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    NEW ORLEANS (AP) — BP wants its money back — hundreds of millions of dollars of it — but a federal judge said Wednesday that the oil giant must keep its promises to the companies it compensated for losses they blamed on the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

    BP argued that a flawed funding formula enabled many businesses to overestimate spill-related claims, and some "weren't warranted at all."

    U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier agreed several weeks ago to change the compensation formula for any future payments, but he ruled Wednesday that a deal is a deal when it comes to money BP has already paid out.

    Under that deal, claimants agreed to drop their lawsuits, and BP agreed that no future court action could change their payments.

    The ruling thwarts BP's latest attempt to control its soaring liability from the spill, which may be nearing $50 billion.

    "BP disagrees with today's decision and will appeal it," company spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "We asked the Court, as a matter of equity and fairness, to order the return of excessive payments."

    Barbier said he would rule later on the issue of compensation for cleanup workers whose chronic medical problems weren't diagnosed until after the deal's cutoff date of April 16, 2012. The settlement entitled cleanup workers with chronic conditions including rashes and breathing problems to receive up to $60,700 if the problems first surfaced within days of their cleanup work.

    Barbier ruled in July that, as BP contends, those payments can only go to people diagnosed before that date, and any plaintiffs diagnosed later must prove in court that their illness was linked to their spill work. Plaintiffs' attorneys asked him to change his mind, arguing that the cutoff date would keep most of the affected workers from collecting. Many of these workers couldn't afford to pay doctors right away, and neither patients nor doctors knew what medical tests were required before the settlement was signed, they argued.

    The plaintiffs' attorneys said the cutoff date was meant for people with "diseases, like cancers, that would likely take years to manifest."

    BP is still facing a financial nightmare from the nation's worst oil disaster, which began with an explosion that tore open the oil company's Macondo well on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, destroying the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killing 11 workers.

    Just as the company struggled to contain the spill over the following weeks and months, it's now trying to contain its estimated liability. The London-based company told shareholders at one point that its total exposure would be $40 billion, and markets responded accordingly.

    The estimate is now close to $50 billion, including more than $27 billion that BP says it has already paid to settle damage claims, and the company's stock price has suffered.

    The Macondo explosion fouled fruitful seafood grounds, sensitive coastal marshes and tourist-friendly beaches. The claims settlement reached with a committee of attorneys for various plaintiffs in 2012 had no cap, and its cost continues to rise.

     

    Below is an earlier version of this story:

    NEW ORLEANS — The federal judge for Gulf of Mexico oil spill cases was set to hear arguments Wednesday about whether BP PLC should get back hundreds of millions of dollars from businesses that got settlement payments between August 2012 and October 2013.

    The oil company says that's only fair because Judge Carl Barbier found that the formula used then was incorrect and ordered a change.

    Attorneys for plaintiffs say BP is trying to get out of its obligations. They say the release plaintiffs sign to get a settlement payment is a binding agreement for both sides.

    Barbier has given each side 20 minutes at the Wednesday hearing.

    He also planned to hear arguments about whether cleanup workers can be paid under the settlement for chronic medical problems blamed on the spill but not diagnosed until after April 16, 2012.

    Under the medical settlement, cleanup workers with chronic conditions including rashes and breathing problems can get up to $60,700 if the problems first surfaced within days of cleanup work. BP contends that those payments can only go to people diagnosed before April 16, 2012, while those diagnosed after that must prove their case in court later.

    Plaintiffs' attorneys say that would eliminate most plaintiffs, because the settlement requires specific tests for diagnosis. Many patients could not afford to pay doctors and neither patients nor doctors knew what tests were required before the settlement was signed, they argued in briefs. The plaintiffs' attorneys say the date and lawsuits were meant to apply to people with "diseases, like cancers, that would likely take years to manifest." 


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  • 09/24/14--15:37: Father charged after crash
  • PANAMA CITY - Police have arrested a Panama City father suspected of intoxicated driving with his wife and children in the vehicle, Panama City Police Department officials announced Wednesday.

    James V. White, 39, was arrested Tuesday at 11:10 a.m. after a wreck at the intersection of U.S. Bus. 98 and East Avenue. Once on scene, officers suspected White of being impaired and initiated a DUI investigation — even after White told them he had just left a methadone clinic, police reported.

    Upon completion of the investigation, White was arrested for driving while impaired. White’s driver’s license was suspended at the time and he also was charged with felony driving while license suspended or revoked, police said.

    At the time of the crash, White’s wife, who also showed signs of impairment, and two small children were in the vehicle, police reported. The three were not injured; however, the driver of the other vehicle was taken to the hospital for treatment.

    White was taken to Bay County Jail and charged with two counts of child abuse, DWI and felony driving with a suspended or revoked license.


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    PANAMA CITY — The former pastor of a Panama City Beach church is in jail again after allegedly giving a 16-year-old marijuana and then forcing sexual advances upon the minor, according to court documents.

    Markus Quin Bishop, 54, was arrested Tuesday and charged with delivering a controlled substance to a minor and felony battery. The charges stem from a Sept. 11 incident when Bishop and the minor were alone at his Fox Run Boulevard home, according to police. Bishop also was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

    Attorneys for Bishop said that because he is a longstanding member of the community, he should have a bond of $17,500. But during his first appearance Wednesday prosecutors argued Bishop’s prior conviction for domestic battery demanded a larger bond, which was set at $35,000.

    --- ARREST AFFIDAVIT ---

    On Sept. 11, Bishop allegedly provided the minor with marijuana in an attempt to intoxicate her before professing his love and kissing her against her will, according to his arrest affidavit. The two were at Bishop’s home alone when he offered marijuana to the minor before suggesting they go swimming, investigators with the Bay County Sheriff’s Office reported.

    “The victim/child said she was extremely ‘high’ but agreed,” their report stated.

