jose’s companions called authorities Tuesday around 11:30 a.m. to report him missing.

    According to a police report, a man who had been staying with Jose said the Rice University student had taken LSD, an illegal drug known to cause users to hallucinate and behave unpredictably, and spoken of committing suicide on Monday, and he’d also taken LSD the day before that.

    Deputies have checked with other local law enforcement agencies, hospitals and taxi services; none reported any contact with Jose or anyone matching his description.

    Jose’s family created a Facebook page, FIND RENY JOSE, to share information. Deputies are asking anyone who might have information to call 850-747-5079 or CrimeStoppers at 850-785-TIPS (8477).

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — As the number of spring breakers increases in Panama City Beach, so does the number of law enforcement officers.

    After a cold and quiet start to the season, officers with the Panama City Beach Police Department and Bay County Sheriff’s Office are gearing up for the two busiest weeks of Spring Break, with the largest influx of students expected to arrive this weekend.

    “A lot of the condos and motels will be at 100 percent starting this Saturday,” said PCBPD Chief Drew Whitman. “We’re going to probably have 400,000 kids in the next three weeks, and that’s a low estimate.”


    As officers move to extended 12-hour shifts Friday, PCBPD is calling on mutual aid from BCSO and the Panama City Police Department to help handle crowds every Thursday through Sunday through Spring Break.

    The department also will welcome 12 Florida Highway Patrol troopers and several agents from the Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco next week.

    Whitman said PCBPD and BCSO work “extremely well” together during Spring Break and are using many of the same strategies as they did during the 2013 season.

    BCSO has once again set up its mobile booking unit on Thomas Drive to cut down on transport time from the beach to the Bay County Jail on Star Avenue.

    “That definitely helps us,” said Whitman, noting transporting inmates from the beach to the jail takes about two hours. “It saves us a lot of time and it keeps our officers on the road where they need to be.”

    After a successful trial run last year, PCBPD will be running its ATV beach patrol starting this weekend, something Whitman said serves as a public relations tool for the department.

    “Mainly it’s to get down there and let the kids know we’re out there,” he said. “I like showing a strong presence of law enforcement.”

    Whitman said additional funding provided by the Bay County Tourist Development Council means their presence on the beach will be bigger this year. 

    To aid in Spring Break security, the TDC contributed $100,000 each to PCBPD and BCSO, twice the amount the agencies received last year.

    “Spring Break Court” also will return to Panama City Beach this week. Assembled at Majestic Beach Resort, the program offers spring breakers an opportunity to handle court proceedings for misdemeanor offenses before heading back home.

    Whitman said he anticipates three steady weeks of college Spring Break, but expects the beach to be a bit quieter by the last week in March.

    “I just hope everyone comes down and has a good time and goes home safe,” he said.

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    DAYTONA BEACH — The pregnant South Carolina woman who drove into the Atlantic Ocean with her three children strapped in the backseat had been talking about demons just hours before she plunged into the surf, a Daytona Beach police report shows.

    Police Chief Mike Chitwood said his officers spoke with 32-year-old Ebony Wilkerson just two hours before she drove her black Honda Odyssey into the ocean about 5 p.m. Tuesday in front of several horrified beachgoers. She told police she feared her husband was coming to harm her and her children.

    “The mother is undergoing a mental health evaluation and the three children have been turned over to the care of the Florida Department of Children & Families,” Volusia County sheriff’s spokesman Brandon Haught said.

    The incident began a few minutes before 5 p.m. Tuesday, near the Silver Beach Avenue approach, Haught said. A Volusia County Beach Safety Ocean Rescue officer reported seeing a Honda Odyssey van with a South Carolina tag driving recklessly on the beach.

    The vehicle drove southbound in the surf, parallel to the shore, before turning east and driving into about 3 to 4 feet of water.
    As additional Beach Safety officers arrived on scene, the van was floating and almost completely submerged in the water. The incident also attracted several bystanders who were running in the water alongside the van trying to get the driver to stop. The van eventually came to a halt about three-quarters of a mile south of the Silver Beach approach, Haught said.

    With the help of the bystanders, Beach Safety officers were able to remove the children — a 10-year-old girl, 9-year-old boy and a 3-year-old girl, who was strapped into a booster seat — and take them on shore to safety. Beach personnel along with paramedics from Volusia County’s ambulance service and the Daytona Beach Fire Department tended to the mother and children. All four were then taken by ambulance to Halifax Health Medical Center.

    The state Department of Children & Families is doing everything to ensure the safety of the children, said agency spokesman John Harrell.

    “The kids are doing well,” Harrell said Wednesday afternoon. “They have been released from the hospital and are in our care.”

    DCF is conducting a full investigation of the case and before the children are released to family members, the agency will conduct background checks to ensure the children will be placed in a safe environment. The investigation will focus on whether there have been previous cases of abuse that family members may know of and a check on whether there have been mental health issues that are of concern to the children’s well-being, Harrell said.

    “We are going to do everything we can to keep the children safe,” Harrell said. “Once we make a determination, the case will go before a judge in 48 hours and the judge will make the ultimate decision on where the children will be placed.”

    Sheriff Ben Johnson said Wednesday afternoon that Wilkerson had yet to be interviewed, and it was too early to determine if charges would be filed.

    “We need to determine: Is this a medical incident? Is this a mental incident?” Johnson said.

    Mark Swanson, director of Beach Safety, said Wilkerson would not answer questions while at the scene.

    “She was acting inappropriate,” Swanson said.

    Officials did not reveal Wilkerson’s whereabouts Wednesday.

    Johnson said Daytona Beach police spoke with Wilkerson a couple of hours earlier at the request of concerned family members.
    The concerned family was Wilkerson’s sister Jessica Harrell who called law enforcement to request a well-being check on her sister.

