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    Two Bay County 20-somethings were sentenced to prison Monday for criminal sexual conduct with children between the ages of 6 and 9, according to the State Attorney’s Office.

    Anthony James Marshal Bennett, 20, of Youngstown, was designated a sexual predator after he pleaded no contest to two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation and a count of lewd and lascivious exhibition. Prosecutors charged him with molesting a 7-year-old girl and a 9-year-old girl in January.

    Judge Michael Overstreet sentenced Bennett to 15 years in prison and 10 years of sexual predator probation.

    William Joseph Lamont, 27, of Southport, pleaded no contest to a count of lewd and lascivious molestation for molesting a 6-year-old girl last spring. Overstreet sentenced him to six years in prison followed by 15 years of sexual offender probation.

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    An Ebro man faces several felony charges after allegedly shooting a BB gun at a car with a woman and three children inside, according to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

    Brandon Alexander McCoy, 27, was arrested in Panama City Beach Monday afternoon following an incident in which he allegedly shot at the woman, with whom he had been involved in an argument, then tracking her down several blocks away to shoot at her again. The woman had an infant and two small children in the car with her.

    McCoy first brandished the gun at about 11:30 a.m. on

    Pinetree Ave
    nue and fired it after she started to drive away. She realized it was a BB gun and stopped at
    Thomas Dr
    Biltmore Dr
    to call 911, but while she was on the phone McCoy showed up and fired several more times.

    He left the scene before deputies arrived, but he was located nearby at about 1 p.m. and arrested after a traffic stop. He was jailed on six counts child abuse, two counts of shooting into an occupied vehicle and eight counts of aggravated assault with a firearm.

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    The Bay County Sheriff’s Office conducted a water rescue this afternoon in the 20,000 block of Front Beach Road, west of the Laguna Beach Christian Retreat.

    With the assistance of a bystander with a surfboard, deputies were able to swim out to three teenage girls who were caught up in a rip current. The three were brought to shore without incident.

    At this time, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office is posting single red flags on the beaches of Bay County. Single red flags indicate high hazard swimming conditions with high surf and strong currents.

    Gulf water conditions are expected to remain in a high hazardous condition through tomorrow.

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    PANAMA CITY — The government has filed a more specific complaint against the directors of a failed local bank, but the details of specific loans the defendants are being sued over are still largely undisclosed.

    Judge Richard Smoak ordered the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) to file a new complaint detailing more specifically how the defendants’ alleged gross negligence caused the FDIC to lose money. In response to Smoak’s order, the FDIC filed an amended complaint that mirrors the first complaint with a few exceptions.

    The amended complaint adds details about a loan Peoples First Community Bank issued to a borrower referred to in court documents as “PQH.” PQH received $12.2 million in late 2005, and then defaulted without paying a balance of nearly $4.5 million in principal and interest.

    After the collateral and other recovery avenues had been exploited, the losses to the FDIC were estimated at $3.9 million. According to court records, the loan was to finance a development of 239 single-family homes in Polk County and was to be repaid when the homes sold.

    The PQH loan is the only one detailed in the court records, and the FDIC uses it to illustrate the problems with each of the 11 loans it claims were not vetted properly by the eight defendants in the lawsuit: Panama City Mayor Greg Brudnicki, Joseph Chapman, Henry Futrell, Philip Griffitts, John Middlemas Jr., Rodney Morris, John Wilson and Raymond Powell.

    Powell, because of his dual role as both a member of the board of directors and the president and CEO, is not afforded the same protection from claims of negligence as a director. Smoak dismissed the FDIC’s negligence claims against all the defendants except Powell last month.

    Powell approved nine of the 11 transactions totaling $63.9 million. When the borrowers defaulted, a total of $33.18 million went unpaid, and the FDIC had to take the hit.

    After documented attempts to restore Peoples First to fiscal health, regulators took over the bank in December 2009 and seized the bank’s records. The government’s case relies now on thousands of pages of those records, filings indicate.

    The FDIC says it’s ready to begin sharing its evidence against the defendants with them, but the defendants are demanding confidential information that will require the FDIC to review hundreds of thousands of pages of documents on a line-by-line basis.

    The most relevant records relate to the underwriting, credit and collateral documentation of the borrowers in the 11 transactions — which the FDIC argues it has a duty to protect from public disclosure — and there are 18,000 pages of those documents. The defendants have demanded more documents dating back to, in some cases, the opening of the bank in 1983.