    According to police reports, the minor became uncomfortable with Bishop’s advances in the hot tub and exited, so he suggested they get in the pool. After moving from the hot tub to the pool, Bishop took a flotation device from the minor and placed his hands on her lower back, guiding her around the pool, investigators reported.

    Bishop then began kissing the waist area of the minor. She exited the pool in an attempt to get away from Bishop, but he followed, police allege. Bishop walked up to her and began kissing her on the mouth, according to BCSO’s investigation.

    A warrant was issued for Bishop’s arrest Tuesday, and he surrendered himself the same day, officials said.

    The former pastor of Faith Christian Family Church in Panama City Beach, Bishop has a previous history of battery. He was sentenced to a year of probation January 2009 after he punched his wife in the eye. During an argument, Bishop charged his wife in their gated home on Preserve Bay Boulevard and she threw a drink in his face out of fear before he struck her in the left eye.

    Bishop pleaded no contest to the domestic battery charge. He authored a letter of apology to his wife, and the probation was terminated after six months.

    Bishop was the senior pastor of Faith Christian Family Church until it folded in 2012 amidst financial turmoil. The church filed bankruptcy in June of that year. He’s also an internationally known author, speaker and host of the “Faith Is the Victory” television broadcast.

    Bishop surrendered his passport before his first appearance on the charges Wednesday. He also cannot leave the state and must undergo random drug screenings.

    His arraignment was set for Oct. 27.


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    GALVESTON, Texas (AP) — A man charged with abducting a missing University of Virginia sophomore has been captured in Texas and is awaiting extradition — but there is still no sign of the student, authorities said.

    On Thursday morning, Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr., 32, appeared briefly before a Galveston County judge via a video link from jail to hear the charges against him. In Texas, he's charged with being a fugitive from justice and with giving false information to an officer, in addition to a count of abduction with intent to defile in Virginia. Judge Mark Henry set bond at $1,500 on the false information charge but held Matthew without bond on the fugitive count.

    Matthew — in a dark green jumpsuit, with his hands cuffed — signed several papers and told Henry that before his arrest in Texas he was not out on bond on any other charges.

    Matthew asked the judge a few short questions and expressed concern that his clothes were taken from him when he was booked into the Galveston County jail. “I should be able to have some kind of clothing,” he said.

    Henry told him that his jumpsuit was sufficient clothing and that his personal items would be returned later.

    After the appearance, Henry told KPRC-TV that he expected Matthew would be extradited to Virginia within a day or two. Officials have not released any details about an extradition.

    Matthew was arrested Wednesday afternoon on a beach in the sparsely populated community of Gilchrist by Galveston County Sheriff's authorities, Charlottesville Police Chief Timothy Longo said. The capture came less than a full day after police announced they had probable cause to arrest Matthew on charges of abduction with intent to defile Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old sophomore who went missing on Sept. 13 in Charlottesville.

    Police received a call reporting a suspicious person and a responding deputy found a man who had pitched a tent on the beach with his car parked nearby, the Galveston County Daily News reported. Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset told the newspaper that a check of the car's plates revealed it was the vehicle sought in connection to the case. Authorities were trying to get a warrant to search the car, he added.

    In Charlottesville, police say an intense search for Graham continues.

    “This case is nowhere near over,” Longo told a news conference late Wednesday. “We have a person in custody, but there's a long road ahead of us and that long road includes finding Hannah Graham.”

    The search is focusing on rural and wooded areas around Charlottesville, Longo said Thursday on NBC's “Today” show.

    According to authorities, Graham met friends at a restaurant for dinner Sept. 12 before stopping by two parties at off-campus housing units. Officials said she left the second party alone and sent a text message to a friend saying she was lost.

    Surveillance videos showed her walking, and at some points running, past a pub and a service station and then onto the Downtown Mall, a seven-block pedestrian strip where police believe she entered a bar with Matthew. The video that has been publicly released does not show the two entering the bar together.

    The university said Matthew had been employed at the University of Virginia Medical Center since Aug. 12, 2012, as a patient technician in the operating room.

    The charges against the 6-foot-2, 270-pound Matthew surprised Dave Hansen, who first met him about 11 years ago when Hansen served as an assistant pastor at an area church.

    “I always thought he was a gentle giant, just a nice guy,” Hansen said. “He seemed genuine with his faith and spirituality. ... I don't see him doing this at all, but that's usually the case, I guess.”

    Hansen said he's only kept up with Matthew through Facebook but ran into him at the university's medical center within the last year. He said the soft-spoken Matthew greeted him in an elevator with a high-five.

    Matthew attended Liberty University from 2000 to 2002, said officials with the Lynchburg school founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. The school's athletics website listed him as a defensive lineman on the football team.

    More recently, he also served as a part-time volunteer for the football team at The Covenant School, a private Christian pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade school in Charlottesville. Officials said his involvement with the school began last month following interviews with the athletic director and head football coach, as well as normal background and reference checks.

    After Matthew was named a person of interest in Graham's disappearance, school officials said in a letter that he will “no longer be working with our football program while this matter is being clarified and resolved.”

    While Matthew has had past brushes with the law, the details of those cases are not clear.

    Online court records show Matthew was convicted of trespassing in 2010 but provide no details about the incident. Details also were unavailable for two other charges of assault and attempted grand larceny relating to a 2009 incident that were not prosecuted. Matthew, who had a taxi permit from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles from 2007 through 2010, also has several traffic infractions, records show.


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    The Blotter is a look at some of the unusual things that happen on the crime beat in Bay County.

    Spring Break isn’t the only time girls go wild.

    A mother was recently driving past a local homeless shelter when she noticed a woman and a man sitting on an outside wall. They were both equally intoxicated when police arrived a short time after the mother driving past had to explain to her child passengers why the nice lady on the wall pulled up her shirt for the drunken man.

    Birds and the bees, brought to you by the homeless shelter.

