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Xaver trial set, will take at least six weeks

SEBRING — A judge set Jan. 16, 2024, for the start of Zephen Xaver’s six-week capital murder trial. The decision came during a pretrial hearing Feb. 1.

Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden and trial lawyers also mapped out a timeline for the trial, for which the judge is expected to summon around 1,000 potential jurors.

Xaver is charged with five counts of first-degree murder in the slaying of five local women – Debra Cook, Marisol Lopez, Jessica Montague, Ana Pinon-Williams, Cynthia Watson – at the former SunTrust MidTown Branch in 2019. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

Death penalty trials have two parts: The guilt or innocence phase, followed by the penalty phase. During the first phase, the jury weighs the evidence and determines guilt or innocence. During the penalty phase, the jury hears arguments on whether the convicted individual should be given life in prison or the death penalty. There will be a two-week break between the guilt phase and the punishment phase to give lawyers time to prepare their penalty arguments.

One thousand potential jurors

Cowden told Prosecutor Paul A. Wallace and Assistant Public Defender Jane Allie McNeill last week that she expects to summon up to 1,000 potential jurors and stagger their appearance from Tuesday, Jan. 16, through Friday, Jan. 19, 2024. That following Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, will be the fifth anniversary of the slayings.

Cowden plans to call so many potential jurors because only about 25% respond to jury summonses in Highlands County. With 1,000 summonses, she told lawyers, she hopes between 250 to 300 prospective jurors will show up for jury selection.

Jury selection is expected to take at least two weeks. That’s because prosecutors and defense lawyers go through a lengthy process of “death certifying” jurors. Jury selection is a win/lose proposition for either side, so they will take great care when picking a dozen jurors and several alternates. Through a series of questions, lawyers seek to eliminate from the jury anyone who would under no circumstance either consider a penalty of death or life without parole. To qualify, potential jurors must declare to prosecutors that they are willing to impose the death penalty. They are not required to do so, but must be willing to do so if the evidence points to it.

Prosecution, defense could take a week each

Once the jury is selected, Wallace and assistant state attorneys Bonde Johnson and John Kromholz will take about a week to state their case, putting on witnesses who saw Xaver inside the bank through the bank’s locked doors; law enforcement officers who responded to the scene; and likely play the bank security video that captured the crime. Wallace could also play Xaver’s interrogation by Sebring Police Detective Sgt. Jeff Reinhart and Highlands County Sheriff’s Detective Roger St. Laurent for the jury.

McNeill told Cowden during a recent hearing that she will also take about a week to present her client’s defense. She has her witnesses too, including law enforcement, Xaver family members, and other witnesses. She can also cross-examine prosecution witnesses, as the prosecution can do with her witnesses. It is also still possible that McNeal will deploy an insanity defense, though the hour is getting late. Cowden warned her last week that the judge can deny her use of the defense if it comes too late.

Jurors deliberate his fate

After both sides rest, the jurors will retire and begin deliberating Xaver’s fate. Once they arrive at a verdict, they will be brought into the courtroom where the clerk – or the judge – will read the jury’s decision.

If he’s found guilty, the jury will be excused for two weeks to give both sides time to prepare their arguments and exhibits for the punishment phase. McNeill told Cowden she may need time to ensure Xaver’s family members can be present for the punishment phase arguments. To ensure the jury is not swayed by emotional testimony, prosecutors have agreed to read victim impact statements from the Cook, Lopez, Montague, Pinon-Williams, and Watson families.

The jury will again retire to debate Xaver’s fate. It takes a unanimous jury to recommend death in Florida; any fewer and it will mean life in prison.

It will be up to Cowden to accept their recommendation. Florida is one of three states that allow a judge to disregard a sentencing jury’s recommendation in favor of life. She may not sentence him to death if the jury recommends life.

New trial date

As for the new trial date, the court agreed to the continuance after Xaver’s lawyer privately told Cowden that she could not be ready until late 2023. It is the second time McNeill has obtained a continuance; the court agreed to continue the original May 2, 2022, start date after McNeill cited health reasons a year ago.