    “Such a process is inefficient and will delay discovery,” the FDIC argues in a filing asking for an “umbrella protective order.”

    Charles Wachter, an attorney representing the defendants, fired back that the FDIC seeks “to hide its documents under a blanket of secrecy,” according to court filings.

    “The FDIC is hampering the defendants’ ability to defend themselves from the overreaching and abusive allegations in this case,” Wachter wrote.

    A hearing will be conducted over the phone next week to iron out the issue.

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    PARKER — City-wide text alerts and DNA marked property could be available to the public soon.

    Mayor Rich Musgrave gave council members an update on technology designed to improve the city’s neighborhood watch programs during Tuesday’s meeting.

    “The police need eyes and ears out there in the community and that is what these provide,” Musgrave said.

    The newest tech the city will be experimenting with is called “Cop Dot.”

    “It’s a high-tech marking capability to mark your valuables,” Musgrave said.

    Cop dot is a glue-type solution which contains thousands of dots containing DNA codes. The solution is applied to valuables, can be detected with infrared lights and then magnified to identify the owner.

    “It has not been used in North Florida,” Musgrave said. “One of the exciting things as we formally launch this first watch effort we are going to formally introduce this technology and be the first in The Panhandle to do anything like this.”

    The second technology will give people the ability to receive alerts by phone, email or text. There are 18 to 20 notifications.

    “If there’s a suspicious person in the neighborhood we could be notified via text,” Musgrave said. “It’s very flexible and gives residents the full control of being able to stipulate how they want to interface with the system.”

    The program allows people who live within a designated area go online, sign up and choose on a case by case basis how they would like to be notified during alerts.

    “I feel like as other law enforcement agencies get wind of what we’re doing over here in Parker, they are going to want to come over and tap [council members] brains,” Musgrave said.

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    PANAMA CITY — The father who took his child from his mother and took off for several days turned himself into the Bay County Sheriff’s Office Tuesday night. The child was not harmed.

    Jay Cale Weeks, 34, of Lynn Haven, was arrested for interfering with custody, aggravated battery on a pregnant woman and leaving the scene of an accident with property damage. He was booked into the Bay County Jail and released on a preset bond.

    Lynn Haven Police and BCSO deputies had been hunting for Weeks and his girlfriend, Lafarrah Michelle Strahler, since Saturday, when he allegedly went to the child’s mother’s home, hit her car with his, hit her with his hand and left the scene with their son before police arrived.

    Weeks was upset because the child’s mother had plans to leave the area with their son, and because the couple was never married she is legally considered the child’s sole custodian, said Sgt. Tom Willoughby with the Lynn Haven Police Department.

    “We had no indication at any time did he have any intent to harm the child,” Willoughby said. “He just didn’t want her to leave the jurisdiction of this court.”

    Willoughby also credited the Department of Children and Families for its assistance in the investigation.

    Though she is expected to turn herself in soon as well, police and deputies continue to search for Strahler. Strahler is attempting to have a preset bond ordered in her case as well, said BCSO spokeswoman Ruth Corley.

    “She is expected to turn herself in at some point,” Corley said.

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    PANAMA CITY — The desire to help a deputy injured while riding his motorcycle a month ago has become contagious.

    Deputy Chris Hollis and his girlfriend were riding down

    Harrison Ave
    nue May 5 when the motorcycle they were riding was sideswiped by another vehicle, according to Lt. Myron Guilford with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. Hollis managed to keep the bike upright, and his girlfriend escaped with minor injuries.

    Hollis wasn’t as fortunate; the collision nearly severed his foot, Guilford said. He’s had at least three surgeries and lost a toe. He’s been hospitalized since the crash and is facing a long recovery.

    A benefit has already been held at Dairy Queen Chill and Grill in Callaway, where Hollis is a patrol deputy. Since then, the Boost Mobile store in Callaway has gotten involved, donating airtime in its radio advertisements to raising awareness of Hollis’ situation, Guilford said.

    One of the people who heard those ads was James Billig, manager of Domino’s Pizza on 15th Street, one of five franchises locally owned by Doug DeGood. They’re always looking for ways to help the community, Billig said.

    “I just heard there was an officer in need…I knew that we could help him just as much as the other people were,” Billig said.

    Billig got in touch with Guilford, and all week participating Domino’s stores are donating 20 percent of the pretax totals of orders from customers who mention Hollis’ name when they order.

    Beef O’Brady’s in Callaway will also host a benefit June 19 from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. featuring giveaways and a raffle featuring, among other items, jerseys donated by the NFL Players Association, Guilford said.

