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Smith's Stand Your Ground defense to be determined soon

SEBRING – A customer testified how an angry Roosevelt Shavon Smith III repeatedly stabbed 7-Day Store owner Dharmik Patel in April 2020.

Smith, who is charged with second-degree murder in Patel’s death, argued Stand Your Ground self-defense on Friday afternoon with the help of his lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Bruce Carter.

The male witness, who had gone into Patel’s store to purchase lottery tickets, said Smith was behind him in line as Patel served customers from behind bullet-proof glass.

To be polite, the witness let Smith go first.

“I know it takes a good bit of time to punch lottery numbers in,” the witness said. “I didn’t want to be in a rush and forget a number.”

Smith asked Patel if he could check the balance on his debit card, but Patel told him he couldn’t do that. As a rule, store owners and cashiers can’t access that information.

Smith became angry when Patel refused his request.

“(Smith) was saying it was messed up that he couldn’t check his card, he got kind of upset,” the witness said. “He kept saying, ‘that’s messed up, you can’t check my card.’”

Patel ordered Smith from the store, which only angered Smith more, the witness said.

“Smith said, ‘I don’t have to go anywhere,’ he was mad,” the witness told prosecutor Richard Castillo from the stand. “I really wanted to get out of there, I was about to see what was about to happen. I heard Mr. Roosevelt say he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Patel can be seen on the video motioning from behind the glass for Smith to get out of his store. That’s when the witness, standing behind Smith, hears him say, “I’ll burn this mother — down.”

That’s when the witness abandoned the idea of buying lottery tickets.

“Once I went outside, I turned around and saw a fight inside,” he said. “I went back inside and they were in a little employee area behind a door. Roosevelt was in front of him; he was stabbing Mr. Patel with something in his hands. It was quick stabs; Mr. Patel was trying to fight him. I ran out.”

Castillo argued that Smith was breaking the law at the time of the confrontation, one mitigating factor in Stand Your Ground. “Mr. Smith was no longer in a place he was allowed to be. Mr. Patel had ordered him from his store.”

The prosecutor also said Smith was in the employee area, behind the bullet-proof barriers attacking the store owner. At the time of the knifing, Smith charged Patel, who was trapped against the wall in the kitchen. That makes Smith the attacker, Carter argued. “He can’t take a good swing,” Castillo said. “It’s not consistent with deadly force.”

Carter countered by arguing that Patel came out from behind bullet-proof glass with a bat to confront Smith, who was refusing to leave his store.

“We are asking the court for immunity,” Carter said. “Mr Patel chose to leave from behind the counter, with bulletproof glass and a bulletproof door and confronted Mr. Smith. He could have called law enforcement but instead he chose to go out and engage Mr. Smith.”

Dr. Vera Volnhik, Tenth Judicial Circuit assistant medical examiner, said the store owner suffered 21-22 stab wounds, all on the left side of his body. Some were three inches deep, and at least nine stab wounds were on his right shoulder and in the back. He was stabbed at least once in the skull and once in the back of the neck.

Smith is arguing immunity from prosecution based on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows individuals to use deadly force “if they reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to themself or another.”

When the video was played in court, Smith can be seen pushing through the door to the employee area and leaning into Patel’s face. Patel then swings a bat at Smith, who leaves the employee area but quickly returns and stabs Patel repeatedly. Patel grabs his bloody shoulder and stumbles out of camera view.

There were two eyewitnesses to the attack.

Dharmik Patel’s wife also took the stand and described how the couple – married since 1987 – worked the store together since buying it in 2006. She worked mornings and he worked evenings every day of the week.

“No one was allowed behind the counter except family members,” she told the court.

At times sad and other times nervous, Ms. Patel described how Highlands County Sheriff’s detectives came to the hospital to obtain the username and password of the store surveillance system.

Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden will rule on Smith’s Stand Your Ground motion in the near future.

Renovation ramps up Sebring skatepark

SEBRING — It’s like a new game in town for skateboarders experiencing the City of Sebring’s newly renovated skatepark near Charlie Brown Park.

Frank Branca was an advocate for the skatepark built about 15 years ago and nextdoor, he had a skateboard shop. He closed that business when he relocated to work in videography and photography.

He moved back to Sebring in 2020 when the COVID pandemic started, which affected the live entertainment industry.

Branca was able to work from home, so he worked from his old skateboard shop, which now houses his dad’s air conditioning business.

He was informed about a newspaper story on the proposed upgrading to the skateboard park and wanted to get involved.

