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AP Council picks Schrader for city manager

AVON PARK — By a 3-2 vote the City Council selected Mark Schrader to fill the city manager position.

Schrader, who retired in 2017 from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office as chief deputy, was among the finalists who interviewed for the city manager position in December 2018 when David Flowers was hired.

Flowers resigned in September when a majority of the council appeared prepared to vote for his ouster.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, Deputy Mayor Stanley Spurlock made a motion to hire Schrader with Councilwoman Brenda Gray seconding the motion.

Spurlock, Gray and Councilwoman Maria Sutherland voted “yes” on the motion to hire Schrader.

Mayor Garrett Anderson said Tuesday the original idea was to have the citizens committee provide recommendations to the City Council, which would then finalize a short list of candidates to interview at a special meeting and then make a selection.

“They decided to forego the process we agreed upon and go ahead and select Mr. Schrader,” he said. The salary was also approved at $90,000.

Schrader has seven days to accept or decline the offer.

“It is going to cast the city in a bad light not to finish the process that would have been the fairest thing to do,” Anderson said. There were a lot of qualified candidates among the 36 applicants, he added.

“Definitely, in my opinion, he was not the most qualified candidate for the job, but that is who they chose nevertheless,” Anderson said. “Obviously, looking forward to hopefully a bright future in Avon Park, but it will be difficult to get things on the straight and narrow without going through the process.”

Sutherland said Tuesday, “I think it was a great selection. I really appreciate the community input. Mr. Schrader was on the top 10 list and the council and the community were well aware that the council was going to have a say as well. By doing that, he ended up making the top five.”

There was huge favoritism leading toward Mr. Schrader based on his previous interview about a year ago, Sutherland told the Highlands News-Sun.

“I know that some people are unhappy about the decision because there weren’t interviews for other individuals, but information comes about through public records that were not obtained during the actual review of the applicants,” Sutherland said. “I based my decision off of some of that information.”

Schrader comes with a huge array of expertise in managing people, she said.

“My belief is that managing people and getting them motivated to do their jobs as explained by their job description is really the crux of doing the city manager position,” Sutherland said.

Hiring practices, employee raises and budgeting issues were some of the issues council had with former city manager Flowers.

Sutherland said, “I know that Mr. Schrader will not sneak things into a budget; he will not lie to us; he will not camouflage things and sugarcoat things and that is what we need.”

They wanted to raise taxes when Flowers was city manager without having any inkling to where the taxes would be spent and it was shot down, she said. Sutherland said at that time that she can’t raise taxes without knowing what it is going to be spent for.

“Already we have found money in the budget that has been padded; there is nearly $200,000 in the contingency account of found money,” she said.

Council agreed on a $90,000 starting salary with a six-month evaluation and a $5,000 increase at the end of that evaluation.

Becker still missing without a trace

SEBRING — The mystery of Margaret Helen Becker’s disappearance has frustrated law enforcement and her family members for the better part of two weeks. On Tuesday, her family and husband of 42 years, Fred, joined the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office at a press conference asking for the public’s help in bringing her back home.

Fred’s daughter, Sheri (Becker) Unger, asked the public to keep their eyes and ears open for Margaret, who prefers to go by Helen. Although the officials of HCSO say there is no evidence of foul play, both Fred and Sheri believe foul play is involved.

“We feel she was abducted,” Unger said. “She did not leave on her own free will. She was of sound mind.”

Unger said the rest of the family in Ohio are worried and want to help. She told them that she didn’t know what to do here without any leads. Unger lives in Ohio but was able to take an emergency week off from work to be with her father. She is concerned about her dad if she has to leave this weekend. Fred is a diabetic and needs to eat healthy meals, she said.

“We are very fearful, being 11 days,” Unger said. “She had with her, her one prescription and bananas. We don’t know if she had anything else. If it was foul play, I wouldn’t be expecting anyone to treat her very well at all. But we will need her home, even if it is a worse case scenario. We will need closure.”

Unger thought it was very unusual that her step-mom vanished without a trace.

“They have no leads — not even the crazies have called,” she said. “Somebody saw something.”

Unger pointed out several reasons why she and her father believe there is foul play afoot.

“She didn’t like to drive at night, so even if she were planning on traveling, she would have started out earlier in the day,” she said. “She would never leave her dog (Rodney). She and my dad had plans together in February.”

Fred previously told the Highlands News-Sun that he and his wife made plans to go to a bluegrass music festival in Palatka and attend the Strawberry Festival to listen to the music.

The press conference was hosted by Scott Dressel, the public information officer for HCSO. As he ran through the timeline, he said a customer in CVS said she seemed confused but Helen Becker had never been diagnosed with any type of cognitive impairment.

Becker was last seen on Jan. 17 at Publix in the Southgate Plaza. Video surveillance shows Becker entering the store at 6:05 p.m. and leaving at 6:17 p.m. after purchasing bananas. HCSO officials said Becker looked a little unsteady on her feet.

“I’m just hoping somebody finds her somehow,” Fred Becker said while choking back tears.

Helen Becker was last seen wearing knee-length blue shorts, possibly denim and a blue checkered shirt. There has been no ping from her cell phone or signal from the OnStar system in the blue 2018 Chevrolet Colorado pickup truck she was driving. The truck had Ohio tags on the front and back. The plate number is HOB8214. A handicap placard was hanging from the rearview mirror.