    Guilford and other deputies are also selling armbands for $2 to raise money to help Hollis, and they’ve opened an account in his name at Tyndall Federal Credit Union to accept donations.

    “Me, him and a couple other guys were a tight-knit group,” Guilford said. “We’re trying to get ahead of the game.”

    For more information on how to help, visit the Deputy Chris Hollis Tribute Page on Facebook.

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    BRISTOL, Fla. (AP) — Nick Finch, an Army veteran and onetime cop, narrowly won his election as sheriff of tiny Liberty County some seven months ago.

    Now this Panhandle county— which has slightly more than 8,000 residents — is reeling with the news that Finch has been arrested and accused of official misconduct.

    Finch, 50, is accused of intervening in March after one of his deputies arrested a resident for carrying a semi-automatic pistol in his pocket without a concealed weapons permit. The arrest came following a traffic stop.

    State authorities investigating the case say Finch let the man — Floyd Eugene Parrish — leave the county jail in Bristol and that Finch took steps to conceal the initial arrest. Someone, for example, whited out an arrest log that contained Parrish's name.

    According to an arrest report, Finch told sheriff's department employees that he let Parrish go because he believes in "Second Amendment rights."

    Finch was arrested and booked Tuesday, but then let go on his own recognizance. He declined to speak to the Associated Press a day later, citing advice from his attorney.

    Jimmy Judkins, a Tallahassee attorney representing Finch, said his client will fight the charges and that he disputes allegations that he destroyed or altered documents. He said that Finch let Parrish go based on his view of the state's concealed weapons law.

    Efforts to reach Parrish were unsuccessful. One of his brothers, Robert Parrish, declined to answer questions about what happened.

    News and pictures of Finch's arrest were splashed across the two small papers that serve this county located about 40 miles west of Tallahassee.

    Major crimes are rare here as evidenced by the fact that Finch's arraignment won't happen until July becausefelony cases are only heard once a month.

    Several residents were unwilling to discuss the case publicly, other than to note that they didn't know all the facts or what exactly happened.

    One long-time resident, Alma Sanders, described Finch as a nice man.

    "I hope it's all a misunderstanding," said the 88-year-old Sanders who has lived in Liberty County for most of her life. "We need a good sheriff."

    Finch's election as sheriff came after his second try. He ran as a Republican in 2008 and lost even though GOP presidential nominee John McCain carried the county.

    The county's election supervisor said that Finch became a Democrat but ran last fall with no party affiliation. That allowed him to bypass a heated primary that included two other Democrats and incumbent Donnie Conyers.

    Finch edged Conyers by less than 200 votes in November.

    Gov. Rick Scott has appointed Carl Causey as interim sheriff for the next month. Causey, an FDLE special agent, previously worked for the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.

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    PANAMA CITYPanama City police investigating a theft complaint outside of Players Saloon around 2 a.m. Thursday were alerted to a man lying in the street nearby bleeding from a stab wound to his chest. 

    Nicholas Harris, 22, was taken to the hospital with a stab wound and cuts on his head. Paramedics told police the wounds were not life threatening.

    Witnesses told police Harris had been in a fight on Danford Avenue next to the bar. Harris did not cooperate with investigators, refusing to explain what happened or who else was involved.

    Police didn’t release any suspect information and continued to investigate to learn who started the fight and who else was involved.

    Anyone with information about the incident is encouraged to call Detective John Wray with the Panama City Police Department at 872-3100 or report tips anonymously to CrimeStoppers at 785-TIPS (8477).

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    PANAMA CITY — A 28-year-old mother who police said left her children “hungry and alone” in a hotel room Wednesday has been arrested and charged with child neglect, police said.

    Valencia Rhodes returned to her room at the American Quality Lodge around 3:40 p.m. Wednesday and said she’d only been gone for a couple minutes, but employees had received a call from her children in the room more than two hours earlier.

    Rhodes checked into her room the day before. Before she left she allegedly told her two children, ages 5 and 8, not to use the phone.

    The Department of Children and Families took custody of children when Rhodes went to jail.

    The incident remains under investigation. Anyone with information about the case should contact Detective Kelly McLaughlin at 872-3100 or CrimeStoppers at 785-TIPS (8477).

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    PANAMA CITY — The man suspected in the slaying of his pregnant wife is ready to continue to trial after undergoing competency restoration in a state mental hospital.