    The lady was “more than willing to give a police report,” the officer stated before attempting to arrest the woman for disorderly intox and indecent exposure.

    But much like a rowdy spring breaker, the woman outside the homeless shelter wasn’t ready to leave the party and fought all the way into the cop car.


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    BASCOM - Deputies have caught up with the driver of a Ford Thunderbird who left the scene of a crash after running over several tombstones and grave markers, the Florida Highway Patrol announced Thursday.

    Dominic Robert Davison, 43, was arrested and charged with careless driving and leaving the scene of a crash after he fled a cemetery in which he allegedly crashed into several tombstones and grave markers.

    Davison, of Grand Ridge, was traveling west on County 165A (Wintergreen Road) toward County 165 (Basswood Road) driving a 1995 Ford Thunderbird. He failed to stop at the intersection and continued to travel west across County 165, onto the west shoulder, according to the FHP report. The front of the Thunderbird collided with a metal road sign and continued to travel west into a cemetery, FHP reported.

    Davison crashed into several tombstones and grave markers after entering the cemetery, stopped, and then fled the scene, FHP reported. Davison was found later by Jackson County deputies and arrested. He also was charged with no valid tag and giving false information at a crash scene.


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    CHIPLEY - An early morning mother and daughter drive was interrupted Thursday after a log crashed through their windshield, according to Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) reports.

    Jennifer Weber, 39, and her 9-year-old daughter were driving south on State 77 near County 388 in a 2008 GMC Yukon at 6:15 a.m. behind an unidentified driver of a log truck. Weber told officers she was following close behind the truck but did not remember colliding with its rear before a log crashed through her windshield, according to the FHP report.

    The driver of the log truck was unaware a collision occurred and continued traveling south on State 77. The driver is unknown, FHP reported. Weber veered to the right off of the roadway and came to final rest south of County 388.

    No independent witnesses saw the collision, FHP said, but all available physical evidence supports that Weber collided into the log on the rear. No other portions of the car were damaged. Due to a lack of witnesses, no charges were made.

    Weber was taken to Gulf Coast Medical Center with serious injuries.


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    TAMPA (AP) — Researchers have identified two more sets of remains buried on the grounds of a former Florida Panhandle reform school for over a half-century, the team announced Thursday.

    The University of South Florida team said it has identified the remains of 13-year-old Thomas Varnadoe and 12-year-old Earl Wilson, who both died while confined at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys.

    Varnadoe died in 1934, reportedly of pneumonia. Wilson was beaten to death in 1944, reportedly by four other boys while in a small confinement cottage on the property, known as the “sweat box.” The other boys were convicted in his death.

    In August, researchers said they had identified George Owen Smith as the first of 55 bodies they exhumed from the school property.

    Some former students from the 1950s and 1960s have for at least a decade accused employees and guards at the school of physical and sexual abuse, but the Florida Department of Law Enforcement concluded after an investigation that it couldn't substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed. Many former Dozier inmates from that era call themselves “The White House Boys” after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.

    Thomas Varnadoe's nephew, Glen Varnadoe, said at a Thursday news conference that his father also was sent to the school.

    “It's been a long road for me and my family,” said Varnadoe, of Polk County.

    It was a priority for the family to “remove (Thomas) from the atrocity-laden soils.”

    Over the decades, both boys’ families wondered where they children were buried. The Varnadoe family also questioned the cause of death.

    “We got the report that he died from pneumonia. We didn't believe that in a minute,” said Richard Varnadoe, who is 85 but was 5 years old when his older brother Thomas was sent to the school for allegedly stealing a typewriter.

    Richard provided DNA to the researchers and it was a perfect match with the body found in one of the simple wooden caskets.

    “It's been really bad in a way and really good in a way. It's almost unbelievable to go back 80 years,” he said. “I'm elated.”

    A large photo of the wooded area where the graves were found, along with a grainy picture of Thomas — and a photo of the sweat box — were displayed at the news conference.

    U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said the investigation “has only just begun.”

    “There's a lot of mysteries still out there,” he said.

    Records showed 31 burials at the Marianna school between its opening in 1900 and its 2011 closure for budget reasons. But USF researchers found the remains of 24 additional people between last September and December.

    In 2008, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice held a ceremony to officially “seal” the building and recognize the boys who passed through it. Some of “The White House Boys” were present and media coverage of the event, as well as an order from then-Gov. Charlie Crist, led to the investigation. Researchers, reacting to the allegations, excavated the graveyard at the school.

    At its peak in the 1960s, 500 boys were housed at the Dozier school, most of them for minor offenses such as petty theft, truancy or running away from home.

    In 1968, when corporal punishment was outlawed at state-run institutions, then-Gov. Claude Kirk visited and found the institution in disrepair with leaky ceilings, holes in walls, cramped sleeping quarters, no heating for the winters and buckets used as toilets.

    “If one of your kids were kept in such circumstances,” he said then, “you'd be up there with rifles.”

    Some of the bodies were found under roads or overgrown trees, well away from the white, metal crosses marking the 31 officially recorded graves.


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    OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A man fired from an Oklahoma food processing plant beheaded a woman with a knife and was attacking another worker when he was shot and wounded by a company official, police said Friday.

    Moore Police Sgt. Jeremy Lewis says police are waiting until the 30-year-old man is conscious to arrest him in Thursday's attack and have asked the FBI to help investigate after co-workers at Vaughan Foods told authorities that he recently started trying to convert several employees to Islam.

    The man, whom The Associated Press is not naming because he has not been charged, stabbed Colleen Hufford, 54, severing her head, Lewis said.

    “Yes, she was beheaded,” Lewis told The Associated Press before a Friday news conference.

    Lewis said the man then stabbed Traci Johnson, 43, a number of times before being shot by Mark Vaughan, a reserve sheriff's deputy and the company's chief operating officer.