“She was a very friendly lady,” he said. “She never had no enemies. She would strike up a conversation with anyone in the store.”

Fred Becker also echoed his daughter’s thought that Helen would never leave her dog. The dog now clings to Fred as he once did Helen.

“We do know that during that time frame, the military was conducting operations at the Avon Park Air Force Bombing Range,” Dressel said. “They had put out that there might be some disruptions with GPS signals during that operation due to what they were doing.”

The PIO said that could account for the lack of “bread crumbs” that are commonly left with cell phones and GPS systems.

“As you’re driving around the area and you see where it looks like a car may have left the road and gone into the woods, or something that looks like there was an accident, please call and let us know,” Dressel said.

He said it is very uncommon for someone to not have any trace with today’s cell phones and GPS systems. There were no cameras outside of Publix and deputies do not even know which way she went when she left the store.

Unger plead to the public to call with any leads stating they are willing to send out search parties if they knew which way to go.

Unger thought someone may have gotten into her unlocked truck and hid until she got in the truck.

Verizon said Helen’s phone is dead because it has not been charged.

Anyone who may have seen Helen Becker on Jan. 17, or anyone with information is being asked to call HCSO at 863-402-7200.

Crash in Spring Lake ends in fatality

SEBRING — First responders were called out to a crash involving a “flipped” vehicle at 9:07 a.m. Tuesday. The single vehicle crash on Duane Palmer Boulevard near Camelot Lane resulted in one confirmed death, according to Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kenneth Watson.

The wreck was north of the Spring Lake Dog Park and south of the Eco Park. Traffic was tied up for hours while FHP investigated.

According to FHP, Bobbi Lynn Smith, 58, was the driver of the vehicle in which Joseph Michael Delsignore, 62, also of Sebring was the passenger. The report indicates Smith was ejected from the vehicle and sent to Lakeland Regional Hospital for treatment of her “critical injuries.” Delsignore was confirmed dead at the scene.

The dark gray 2013 Dodge Journey was traveling southbound on Duane Palmer Boulevard as it navigated the large right-hand curve. The vehicle crossed the northbound lane and onto the eastern shoulder of the northbound lane. Smith reportedly overcorrected causing the car to rotate clockwise as it headed southwest. According to the report, Smith overcorrected again, causing the SUV to rotate counterclockwise and travel southeast once again and back onto the grassy shoulder. The SUV turned on to its passenger side, which collided with a “standing palm tree” and a wood line.

The report shows that while the vehicle turned over, Smith was ejected and landed on her back facing east in a wooded area.

The SUV came to rest on its hood with the front end pointing east.

The report shows Smith was not wearing a seat belt but Delsignore was. The report said it is unknown whether alcohol was a factor in the incident.

Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, Highlands County EMS, Florida Highway Patrol and DeSoto City Fire Department were all on scene.

According to unofficial records kept by the Highlands News-Sun, this is the fifth fatality on Highlands County roads this year.

Magnitude 7.7 earthquake hits between Cuba and Jamaica

HAVANA (AP) — A powerful magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck in the Caribbean Sea between Jamaica and eastern Cuba on Tuesday, shaking a vast area from Mexico to Florida and beyond, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or heavy damage.

The quake was centered 139 kilometers (86 miles) northwest of Montego Bay, Jamaica, and 140 kilometers (87 miles) west-southwest of Niquero, Cuba, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. It hit at 2:10 p.m. (1910 GMT) and the epicenter was a relatively shallow 10 kilometers (6 miles) beneath the surface.

The quake could be felt strongly in Santiago, the largest city in eastern Cuba, said Belkis Guerrero, who works in a Catholic cultural center in the center of Santiago

“We were all sitting and we felt the chairs move,” she said. “We heard the noise of everything moving around.”

She said there was no apparent damage in the heart of the colonial city.

“It felt very strong but it doesn’t look like anything happened,’’ she told The Associated Press.

It was also felt a little further east at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the southeastern coast of the island. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damages, said J. Overton, a spokesman for the installation, which has a total population of about 6,000 people.

Several South Florida buildings were being evacuated as a precaution, according to city of Miami and Miami-Dade County officials. No injuries or road closures have been reported.

The quake also hit the Cayman Islands, leaving cracked roads and what appeared to be sewage spilling from cracked mains. There were no immediate reports of deaths, injuries or more severe damage, said Kevin Morales, editor-in-chief of the Cayman Compass newspaper.

The islands see so few earthquakes that newsroom staff were puzzled when it hit, he said.

“’It was just like a big dump truck was rolling past,”’ Morales said. “Then it continued and got more intense.”

Dr. Stenette Davis, a psychiatrist at a Cayman Islands hospital, said she had seen manhole covers blown off by the force of the quake, and sewage exploding into the street, but no more serious damage.

Claude Diedrick, 71, who owns a fencing business in Montego Bay, said he was sitting in his vehicle reading when the earth began to sway.

“It felt to me like i was on a bridge and like there were two or three heavy trucks and the bridge was rocking but there were no trucks,” he said.

He said he had seen no damage around his home in northern Jamaica.

The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center said the quake could generate waves 1 to 3 feet above normal in Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Honduras, Mexico and Belize.

The USGS initially reported the magnitude at 7.3.

Kate Chappell reported from Kingston, Jamaica.