    It’s been six months since Gary Wesley Tennyson was deemed mentally incompetent to proceed to trial and more than a year since Dean Stokes found his the body of his daughter, Glenda Tennyson, wrapped in a blanket in a shed behind the couple’s Lynn Haven home.

    During a brief hearing Friday, Prosecutor Larry Basford and Tennyson’s defense attorney, Kim Dowgul, agreed two doctors have examined Tennyson and found him competent to proceed. Judge Michael Overstreet ruled the proceedings can go forward.

    A doctor for the defense reported that Tennyson continues to experience delusions and hallucinations, but his medications are managing those symptoms, Dowgul said. Though the case is unlikely to go to trial this year, Dowgul wants to continue setting court dates so she can closely monitor her client’s condition.

    According to police records:

    Gary Tennyson had been using drugs and his mental health was deteriorating in the months before Glenda Tennyson was killed in May 2012. He had been committed a few months earlier.

    Glenda Tennyson had convinced a judge to order his commitment again in the days before she died, but the order slipped through the cracks despite at least contact with deputies between the day the order was issued and the day she was killed.

    The Medical Examiner’s Office discovered Tennyson was pregnant with twins when she died.

    Gary Tennyson faces life in prison if convicted as charged.

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — Law enforcement officers ask locals to help them identify a suspected vehicle burglar who burglarized two Panama City Beach subdivisions, police wrote in a news release.

    Security cameras captured the suspect burglarizing vehicles at The Preserve and Bay Point late Tuesday evening and early Wednesday morning. The suspect took several items from the vehicles, including clothing, wallets and cash, the release stated.

    All vehicles were unlocked when the suspect burglarized them, the release stated. Police officials urge all residents to keep vehicles locked after exiting them and to remove valuable items.

    Anyone with information on the suspect is asked to call the Bay County Sheriff’s Office at 850-747-4700 or Crime Stoppers at 785-TIPS (8477).

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    PAXTON — Authorities are investigating a suspicious death in Paxton, the Walton County Sheriff's Office reported late Friday.

    According to a news release, investigators were looking into the death of a female on Clear Springs Road and have recovered item related to the death. Authorities reported one person of interested was being interviewed. The release said the victim's identity would be released "at a later time."

    Check back Saturday for updates

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    PANAMA CITY - Panama City police are searching for several suspects in an incident “where the occupants of two vehicles were shooting at each other.”


    Officers responded to a shots fired call on N. East Avenue at about 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon. As they arrived on scene, a blue Jeep Cherokee fled from officers at a high rate of speed from the area, it was last seen westbound on 11th Street near Church Avenue.


    The occupant(s) of the Jeep Cherokee and a white Dodge truck located at the residence, were exchanging gunfire in the 1000 block of Elm Avenue, police wrote in a news release. The Jeep Cherokee chased the white Dodge truck to a residence at 300 N. East Avenue and several more shots were fired from the Jeep Cherokee at the Dodge truck and the occupied residence, police wrote. Crime scene investigators located several new bullet holes as well as old bullets holes in the Dodge truck. Several fresh bullet holes were located in the front of the residence as well.


    The driver of the Dodge truck told officers that the occupants of the Jeep Cherokee shot at him and he returned gunfire in the shooting today, the news release states. The driver explained the old bullet holes were from another shooting incident that he has never reported to police involving the same occupant(s) of the Jeep Cherokee, police said.


    However, no one was injured in the shooting.


    Based on the investigation and evidence collected at the scene, the driver of the Dodge truck Ronald L. Richardson, 29, was arrested and charged with felon in possession of a firearm, discharging a firearm from a motor vehicle, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and possession of drug paraphernalia. 


    Detectives are still looking for the blue Jeep Cherokee and its occupant(s). The Jeep Cherokee is a late 1990’s or early 2000 model, blue in color, with chrome trim and an Alabama license tag, police wrote. The occupants of the Jeep Cherokee should be considered armed and dangerous.

    Officials declined to release more details about the incident because of the ongoing nature of the investigation. Those with information about this case are asked to call Detective Raymond Perkins at the Panama City Police Department, 850-872-3100. Anonymous tips can be reported via
    CrimeStoppers at 850-785-TIPS. 

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — Joe Cocco still runs to Pineapple Willie’s and back to the M.B. Miller County Pier, just like he did Aug. 3, 2008.

    On that day, Cocco, a captain with the Panama City Beach Fire Department, returned to the pier to find a commotion, and then he saw a body rolling in the surf. He and others pulled the man’s body from the surf and tried to revive him, but it was too late.