    “This was not going to stop if he didn't stop it. It could have gotten a lot worse,” Lewis said.

    Lewis said that Moore police have asked the FBI to aid in the investigation and look into the man's background because of the nature of the attack, which comes in the wake of a series of videotaped beheadings by Islamic State militants.

    Johnson and the suspect were hospitalized and in stable condition Friday, Lewis said. He does not yet know what charges will be filed.

    Oklahoma Department of Corrections records show the suspect has multiple, apparently religious tattoos, including one referencing Jesus and one in Arabic that means “peace be with you.”

    Lewis said the suspect had been fired in a building that houses the company's human resources office, then immediately drove to the entrance of the business. Lewis said he didn't know why the man was fired.

    A Vaughan spokeswoman said the company was “shocked and deeply saddened” by the attack.


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    PANAMA CITY — A federal court has thrown out the lawsuit of a man whose wife committed suicide while in jail.

    Maureen Joyce Bearden threaded the sheet from her jail cot through the door grate of her cell in March 2009, an act she’d longed to do for most of her life, according to the lawsuit filed by her husband. Not long after, Bay County Jail guards would arrive to find her with the sheet around her neck, blue and cold to the touch.

    Suffering most of her life from bouts of severe depression, the 26-year-old Maureen Bearden recently had married James Bearden before she was arrested on robbery charges.

    A couple of months later she would be dead.

    Her death, James Bearden claimed in the lawsuit, could have been avoided by Bay County Jail administrators: Sheriff Frank McKeithen, Warden Rick Anglin and Ronald Lippman, a former jailhouse doctor. Coupled with her mental illness and a “cost-saving policy of refusal to provide inmates with face-to-face mental health therapy,” the lawsuit alleged, the jail administration left her without support in a critical time and with the tools to take her life.

    However, in a summary judgement issued Wednesday, the court said the lawsuit failed to support the claim of a civil rights injustice, which falls under the court’s jurisdiction.

    “Basically, you are required to prove the sheriff’s office was deliberately indifferent to her medical needs,” said John Jolly, BCSO’s legal counsel in the case. “Nobody’s civil rights got violated in this case.”

    BCSO had taken on jail oversight in October 2008, months before the incident. McKeithen declined to comment on the lawsuit since the case could proceed in the state court on charges of negligence. McKeithen did say mental health services at the facility did not suffer during the transition.

    Maureen Bearden was booked into jail and underwent an initial intake screening. She was deemed incompetent to stand trial three days before by a judge and was to be transferred to a mental hospital.

    She had attempted numerous times to end her life — nearly 25, according to BCSO. She jumped off a bridge on one occasion. She’d stabbed herself 28 times with an ink pen on another, according to the lawsuit. During her time in jail, she claimed she heard voices telling her to kill herself, and she saw blood on the wall.

    James Bearden said they had knowledge she was still suicidal and in need of care but “ignored the serious nature and intentionally or recklessly failed to provide that care,” the lawsuit stated. It further accused the three of leaving her with the instruments for her to commit suicide.

    Despite Maureen Bearden’s suicidal tendencies, the lawsuit alleges that in light of their recent marriage, she looked forward to spending her life with James Bearden.

    He is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against jail administration and a jury trial.

    Since undertaking jailhouse responsibilities, BCSO has implemented a policy of gradual inmate reintegration from suicide watch to general population, an electronic check system of patrolling guards, additional cameras in each cell and a committee that reviews the reintegration of inmates on suicide watch to general population, McKeithen said.


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    EASTPOINT — A Franklin County High School and assistant football coach has been arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious molestation of an underage female student.

    Gerald Tate was arrested Wednesday after being questioned regarding an incident dating back to the last week of school in May 2014.

    A news release from the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation was initiated by the sheriff’s office on Sept. 12. It said that one of several allegations of sexual misconduct has so far been confirmed, which is that Tate “sexually molested a child and threatened that there would be consequences if anyone was told about it.”

    Based on the student’s accounts, crime scene technicians from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were called in and asked to examine a specific room for evidence. Presumptive tests taken by a biologist in the location identified by students were positive for semen, said the news release.

    When questioned Wednesday about the allegations, Tate “quickly admitted the molestation allegation was true.” Based on the admission, evidence, and statements, he was arrested and charged with lewd and lascivious molestation, said the release.

    Tate began at the high school last fall, as an ESE (exceptional student education) teacher. This year he has been teaching physical education classes. He also serves as an assistant football coach.

    Superintendent Nina Marks said Tate has been suspended without pay from his job, and that she expects to present the matter to the school board at a special meeting Oct. 1.

    The news release said additional charges are pending further investigation of the allegations


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    PANAMA CITY — An Alabama couple has been sentenced for plotting the torture of a 90-year-old Lynn Haven veteran for his bank account information before killing and robbing him when he refused.

    Circuit Court Judge Brantley Clark upheld a jury’s recommendation Friday of death for Kevin Gene Jeffries, 29, who assisted in murdering 90-year-old World War II Navy veteran Wallace Reid Scott in his Lynn Haven home. In April 2013 police discovered Scott’s body bound, beaten and strangled, initiating a manhunt for three suspects spanning three states. His girlfriend and conspirator, 29-year-old Ashley Griffin, helped the prosecution gain its conviction of Jeffries and was sentenced to 20 years in prison Friday for the murder.

    David Ian Challender, 28, was the third party to Scott’s murder and pleaded outside of trial to spending the rest of his life in prison. His decision followed Jeffries’ conviction and sentencing to death.

    During the trial, Jeffries’ counsel argued Challender, Jeffries’ cousin, was the architect and more malevolent party. They asked the judge to consider the “disparate sentencing of a more culpable party” before upholding the jury’s condemnation to death, but Clark gave the suggestion little weight in his decision.