Skateboarding and skateboard construction has advanced so much over the years. Branca said h wanted to get involved in the renovation so it would be done right.

Being right next to the skatepark, he skates the park every day. It is his chance to stop thinking about everything going on and get some exercise, he noted.

Branca contacted City Administrator Scott Noethlich and started assisting with the project that was delayed in order to get acceptable bids for the work. The bid was eventually awarded to Longevity Concrete, of Bradenton, having the best price.

About three days before the new year, they broke ground on the project and did prep work. In the beginning of the year they did the first concrete pour and then prepped some more for the second pour.

“Now we have an amazing skatepark,” Branca said. “The feedback I have been getting from everybody is amazing.”

All the skaters feel like a new life has been brought into the park, he said.

“After you skate the same things over and over for so many years, it is like, you have done that trick,” Branca said. “Now it has a whole new life to it and the ramps are up to par.”

The skatepark was completely packed on Wednesday when it reopened and now the local skaters are excited. Some former skaters are even looking at getting back into it.

The renovation included the addition of an A-frame ramp with a rail and a box and manual pad. A manual is like a wheely on a bike, with the front end of the board lifting up, Branca explained.

“There are a lot of details to this skatepark that I am really proud of,” he said. “The skatepark really got the best ramps and obstacles that we could get for the space that we had and the budget that we had.”

Noethlich said, “It looks really good.”

The cost of the renovation included: $26,900 for the upgraded obstacles, $7,829 for lighting, $2,771.00 for three benches and one picnic table, and an estimated $7,500 for grant administration and surveys, for a total of $45,000.72.

In December 2020, Highlands News-Sun reported the City of Sebring had received funding from two grants that would go toward improvements at the city’s skate park.

In October 2021, it was reported the city received one bid to expand the skateboard park on Hawthorne Drive near Charlie Brown Park, but the price far exceeded the city’s budget for the project.

Russians gone from Ukraine village, fear and hardship remain

KALYNIVSKE, Ukraine (AP) — When night falls in Tatiana Trofimenko’s village in southern Ukraine, she pours sunflower oil that aid groups gave her into a jar and seals it with a wick-fitted lid. A flick of a match, and the make-do candle is lit.

“This is our electricity,” Trofimenko, 68, says.

It has been over 11 weeks since Ukrainian forces wrested back her village, Kalynivske, in Kherson province, from Russian occupation. But liberation has not diminished the hardship for residents, both those returning home and the ones who never left. In the peak of winter, the remote area not far from an active front line has no power or water. The sounds of war are never far.

Russian forces withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River, which bisects the province, but remain in control of the eastern side. A near constant barrage of fire from only a few kilometers away, and the danger of leftover mines leaving many Ukrainians too scared to venture out, has rendered normalcy an elusive dream and cast a pall over their military’s strategic victory.

Still, residents have slowly trickled back to Kalynivske, preferring to live without basic services, dependent on humanitarian aid and under the constant threat of bombardment than as displaced people elsewhere in their country. Staying is an act of defiance against the relentless Russian attacks intended to make the area unlivable, they say.

“This territory is liberated. I feel it,” Trofimenko says. “Before, there were no people on the streets. They were empty. Some people evacuated, some people hid in their houses.”

“When you go out on the street now, you see happy people walking around,” she says.

The Associated Press followed a United Nations humanitarian aid convoy into the village on Saturday, when blankets, solar lamps, jerrycans, bed linens and warm clothes were delivered to the local warehouse of a distribution center.

Russian forces captured Kherson province in the early days of the war. The majority of the nearly 1,000 residents in Kalynivske remained in their homes throughout the occupation. Most were too fragile or ill to leave, others did not have the means to escape.

Gennadiy Shaposhnikov lies on the sofa in a dark room, plates piled up beside him.

The 83-year old’s advanced cancer is so painful it is hard for him to speak. When a mortar destroyed the back of his house, neighbors rushed to his rescue and patched it up with tarps. They still come by every day, to make sure he is fed and taken care of.

“Visit again, soon,” is all he can muster to say to them.

Oleksandra Hryhoryna, 75, moved in with a neighbor when the missiles devastated her small house near the village center. Her frail figure steps over the spent shells and shrapnel that cover her front yard. She struggles up the pile of bricks, what remains of the stairs, leading to her front door.

She came to the aid distribution center pulling her bicycle and left with a bag full of tinned food, her main source of sustenance these days.

But it’s the lack of electricity that is the major problem, Hryhoryna explains. “We are using handmade candles with oil and survive that way,” she says.