    “It always has been an effect on me, anytime you see somebody drown out here,” Cocco said.

    The man on whom Cocco helped perform CPR that day was visiting from his Georgia home. His twin daughters had gotten too deep and been pulled out into the Gulf of Mexico, according to a police report, and he went out to rescue them.

    They got back to the sand safely; it’s not clear how. But, it wasn’t a lifeguard that brought them it; there are no lifeguards at the county pier.


    Hot spots

    The county pier is one of a few hot spots for deaths and water rescues. At least four people have drowned at the county pier in the past five years, according to an examination of Panama City Beach Police records.

    View map of drownings here.

    Like most of the people who drowned in the Gulf in recent years, all were were from out of state, according to the records and reports reviewed by The News Herald. Three of the four went into the water between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. At least one died under yellow flags.

    A few miles down the beach at the Russell-Fields City Pier, the only lifeguards on the 27-mile stretch of sand in Bay County have been keeping watch over a primary zone of 1,600 linear feet of the beach from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. during the tourist season since 2009, according to Will Spivey, director of the PCB Aquatics Center, which provides the lifeguards.

    The last drowning report The News Herald could find for the city pier was in 2006. Since the lifeguards have been stationed at the city pier, there have been rescues, including several already this season, but no one has drowned, Spivey said.

    “They don’t have drownings when you have a lifeguard,” Cocco said. “When the lifeguard is on duty, have you ever heard of somebody drowning? I haven’t.”


    ‘No doubt’

    If that sounds far-fetched — that lifeguards are 100 percent successful at preventing drowning deaths — consider a study published in 2001 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Injury Prevention (CDC). The study said some estimates put the chance of drowning on a beach protected by lifeguards at less than one in 18 million.

    As an example of the effectiveness of lifeguards in preventing drowning deaths, the CDC study pointed to several beach communities in the United States.

    A beach near San Diego created a lifeguard service after 13 people drowned in a single day in 1918. The same  beach drew 15 million people annually at the time of the study, but the average number of yearly drowning deaths at beaches under lifeguard protection was between zero and one.

    “There is no doubt that trained, professional lifeguards have had a positive effect on drowning prevention in the United States,” the study says.


    Why not guard?

    Cocco argues there is no reason to not have lifeguards stationed at the county pier.

    “We have the money and we have to spend it on the life safety of people,” Cocco said. “We’re going to invite tourists to come here, spend millions of dollars, but we’re not going to protect them when they go in the water.”

    Officials have discussed staffing the beach with lifeguards over the years, but officials with the Tourist Development Council (TDC) and the Bay County Commission do not support the idea.

    “To say that we’re opposed to it doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything,” said Mike Thomas, who sits on the County Commission and the TDC.

    The first reason officials cite is prohibitive cost. City, county and TDC officials said they are aware of a cost study conducted years ago, but there was confusion among officials about which of those entities actually studied the cost.

    County officials said the TDC did a study, the TDC said Panama City Beach has and PCB said an independent study was conducted years ago.

    The News Herald was unable to obtain any details about the study or its findings. It’s not clear what it would cost to staff the entire beach with lifeguards, but Cocco, who also was aware of the study, said it would certainly be “in the millions of dollars.”


    Alternatives to lifeguards

    The TDC collected about $15 million in taxes last year, TDC President Dan Rowe said, and spends it to promote the beach and keep the sand nice. But, Florida law prohibits governments from spending tourism development tax dollars on public safety, so they don’t pay for lifeguards.

    TDC dollars can be spent on public information, which the TDC does a lot of, Thomas and Rowe are quick to point out. They distribute literature to resorts and hotels on the beach explaining the flag warning systems and the dangers of rip currents and how to escape if you get in one.

    When double red flags fly, the TDC pays for a plane to fly up and down the beach pulling a banner warning against going in the water. This year, they put stickers with information on the flag warning system and rip current survival on the blue trash cans that dot the beach.

    “We do believe that people need to be aware of the flag system [and rip currents], which is why we put the stickers on the trash cans,” Rowe said.

    Thomas points out that business along the sand could hire their own lifeguards, but he doesn’t think the government should require them to.

    An alternative might be to create a special taxing districting on the island to pay for lifeguards, but “I don’t think the people in Callaway and Lynn Haven want their money to go to lifeguards,” he said.

    “Nobody wants anybody to come down here and drown,” Thomas said. “You can educate them (tourists) the best you can, and that’s what I think we’re doing.”