    Though Challender “entered a plea to the same charges as (Jeffries) and received a lesser sentence, the court is not required to do a relative culpability analysis,” Clark wrote in the judgment.

    Jeffries and Griffin testified Challender committed the more heinous acts after their methamphetamine- and marijuana-fueled road trip from Challender’s Atlanta home to Lynn Haven in hopes of a “big lick.” Challender’s mother, Sheri Mercer, previously had been a caregiver for Scott and was named a beneficiary in his will. Griffin and Jeffries said they were promised riches in a plan to break into Scott’s home and coerce his ATM PIN number from him but did not know the trip was actually a head hunt.

    A grander scheme was at play, they testified, later finding out Scott was in the process of removing Mercer from his will.

    During their trip, the group discussed raiding Scott’s home, living there for a week and assuming his identity. They’d planned to run up his credit cards and abscond with the treasures. Scott was bound and tortured in the trio’s effort to get the man’s PIN, but he refused to give up the information before being murdered.

    Each accused the other of holding a knife to Scott’s genitals as they became more desperate for his PIN, and Griffin testified to seeing Challender pour bleach in Scott’s mouth and eyes, after he’d died, to cover up the murder. The group then made off with guns, a clock and cash.

    Most of the evidence at the scene was contaminated with cleaning products. A single fingertip of blue glove found at the scene led investigators to the trio after initially questioning Challender’s mother, who seemed to have the most to gain by Scott’s death.

    “That’d be the first thing I’d be doing would be trying to inherit somebody else’s stuff,” Challender told investigators after being taken down at gunpoint in a Holmes County cow field. “That would be me. I would try to do something like that.”

    Griffin eventually was located in Donalsonville, Ga., on April 13, nine days after Scott was killed, and brought back to Bay County. She was wearing a ring that belonged to Scott. Investigators developed her, Jeffries and Challender as suspects the previous day.

    Jeffries and Challender were arrested later the same day; Challender was found at his father’s home in Caryville. 

    Mercer has not been charged in connection with Scott’s death. Griffin and Jeffries have offered to testify against her only in exchange for a lesser sentence, according to prosecutors.


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    TALLAHASSEE — Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Mike Crews has made a public show of his attempts to purge the agency of abusive prison guards in the wake of news reports about inmates’ horrific deaths at the hands of corrections workers.

    But a major bust at a North Florida prison —- ignored, for the most part, by the department —- paints a vivid portrait of what some insiders say is the key corrupting force within prisons: gangs and their connections with crooked guards.

    Two former prison sergeants are awaiting trial after being accused of ordering an inmate to be killed to protect the guards’ role as kingpins of an institution-wide gang operation.

    --- REPORT: SCOTT'S TOP INSPECTOR TOLD ABOUT COVER-UP ---

    Former Sgts. Robert Simmons and Delrikos Brooks face a slew of felony charges, including ordering the hit on one of the inmates at Taylor Correctional Institution, money laundering and directing the activities of a criminal gang. Simmons and Brooks are being held in the Taylor County Jail.

    For more than a year, at least five guards, including Simmons and Brooks, allegedly helped the “Bloods,” “Folk” and “MPR” gangs by smuggling drugs, cellphones and cigarettes into the prison in exchange for thousands of dollars in payments, according to probable-cause affidavits.

    Last fall, Brooks and Simmons ordered inmate David Powell to be “removed” after he threatened to expose the operation, according to the allegations. Powell survived two botched attempts on his life in which other inmates stabbed him.

    Sources familiar with similar investigations said the Taylor County cases are the only ones in recent history in which corrections workers have been charged with ordering an inmate to be killed.

    But the way the guards are alleged to have been paid for sneaking contraband into the Perry prison and the manner in which the gangs operated their criminal enterprise —- outlined in detail in the Simmons and Brooks cases —- is all too common in the Florida corrections system where, by the agency’s own estimates, at least 10 percent of the 100,000 inmates are affiliated with gangs.

    Like TV

    Probable-cause affidavits accompanying the arrests of the guards read like a script from a cable television show.

    The gangs allegedly paid Simmons up to $24,000 for eight trips to Tampa, where he picked up drugs and cellphones from the brother of inmate David Cancel, a one-time high-ranking gang member. Cancel then sold the goods for a profit.

    Simmons would wear a heavy jacket in warm weather to let gang members know when he had goods for sale, the documents say.

    Brooks, described as the “alpha” member of the prison’s “Bloods” gang, allegedly sold MDMA, also known as “Molly” or Ecstasy, and synthetic marijuana known as “K-2,” or “spice,” for between $50 and $300, according to court records.

    Powell, at one time an elite member of one of the gangs, got sideways with the guards when he caught Brooks giving a cellphone to an inmate and threatened to expose him, the documents allege. Simmons spread the word to other inmates that Powell was ratting out Brooks. While outside at the recreation yard the next day, Powell was jumped by several gang members and stabbed, but not seriously.

    After the first bungled attempt on Powell’s life, Brooks, a strapping 33-year-old who earned $32,000 a year, allegedly pretended to sympathize with the inmate and offered to set up a fight between Powell and other gang members.

    The next day, Brooks and Simmons sent another inmate to “finish the job” on Powell, according to the allegations. Former guard Valshantaya Cook —- who wasn’t supposed to be working in the dorm but was sent there by another guard in on the plot —- was accused of giving inmate Ernest Harrington entry into Powell’s dorm. Harrington stabbed Powell in the hand, but, again, Powell escaped serious injury. Cook later told other guards that Harrington was not involved in the attack on Powell. Cook was charged with a variety of crimes, including money laundering, bringing contraband into a prison and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

    Lawyers for Brooks and Simmons either did not return calls or did not want to speak on the record for this story. Trials, postponed repeatedly in part because inmates who snitched on the guards and other gang members have been moved from the Perry institution, are set for November. Further delays are expected.