    “My sister was getting abused by her husband,” Harrell said.

    Harrell said Wilkerson drove from South Carolina to Daytona Beach, and on Monday she took her sister to the hospital, but Wilkerson had checked herself out the next day.

    “She’s getting a little bit better, but she’s not all here, and she’s trying to drive, and I’m trying to stop her,” Harrell told the dispatcher.
    “She’s having psychosis or something,” Harrell said. “She’s talking about Jesus and that there’s demons in my house and that I’m trying to control her, but I’m trying to keep them safe.”

    Harrell told the dispatcher she had tried to get her sister into a domestic abuse shelter but the shelter was full. Wilkerson told police and family members she feared her husband, but the sheriff said investigators had not spoken with the husband.
    Cheryl Fuller, director of the Domestic Abuse Council of Volusia County, confirmed that shelters for victims of domestic violence were filled on Tuesday when Wilkerson’s sister called to find a place for Wilkerson and her children.

    Fuller said there are 75 people waiting to get into the domestic abuse shelter in Volusia. She said the agency will call the domestic abuse shelters in both Flagler and Seminole counties, and even the homeless shelters, “But if there are no beds, there are no beds,” Fuller said.

    “This really saddens me,” Fuller said Wednesday evening. “I saw her story on TV and I had no idea she might be a victim of domestic violence. Unfortunately, we were full. But we try not to turn anyone away.”

    While her sister was speaking with the dispatcher, Wilkerson managed to find a second set of keys to the Odyssey.
    Harrell then told the dispatcher Wilkerson was driving away with the three kids in the car and that she didn’t know where Wilkerson was headed.

    Daytona Beach police caught up with Wilkerson at Jimmy Ann Drive and North Clyde Morris Boulevard.

    According to the Daytona Beach police report, Wilkerson told officers she was afraid her husband would be coming to Florida to harm her and her children and that she was going to “her safe place.”

    Wilkerson would not divulge where she was going for fear that someone would tell her husband, Chief Chitwood said.

    “When we spoke with her she was lucid,” Chitwood said. “The children were in the back seat, they were buckled in and were not in distress.”

    Chitwood said a sergeant said Wilkerson looked mentally ill but that she didn’t fit the criteria for going into custody under the state’s Baker Act, which allows people to be held temporarily if they are a danger to themselves or others.

    “Two hours later she drove into the ocean,” Chitwood said.

    Tim Tesseneer of North Carolina told NBC News he first thought the driver of the van was just having fun.

    “Then we got to hearing kids sort of screaming, and I swear I heard one of them say ‘Help,’ ” Tesseneer said.

    He said he and another passerby spoke with Wilkerson before she drove into the water. Tesseneer said one of Wilkerson’s children was sitting on the mother’s lap trying to steer the van away from the water.

    Tesseneer said they told Wilkerson she was too close to the water and could get in trouble.

    Wilkerson, with “a blank, scary look” on her face, told him and the other person, “We’re OK. We’re going to be fine,” and continued to drive.

    Tesseneer said they then heard one of the kids scream out, “Please help us, our mom’s trying to kill us.”
    Wilkerson, of Cross, S.C., was out of the van by the time rescuers arrived as the Honda, with the three young children still inside, got pounded by wave after wave.

    Swanson said after the family was removed from the minivan, they were placed inside another vehicle to get warmed up. He also said if the family hadn’t been rescued as quickly as they were, the outcome probably would’ve been different.
    Johnson and Swanson said they do not know if the mother made any attempts to get her children out of the van.

    Swanson also said he did not know where the woman entered the beach or for how long she had been driving on it.
    Vermont resident Donna Pratt, who was staying at the Catalina Beach Club Resort, said she and her daughter’s friend observed the activity from their second-floor balcony.

    Pratt said she was surprised and frightened by the mother’s actions upon exiting the van.

    “She proceeded to go out farther into the ocean,” said Pratt, 47. “It didn’t look like she was panicked.”

    Taylor Quintin, the friend of Pratt’s daughter, said she could see the kids hanging out of the windows shouting for help.
    Quintin, 14, said several pairs of men’s shoes and items of men’s clothing came out of the van during the incident. She also said she saw large picture frames wash up on the sand as well.

    Quintin said one of the bystanders who assisted in the rescue told her the woman had said her husband was in the car when she was asked if she and her children were the only occupants.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH - The family of a missing spring breaker has issued a statement asking for help in finding the 21-year-old college student.

    "The family of Rice University student, Reny Jose, would like to thank family, friends, the Bay County Sheriff's department, and the public for their continual support during this very difficult time. Upon reaching Panama City, the family has begun searching for Reny and must express deep concern that every effort is not being made to help find him," it states. "We are hopeful that with more aid and resources, the search can be expanded and will be successful. Reny is a wonderful, loving person who is doted on by his entire family. Despite the recent allegations regarding a drug incident, Reny's 4.0 GPA in his engineering program suggests otherwise. We desperately just want him home and urgently plead with all of Panama City for their help."

    Jose was wearing black athletic pants and a green sweater when last seen Monday, but his clothes, wallet and phone were discovered in a trash bin near the house.

    Jose’s companions called authorities Tuesday around 11:30 a.m. to report him missing.

    According to a police report, a man who had been staying with Jose said the Rice University student had taken LSD, an illegal drug known to cause users to hallucinate and behave unpredictably, and spoken of committing suicide on Monday, and he’d also taken LSD the day before that.

    Jose’s family created a Facebook page, FIND RENY JOSE, to share information. Deputies are asking anyone who might have information to call 850-747-5079 or CrimeStoppers at 850-785-TIPS (8477).

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