    The flag warning system works, Beach and Surf Patrol supervisor Carol Wagner said, but only for the people who pay attention. “Some people seem not to pay attention,” she said.

    It’s not like the TDC’s hands are tied. All it would take to spend TDC money on lifeguards is a finding by the county that lifeguard activities can be classified as public information, which is how Walton County’s TDC pays for lifeguards, Rowe said.


    Lifeguards and liability

    Once lifeguards are on the beach, the entity that pays for them is exposed to lawsuits, Thomas said.

    Zach Taylor, a civil trial attorney who represents plaintiffs in liability lawsuits agreed, but the county would be liable only in the event the lifeguards were improperly trained or hired. Essentially, if they do their job correctly, they are no more liable than other county employee, Taylor said.

    “That’s the same liability you’re going to face for hiring a librarian at the library,” Taylor said.

    Even if the county were to lose a liability lawsuit, the amount of damages that can be awarded to a plaintiff in a successful civil suit against a government or municipal entity is capped by Florida law at $200,000.

    Doug Sale, the attorney who represents the city of Panama City Beach and the TDC, declined to comment.


    Most popular beach

    When water moves through a pier, it creates currents that can be dangerous and unpredictable, said Wagner, who has patrolled the beach for 17 years; The county pier has always had a rip current, and so has the city pier.

    “The power of the rip currents is the same; the frequency of the rip currents is the same,” Wagner said. “The difference is there’s somebody down there” at the city pier.

    The county pier is the most popular publically accessible area on the beach, at least in part because of the parking, Wagner said. The second most popular? The city pier.

    “Before you had lifeguards at the city pier you had drownings at the city pier,” Wagner said.

    Cocco thinks the TDC is losing too many word-of-mouth referrals from the families who go home without a loved one; drowning deaths cannot be good for the tourism industry, he said.

     And he’s confident officials can figure out a way to save lives if they get together.

    “If you have that many people coming, we’ve got together with the TDC, the county officials, the city officials, and come up with a game plan,” Cocco said. “This beach has the money. It all depends on where we want to spend it.

    “There was an article the other day about BP money, right? They want to put more ballparks at Frank Brown Park. That’s a good idea, but you know what? A little bit better, I think, is let’s look at the life safety needs of this beach. We have got to turn it around.”

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — One of the most common reasons people get in trouble in the water is they overestimate their swimming abilities, said PCB Aquatics Center director Will Spivey, who trains lifeguards. It’s also common for visitors to ignore the flag warning system enter dangerous waters.

    “Some people are like, ‘This is my week’s vacation, and I’m going to get in that water, by God,’ ” Spivey said.

    Lifeguards at the aquatics center train to focus and ignore potential distractions so they can recognize struggling swimmers. Beachgoers should keep a close eye on their children, too, regardless of the water conditions, Spivey said.

    “Even on a calm day we can’t get complacent,” Spivey said. “Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death for children under 5.”

    Swimmers should be aware of rip currents, which might not be visible, and know what to do if they get caught in one. Swimmers who try to swim back to shore against one can become exhausted; instead, a swimmer should swim parallel to the shore until they are free of the current and then swim in.

    He urged non-swimmers or weak swimmers to use Coast Guard-approved floatation devices. Those water wings and inflatable tubes aren’t going to cut it for people who end up in trouble, Spivey said. Swimming pools are unpredictable enough, but the Gulf of Mexico is much more dangerous.

    “Being trained in a pool and being trained out here in this water are two different animals,” said Capt. Joe Cocco with the Panama City Beach Fire Department.

    The fire department has people who are trained to do water rescues, and Panama City Beach Surf Patrol actively cruses the beach.

    The Bay County Sheriff’s Office has reorganized the way it patrols the beach. In the past, deputies actively patrolled the sand, but that won’t always be the case anymore. They’ve moved deputies off the beach, but there will be more deputies patrolling the unincorporated areas of the beach, all with the four-wheel drive vehicles required to get out on the sand, and they’ll be trained and equipped for water rescues.

    Eighteen of the 22 deputies assigned to the beach recently have been lifeguard certified, which isn’t as rigorous a certification as water rescue certification, but water rescue training is in progress, too, Maj. Tommy Ford said.

    “On a beautiful day when there’s no ripples on the water, you might not see us anymore, because we don’t have that luxury to sit and watch the beach,” Sheriff Frank McKeithen said. “We’re not lifeguards.”