    Contraband

    Drugs and cigarettes are the backbone of the black-market economy run by gangs in the Perry prison and others throughout the country.

    But cellphones like those alleged to have been slipped into the prison by Simmons, Brooks and their cohorts are an even bigger commodity.

    Smartphones allow gang members to communicate with each other by text or phone within and between institutions. And, perhaps more importantly, the cellphones are the conduit for financial transactions in which inmates can pump money into prepaid debit cards in the possession of guards.

    Investigators who uncovered the Taylor County guard-gang conspiracy exposed how inmates allegedly used “MoneyPak” payments to Green Dot cards —- available at most convenience stores —- to shuttle money to Simons and Brooks, their relatives or others involved.

    According to court records, here’s how the scheme worked: A relative or friend of one of the gang members would purchase a “MoneyPak” payment —- often for up to $300 —- and receive a 14-digit code. Inmates would get a text with the code on it, then use their cellphones and the code to transfer funds onto Green Dot cards possessed by Brooks, Simmons or one of their aides.

    “This method of transferring money allows the staff to launder the funds to minimize detection by law enforcement,” Aubrey Land, the Department of Corrections investigator responsible for the arrests, wrote in probable-cause documents.

    Franklin County

    Land is one of four investigators who sued the Department of Corrections earlier this year after Gov. Rick Scott’s inspector general refused to grant them whistleblower protection. The investigators were concerned about retaliation after exposing the 2010 gassing death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, an inmate at Franklin Correctional Institution.

    The Perry busts mirror what Land, in transcripts associated with the whistleblower lawsuit, said he and fellow whistleblower John Ulm and Department of Corrections investigator James Padgett uncovered at the Panhandle prison where Jordan-Aparo died.

    Other sources intimate with Florida prisons say similar relationships between guards and gangs throughout the state are responsible for myriad crimes, including inmate-on-inmate deaths that remain unsolved.

    Prison workers make relatively little money and often work in communities where the institutions are the major employer. Guards too easily can be lured by money and the power that accompanies a prominent role as a purveyor of popular black-market goods.

    “But they need an organization for the distribution … in essence to allow their illegal trade to go on. And they turn to an organization in prison that they think is helpless … but very quickly, the inmates understand and exploit the vulnerability” of the guards, said Jim McDonough, a former Department of Corrections secretary under Gov. Jeb Bush. “The power shifts pretty damn quick. The inmates now have power over the very guards that they have allowed to partner for a trade.”

    Crews has been on a mission to ferret out corrupt and abusive guards since The Miami Herald reported earlier this year about mentally ill inmate Darren Rainey, who died at Dade Correctional Institution after guards allegedly forced him to shower in scalding hot water as punishment two years ago.

    Crews acknowledged he has focused on ridding his agency of the worst of the worst over the past two months. He’s fired 45 guards and traveled to every prison in the state to share his “zero-tolerance” abuse and corruption policy with staff. He said he intends to apply that same policy to guards who bring in contraband and endanger the safety of other staff as well as inmates.

    “My hope would be one day we eradicate our system of all of that type behavior. But is it going to take a little while? Yes,” Crews told The News Service of Florida this week.

    Some guards “fall prey to the temptation” of sneaking in cellphones because of the cash rewards, Crews said. Until now, the consequences were not harsh enough, the secretary indicated.

    --- REPORT: SCOTT'S TOP INSPECTOR TOLD ABOUT COVER-UP ---

    “If you just bring them in a room, you tell them to cough and tell them to take off their uniform, you put them in their clothes and then they walk out the door. There really is no deterrent because there’s too much money changing hands with this,” he said.

    Pointing to an Okeechobee Correctional Institution guard who was fired Thursday for bringing 12 cellphones and chargers into the prison, Crews said he is intent on forcing workers to understand that he means what he says.

    “When you have an incident happen, maybe they walk out in their street clothes but they walk out in handcuffs and they are criminally charged. If that doesn’t get the attention of our staff, I honestly don’t know what will. But is it going to be something that happens overnight? No. We didn’t get into this position overnight,” he said.


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    TALLAHASSEE — A widening scandal focusing on the treatment of Florida prison inmates includes new allegations that Gov. Rick Scott's own top watchdog was warned about the possible cover-up of two suspicious prison deaths but did not do anything.

    The Miami Herald reported Friday that the governor's chief inspector general received an anonymous letter in Oct. 2012 that included details about prisoners who had died while in state custody.

    But instead of opening an inquiry, Melinda Miguel turned it over to the inspector general at the Department of Corrections, which conducted a cursory review.

    Miguel works directly for Scott, but so far the governor has not said anything about the scandal, which has led to the firings of prison employees. The questions surrounding the prison system's handling of the cases has resulted in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement being placed in charge of investigating 82 cases in which prison inmates died from non-natural causes.

    The anonymous letter was addressed to Scott and stamped as being received by Miguel. It included details about the deaths of Randall Jordan-Aparo at Franklin Correctional Institution in 2010 and Darren Rainey at Dade Correctional in 2012. Rainey, a mentally ill prisoner, was punished in 2012 with a shower so hot that his skin separated from his body. Jordan-Aparo was reportedly gassed while in a confinement cell.

    The letter states that “cronyism and cover-ups are destroying the department.”

    The Scott administration on Friday did not dispute that Miguel received the anonymous letter but said it came after criminal investigations had been launched.

    Frank Collins, a spokesman for Scott, pointed out that both deaths are part of “active criminal investigations” that are being conducted by the FBI, the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

    “They are all lead on these criminal investigations - not the Chief Inspector General,” Collins said in a statement adding that Miguel is “coordinating with the lead agencies to ensure that justice for these individuals and their families is done.”

    Late Friday, Department of Corrections Secretary Michael D. Crews ordered the Franklin Correctional Institute warden to fire Sgt. John Nunez in connection with the allegations of criminal activity at the Franklin County prison. Nunez's actions represented "an immediate threat to the safety of the inmates under his care, custody and control."