The main road that leads to her home is littered with the remnants of the war, an eerie museum of what was and what everyone here hopes will never return. Destroyed Russian tanks rust away in the fields. Cylindrical anti-tank missiles gleam, embedded in grassy patches. Occasionally, there is the tail end of a cluster munition lodged into the earth.

Bright red signs emblazoned with a skull warn passersby not to get too close.

The Russians left empty ammunition boxes, trenches and tarp-covered tents during their rapid retreat. A jacket and, some kilometers away, men’s underwear hangs on the bare branches. And with the Russians waging ongoing attacks to win back the lost ground in Kherson, it is sometimes hard for terrorized residents to feel as if the occupying forces ever left.

“I’m very afraid,” says Trofimenko. “Even sometimes I’m screaming. I’m very, very scared. And I’m worried about us getting shelled again and for (the fighting) to start again. This is the most terrible thing that exists.”

The deprivation suffered in the village is mirrored all over Kherson, from the provincial capital of the same name to the constellation of villages divided by tracts of farmland that surround it. Ukrainian troops reclaimed the territory west of the Dnieper River in November after a major counteroffensive led to a Russian troop withdrawal, hailed as one of the greatest Ukrainian victories of the 11-month war.

The U.N. ramped up assistance, supporting 133,000 individuals in Kherson with cash assistance, and 150,000 with food. Many villagers in Kalynivske say the food aid is the only reason they have something to eat.

“One of the biggest challenges is that the people who are there are the most vulnerable. It’s mainly the elderly, many who have a certain kind of disability, people who could not leave the area, and are really reliant on aid organizations and local authorities who are working around the clock,” says Saviano Abreu, a spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The shelling is constant.

Ukraine’s Defense Ministry reports near daily incidents of shelling in Kherson city and surrounding villages, including rocket, artillery and mortar attacks. Most fall closer to the river banks nearer to the front line, but, that doesn’t mean those living further away feel any safer. On Friday, a missile fell in the village of Kochubeivka, north of Kalynivske, killing one person.

“Kherson managed to resume most of the essential services, but the problem is the hostilities keep creating challenges to ensure they are sustained,” Abreu says. “Since December, it’s getting worse and worse. The number of attacks and hostilities there is only increasing.”

Without electricity, there is no means to pump piped drinking water. Many line up to fetch well water, but a lot is needed to perform daily functions, residents complain.

To keep warm, many forage around the village for firewood. This is also not without danger.

“Before we could easily get wood from the forest, but now there are mines everywhere,” says Oleksandr Zheihin, 47.

Everyone in Kalynivske knows the story of Nina Zvarech. The woman went looking for firewood in the forest and was killed when she stepped on a mine.

Her body lay there for over a month, her relatives too afraid to go and find her.

AP approves vacating properties for Twin Lakes Resort

AVON PARK — As site work continues on a major housing project in the City of Charm, the City Council gave final approval to a request from the developer to vacate two small unused parcels of land.

At its December meeting, the City Council approved the closure of the shell rock section of South Lake Avenue at the request of the adjacent property owner – Boston Mining Company. Site work is underway on the project called Twin Lakes at Avon Park Resort.

At its Jan. 9 meeting, council approved the first reading of an ordinance to vacate the properties.

At that meeting, Justin Ham, of the planning and design firm Kimley-Horn, said, “The key takeaways here, it is unused right of way except for farming operations so there are no community impacts to this vacation and it is just a continuation of the previous approval to allow a development as it continues to take shape.”

One area that was vacated, Ham described as a little sliver of land near the southwest corner of the Boston Mining Property.

The other right of way was a sand cut road for farming operations. From South Lake Avenue, at Ernest E. Sims Street, the road goes west and ends at the eastern shore of Lake Anoka.

At Monday’s meeting, council unanimously approved the second and final reading of the ordinance vacating the properties.

There are plans to build more than 300 houses in the area north of Lake Lelia.

Twin Lakes at Avon Park is part of Sunlight Resorts. Their website states, “Coming Spring 2023. Come and live in the sunshine in one of our brand-new homes for rent. Enjoy living in a high-end, 3-bedroom 2-bathroom home situated in a luxurious Sunlight Resort community with all the resort-style amenities we’re known for.”

Sunlight Resorts has five other locations, either open or under construction, including Resort at Canopy Oaks east of Lake Wales, which the company touts as, “Florida’s newest, contemporary, luxury RV resort and cottage community,” which opened in December 2020.

Arcadia Acres, coming in spring 2023 in Arcadia, appears to be similar to Twin Lakes with rental homes.