    Actively patrolling the sand will be reserved for busy times and times with rough waters. McKeithen thinks the reorganization will keep beachgoers as safe or safer than before, but it still won’t prevent drownings. People will still get drunk and wade out too far — or ignore red flags.

    View related article here:

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    PANAMA CITY — Thanks to a federal grant Bay County will have a better trained firefighting crew.

    The County Commission approved a $134,472 Assistance to Firefighters grant recently that will pay for 35 firefighters’ emergency medical technician (EMT) training and 21 firefighters’ paramedic training.

    The grant required a 25 percent county match, so there’s a total of $168,427 available for the training, said Mark Bowen, county Emergency Services director. Of that money, $48,895 will go toward EMT schooling and $119,532 will go toward paramedic schooling.

    The county applied for the money about a year and a half ago, Bowen said.

    “The way those grants work is that a lot of times a year or more will go by before the federal government actually awards the grant,” he said.

    The notification can come in surprising ways too, like a letter of congratulations from Sen. Bill Nelson’s office before official word has been received, Bowen said. 

    It works as a reimbursement grant — the county sends the firefighters to school and then sends its receipts to the federal government for repayment.

     “It’s a level of service we want to get all of the county firefighters trained to, but we would never be able to send this many without this kind of grant,” Bowen said.

    Right now the county is paying for about six firefighters to attend EMT school at Chipola College, Bowen said.

    “That’s one of the ways we’re helping to make the match for this grant,” he said.

    Firefighter training comes in a series of steps. It starts with first responder, which teaches first aid and CPR; then moves to EMT, which teaches basic life support; and finishes with paramedic, which teaches advanced life support.

    “Every fire department, I think, that’s moving forward is looking at the next level of medical service they can provide,” Bowen said. “If they’re going to medical calls, let’s have the highest level of training we can have.”

    The EMT course typically runs about six months, and the paramedic course runs more than a year, Bowen said. As a small department, that means the county can’t send everyone out for training at the same time because no one would be left to answer calls. So the county will ask for an extension, even up to three years, to spend the money.

    “I’m pretty confident that the grant folks will work with us on it,” Bowen said.

    The county has about 55 firefighters, which handle its unincorporated areas. Approximately half are EMTs already or in EMT school, Bowen said. It also has three paramedics, and six in paramedic school.

    Chairman George Gainer was pleased about the grant and believes better skilled firefighters will mean a cost savings for the county. He’s no fan of seeing six to eight government vehicles and a large crew covering one car crash or emergency event. He said if one truck and a smaller crew could arrive on-scene and handle the situation or decide if an ambulance was needed, that would be better.

    Gainer said it would lead to a “definite savings.”

    “This is the first step, in my opinion, of getting everybody cross trained,” he said. “There should be quite a bit more of that.”

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    PANAMA CITY BEACH — At least one fatal drowning occurred on Panama City Beach over the weekend and law enforcement stayed busy Sunday afternoon with several other water distress calls.

    Charles Glenn Adamson of Panama City Beach was unresponsive after being pulled onto the shore near the Carousel Supermarket about 7 p.m. Saturday, according to Ruth Corley, spokeswoman for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

    A male, 17, and a female, 22, from Tennessee were pulled from the water near Edgewater Beach Resort at about 5 p.m. Sunday.

    Around the same time a woman in her 70s also was pulled from the Gulf near Continental Condominiums. All three were taken to a local hospital and while their condition was unclear Sunday night, officials said none of them appeared to have life-threatening injuries.

    Corley also said BCSO worked a distress call at Richard Seltzer Park in which the swimmer was released after treatment. 

    Just before 6 p.m. Sunday night, before law enforcement changed flags along the beach to double red, a barrage of water distress calls came in requesting first responders, officials said.

    Some of the calls required first responders to rescue three or four swimmers at one time.

    “There’s always going to be a problem when you have a lot of people getting the water,” said Chief Drew Whitman of the Panama City Beach Police Department. “But that is why we have the flag system and when we get a strong rip current we go to double red flags.”

    Whitman said a storm coming in out of the west caused the problem.

    “All of the sudden we got a big rise in water and the rip current changes,” Whitman said. “It starts pushing in the water and it causes a strong rip current.”

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    It was busy night for Panama City firefighters. 

    The Panama City Fire Department responded to a structure fire at 2715 E. 8th Plaza and located a blaze on the outside area of a one story wood framed residential structure that was occupied, officials wrote in a news release.  Ten firefighters manning three engines responded to the call.  