    Still, the timeline shows that FDLE had initially closed the investigation into Jordan-Aparo's death at the time the letter was received. That investigation was reopened with the FBI last September.

    Instead of responding to the claims in the letter, Miguel turned it over to DOC's inspector general, which conducted a cursory report, the paper said. A summary of the DOC report notes some “staff violations” in connection with Jordan-Aparo's death, and states that Miami-Dade police were handling Rainey's case.

    This past July, the warden at Dade was fired for his handling of the investigation into Rainey's death.

    DOC officials in recent weeks have also fired dozens of other prison employees, including several over abuse allegations that they punched and beat inmates.

    The Herald also reported that this past march Miguel refused to give DOC investigators whistle-blower protection after they told her that the department's own inspector general was pressuring them not to charge anyone in the Jordan-Aparo case. She also refused to give whistle-blower protection to a DOC probation officer who also told her about suspicious aspects of Jordan-Aparo's death. That officer was later fired although the department maintains she was terminated for absenteeism.


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    SOUTHPORT — Investigators were working the scene of a Southport home late Friday where two bodies were found, the Bay County Sheriff's Office reported.

    BCSO was callled to 1327 10th St. in Southport about 7 p.m. after a family member of one of the victims arrived at the residence and found the bodies of a male and female, according to a news release.

    A crime scene unit was at the scene as of 10 p.m. Friday. The bodies were turned over to the Medical Examiner's Office for a forensic analyis.

    On Saturday, BCSO said the two found were 46-year-old John Steve Bowen and 44-year-old Donna Maria Merendino.

    ---

    Below is an earlier version of this report:

    Authorities were investigating the deaths of two people Friday night after an incident at a home off 10th Street, according to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

    Sheriff’s deputies responded about 7 p.m. to a report of two dead people in the home in Southport.

    BCSO could not release any other details as of 8 p.m. Friday.

    More information will be released as it becomes available, the Sheriff’s Office said.


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    PANAMA CITY BEACHCongressman Steve Southerland serenaded a couple hundred supporters Saturday with his own rendition of Ben E. King’s classic “Stand by Me” at the close of a Women for Southerland rally.

    After he sang “darling, darling, stand by me,” that’s what the ladies in the Aaron Bessant Park amphitheater did on the heels of opponents asserting Southerland’s agenda to be lopsided on women’s issues.

    “We have come together today to support one of the best not based on gender, but principles and ideas,” Ann Mitchell, co-chair of Women for Southerland, told the crowd as she opened the rally.

    Women for Southerland called on a handful of well-established women Republicans to speak on behalf of the husband and father of four daughters as a solid leader who operates on down-home family values.

    “One of the first things you get to know about Steve is he is passionate about what he loves and cares for,” Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst said.

    Oberst said Southerland has done a great job representing his party and Floridians in Washington’s “unfriendly environment.”

    The rally largely addressed mudslinging between Southerland and Gwen Graham, Southerland’s Democratic opponent for Florida’s District 2 congressional seat, over Southerland’s alleged views on women’s issues.

    “Let me talk about this fabricated war on women,” said U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama. “This is about the other side not having anything to talk about.”

    Eric Conrad of Graham’s press team responded by criticizing the rally, saying the coalition failed to meet their goal of launching the sizeable rally they’d planned.

    “On top of that, if anyone came to the rally hoping to hear about what Congressman Southerland has done to protect women or his plan to stand up for their rights in Congress, they would have left disappointed,” Conrad said in an email to the media. “There wasn’t a single mention of issues like Equal Pay or the Violence Against Women Act, both of which Congressman Southerland has voted against.”

    State Rep. Marti Coley said at the rally that Graham simply was using worn out tactics to paint Southerland as lethargic on women’s issues, and defended Southerland’s scrutiny of political bills.

    U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis, who traveled to Panama City Beach from Wyoming, told the crowd she knows Southerland speaks from his heart.

    “You need someone who can articulate what women want in this country and this community,” said Lummis, who added that’s not something one has to be a woman to do.

    When Southerland finally spoke, he put the “war on women” issue aside and said the war on anything in this country is “against everything we hold true.”

    Southerland said he and Graham have opposing views on where the authority belongs when sorting out political issues.

    “We differ because I believe in the power of the individual. My opponent believes in the power of government,” he said. “And I don’t think that’s insignificant.”

    With the heavy focus on women’s issues, Mitchell said women voters have a real influence on Election Day. She said in an interview that 53 percent of voters in the 2012 elections were women who care about all issues just as much as men.

    She said Women for Southerland recognizes women as powerful voters who lead the way as heads of households and business owners.

    “We cannot get mired down in these silly issues,” Mitchell said. “Every issue is a woman’s issue. Let’s stop playing gender politics.”


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    PANAMA CITY — Panama City police have issued an alert to be on the lookout for an Alzheimer’s patient reported missing Saturday.

    James Dale Carter drove away from his retirement home about 6 a.m. after he told the staff he was going to breakfast at a local Waffle House.

    Concerned about Carter’s safety, the staff reported Carter missing when he had not returned by 1 p.m., according to a news release from the Police Department.

    Carter is a white man who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs about 135 pounds. He has brown eyes and gray hair.

    He drove away in his yellow 2008 Pontiac Solstice with the Florida tag of 9926BZ.


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    SOUTHPORT — The brick house shared by 46-year-old John Steve Bowen and 44-year-old Donna Maria Merendino sat calm and quiet Saturday.

    Bowen’s van and Merendino’s Buick sat in the driveway, collecting debris that fluttered down from the trees above.

    It was a sharp contrast to the scene the night before when a family member arrived at the home to discover Bowen and Merendino dead.

    “It was my daddy and his girlfriend,” Cameron Bowen said Saturday afternoon outside his father’s home at 1327 10th St. in Southport.