    The alarm was received at 10:37 p.m., with the first arriving fire apparatus on-scene at 10:40 p.m., officials wrote The incident was brought under control at 10:49 p.m. 

    Upon arrival, crews found a small fire on the outside of the structure that was mostly extinguished by one of the residents.  Fire Crews checked for extension inside the wall and extinguished the small amount of fire found there, officials wrote.  Bay Medical Emergency Medical Service responded to treat one civilian for minor complaints.

    The fire is suspicious in nature and is being investigated by the Panama City Fire Department, Panama City Police Department and Florida State Fire Marshal’s Office, they added.  

    Then, early Tuesday morning, the Panama City Fire Department responded to a structure fire at 5321 W. Hwy 98, Berg Pipe at the Port of Panama City. The fire was located in the middle of the building on a 2 story pipe tack welder.  

    The alarm was received at 3:50 a.m., with the first arriving fire apparatus on-scene at 3:54 a.m., officials wrote The incident was brought under control at 4:19 a.m. 

    The fire was investigated and it was determined to be caused by a buildup of dust, oils and other combustible particulates that have gathered over time, officials wrote. 

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    DeFUNIAK SPRINGS —Toni Wilkes, the mother of Courtney Wilkes, teared up on the witness stand Tuesday as she described the last words she spoke to her daughter: “OK baby, but be responsible.”

    Courtney, the oldest of three children of a family from tiny Lyons, Ga., looked ecstatic that day on the beach, more so when she received permission on June 16, 2011, to take a walk with “the lifeguard dude” who had become a casual acquaintance during the Wilkes’ weeklong vacation at the Beachcrest condominiums in Seagrove Beach.

    For 15-year-old Courtney, it was the first boy or man she’d been allowed to spend time alone with, Toni Wilkes said.

    “She was not allowed to date until she was 16. She never even asked,” her mother said.

    The Wilkes family watched Courtney walk off with the man they would come to know as 21-year-old Steven Cozzie. Some five hours later they would learn she had been killed and Cozzie had been charged with murder.

    The trial began about 2 p.m. Tuesday after a day and a half was spent selecting a jury. It is expected to take two weeks.

    Cozzie, who wore glasses and a crew cut, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. He also is charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and child abuse.

    The trial began about 2 p.m. Tuesday after a day and a half was spent selecting a jury. It is expected to take two weeks.

     Cozzie, who wore glasses and a crew cut in court, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree premeditated murder. He also is charged with kidnapping, sexual assault and child abuse.

    Prosecutor Bobby Elmore made sure in his opening statement Tuesday afternoon that jurors knew just how brutal Courtney Wilkes’ death had been. He said evidence would show beyond any reasonable doubt that Cozzie had killed her.

    “Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam. Bam,” Elmore shouted across the courtroom. “Ten times I hit her.”

    Cozzie bragged about his deed to a witness, Michael Spencer, as he showed off Wilkes’ body, Elmore said.

    The crushing blows to the skull ended the life of the girl Cozzie had strangled almost to death with his shirt, drug into the bushes off a nature trail, beaten, stripped and raped, Elmore told the jury.

    Although those in the courtroom had been warned against outbursts, Wilkes family members had to walk out twice during Elmore’s opening statement, some of them sobbing openly.

    Elmore furthered his argument with photos, including those of the crime scene and Courtney Wilkes’ ravaged body that drew an objection from defense attorney Spiro Kypreos.

    Kypreos compared Elmore’s opening to dragging a skunk through the jury box. “How do you get the smell out?” he asked.

    He reminded jurors that they will convict or not convict Cozzie based on evidence, not the theatrics of a prosecuting attorney.

    “Every single word he said to you for the last hour and 15 minutes are not evidence in this case. The photos he showed you are not evidence in this case at this time,” Kypreos said.

    Both attorneys urged jurors to listen to evidence as it was presented during the trial. Kypreos said witness Michael Spencer could be particularly key.

    Spencer, 18, at the time of the killing, had once boasted to Cozzie that he had killed two men, according to Elmore. Cozzie went to Spencer after killing Courtney Wilkes and took him to show him the body.

    Spencer was with Cozzie when emergency personnel, looking for Courtney Wilkes, questioned them. He told them nothing at first, but later after being urged by an Internet chat room friend and a relative to step forward, he took Walton County sheriff’s deputies to the body.

    According to statements given much later by Cozzie, Spencer held a gun on him and forced him to kill the young vacationer.

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