    He had heard news of the tragedy that morning.

    Bay County sheriff’s deputies were called to the house about 7 p.m. Friday when another family member found the bodies.

    None of the couple’s neighbors seemed to have any idea what happened.

    Charles Sapp was at a birthday dinner at his daughter’s house next door when deputies arrived.

    “We got a call about 8:30 and they said something happened,” Sapp said. “We looked out and, Lordy mercy, there were police cars and we saw the yellow tape everywhere.”

    Investigators worked late into the night before the bodies were turned over to the medical examiner’s office for forensic analysis.

    Another neighbor, Erika Whyle, said she learned very little about Bowen and Merendino in the two years she lived adjacent to the couple.

    “This house has a history,” Whyle said, referring to her own home on Jefferson Avenue just around the corner. “The owners knew the people that broke in and wanted what was in the safe. It was drugs to the best of my understanding.”

    The previous homeowner, Michael Norman, shot and killed two men during a home invasion in May 2010. Investigators determined the would-be invaders were after prescription drugs.

    Despite the deaths in the nearby homes, a man who has lived in the neighborhood for 45 years said it was a good area.

    “At one time I knew everyone around here, but it’s not like that anymore,” Earl Pettis said.

    He also knew very little about Bowen and Merendino, but said they seemed nice and would wave when he drove by. He seemed calm about Friday’s incident.

    “I guess anymore, it’s not a shock,” Pettis said.

    Events that led to the deaths still were officially undetermined Saturday. The Sheriff’s Office said in a news release that it does not appear to be a random incident and that autopsies are scheduled for Monday.

    “My daddy was a good man,” Cameron Bowen said. “I can only imagine what people are speculating.”

    Bowen said his father had never been married and was engaged to Merendino. He also said he’s waiting to hear more from investigators before trying to make sense of what happened.

    “I’m still in shock,” he said.


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    PANAMA CITY — During the busy summer season, eastbound traffic can be backed up for miles from the intersection of Back Beach Road (U.S. 98) and State 79.

    So many drivers are trying to turn northbound onto State 79 to get to the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport that the turn lane fills up and traffic then spills out into the through-lane, Bay County traffic engineering manager Keith Bryant said.

    “It was a major problem this past summer,” he said.

    The problem should be resolved when a new intersection improvement project for which Bay County officials have been lobbying is finished, he said.

    It moved a step in the right direction earlier last week when the Bay County Transportation Planning Organization, which is comprised of local elected officials, added the project as a last-minute addition to this year’s 2016-2020 road-funding priority list. The project, which could cost between $200,000 and $300,000, made it to fourth in the “Non-Strategic Intermodal Systems” area of the list under transportation management improvements.

    Bryant said the intersection improvements involve adding another left turn lane for eastbound Back Beach Road traffic turning northbound onto State 79, also known as North Arnold Road.

    That will prevent the stacking back into the through lane, he said. Also, the project calls for reconfiguring the right turn for eastbound Back Beach Road traffic turning south onto State 79, Bryant said.

    He said the existing right turn lane will be turned into a through lane, and another right-turn lane would be added.

    County officials had been hopeful the project also would have included widening Back Beach Road to six lanes from State 79 to Pier Park Drive, but Bryant said that won’t be included in the intersection project.

    “This pot of money can only be spent on intersection improvements,” he said.

    It is unclear when the funding will be coming for the project, said Ian Satter, a Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) spokesperson.

    “It is hard to say,” Satter said. “We update our five-year work program every year in December.”

    Now that it’s on the priority list, DOT officials will evaluate what funds might be available to bring the intersection project to fruition, Satter said.

    “It’s kind of early to tell at this point because we just got the priority moving to number four,” Satter said. “We’ll have to look at a lot of things.”

    Even though the intersection project doesn’t include improvements for westbound traffic on Back Beach Road, the proposed Pier Park Loop Road project could help alleviate some of that congestion, Bryant said. The Panama City Beach City Council has endorsed moving forward on construction of the new two-lane road, but it has not yet taken a final vote.

    Under the concept, which recently was approved in a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Keith Curry dissenting, the city would fund the $2.6 million to develop a two-lane Pier Park Loop Road, and the property owner, the St. Joe Co., would convey land for it and provide engineering work and mitigation services.

    The Pier Park Loop Road would curve for about a 1.5-mile stretch in a northwesterly direction from the end of North Pier Park Drive up to State 79.

    North Pier Park Drive extends from Back Beach Road and dead ends just north of Palmetto Trace’s western entrance. When completed, the new road extension would allow drivers leaving Pier Park to drive to State 79 without traveling the congested segment of Back Beach Road.

    “Any roadway that takes some of the traffic off Back Beach Road is a good thing,” Bryant said. “It’s a city project, but I’m excited about it.”


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    PANAMA CITY — The Florida Department of Transportation announced several projects that could affect local motorists.

    Construction crews will install poles for traffic cameras along U.S. 231 on Tuesday. There will be intermittent lane closures at the intersection with State 20 and the Fountain Park intersection.

    The cameras are part of an Intelligent Transportation System under construction along U.S. 231 between Panama City and Alabama, and along Interstate 10 between mile marker 33 in Santa Rosa County and mile marker 190 in Gadsden County.

    Crews will also conduct routine maintenance work on the westbound side of the Hathaway Bridge between Monday, Oct. 6 and Friday, Oct. 10. work will start in the outside lane and move toward the inside lane. The work will be conducted between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

    East Avenue between 11th Street and U.S. Business 98 will be closed for three days beginning Friday, Oct. 6 as construction crews replace a cross drain south of 11th Street. Drivers may use

    East 11th Street, Sherman
    Avenue, East 5th Street and East Avenue as an alternative route.

    All work depends on the weather and can be delayed or rescheduled. Motorists should pay attention and use caution in work zones.


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