Tenth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Brian Haas expressed disappointment in the decision to continue the trial a second time.

“For years, my prosecutors have attempted to schedule the trial in this case,” Haas told the Highlands News-Sun. “I am very frustrated that the victims’ families and our community have had to wait so long for justice. We will continue to work everyday to obtain justice in this case.”

Auction brings in big buyers

SEBRING — Buyers dug deep and pooled resources Thursday night to support student agriculture.

Two steers sold for $7,000 each at the Highlands County Fair Junior Livestock Auction, while another sold for $7,250.

Two heifers each sold for $6,000, a hog sold for $6,750 and a meat goat got a winning bid of $5,250.

Prices got high and some were “really good,” according to Darin Hood, past chair of the Highlands County Junior Livestock Committee, one of the many committee members tallying not only the bids on each animal, but also the “bump-up” and “add-on” donations.

The bump-ups raised the floor on each winning bid. Across the board add-on bids gave extra cash to each exhibitor, and specified bids helped individual exhibitors.

Overall, Hood said, it helps support student agriculture to encourage future farmers as well as educate students in general about the challenges of raising animals.

“It’s indicative of the community we live in and the support our youth have from our businesses and the community,” Hood said. “It’s a wonderful experience for many of our exhibitors.”

Those exhibitors did well. The Grand Champion Citrus Tree, raised by Emmalene Bush, sold for $1,500 to Lykes Brothers Inc. The Reserve Grand Champion Citrus Tree, raised by Eilish Sboto, sold for $900 to Everglades Equipment Group.

The Grand Champion Steer, raised by Hannah Sheffield, weighing in at 1,258 pounds, brought in a high bid of $7,000 by Everglades Equipment Group. A 1,137-pound steer, raised by Hana Piety, sold for $7,000, to Glisson Animal Supply and Crews Groves,

However, a 1,012-pound steer raised by Greer Smoak sold highest, for $7,250 to Heritage Land Company.

The 1,082-pound Grand Champion Heifer, raised by Tera Lynn Price, sold for $5,750 to Michael Pollitt Inc. However, the 957-pound heifer raised by Lily Kirkley, sold for slightly more: $6,000, to Andrew Stephens Memorial. Another 1,062-pound heifer, raised by Kaleb Reed, sold for $6,000, also, to Jim’s Auto Salvage.

The Grand Champion Goat, weighing in at 79 pounds and raised by Jalyn Addison O’Berry, sold for $2,500 to Farm Bureau Insurance. Still, the biggest bid on a goat went to the 70-pound Lake Placid Middle School FFA Chapter entry, exhibited by Ethan Bauder. It sold for $5,250 to Arrow B. Cattle Company.

The big money for hogs/swine this year went to the overall winner. The Grand Champion Swine, raised by Emma Mellow and weighing in at 243 pounds, sold for the high price of $6,750 to Charlie Cullens Memorial.

Hood said those and the other winning bids got across the board bump-ups. A business group pledged enough funds to raise all the bids on steers to $5,250, minimum.

Those 12 companies are Big “T” Tire, Bill Jarrett Ford, Crews Groves, G3 Ranch LLC, Glade & Grove Supply, Glisson Animal Supply, Hancock Citrus, Lake Placid Caretakers, Smoak Groves, South State Bank, Steve and Judy Bronson, and S.Y. Hartt & Son.

They also brought all bids on heifers up to a minimum $5,000, Hood said.

Highlands County Farm Bureau Insurance and Cornerstone Carpet One brought all the bids on goats up to $1,500 minimum, Hood said.

Among the significant overall add-on bids, Crews Companies added $200 to every bid on steers and heifers, $100 on every hog, and $25 on each citrus tree.

G.C. Grill House, formerly Golden Corral, pledged a $500 bonus to every grand champion and $250 to each reserve grand champion. The company also pledged $25 to all other exhibitors, as well as a $25 gift card to all.

Farm Credit pledged add-ons of $20 on each steer, $15 on each heifer and $10 on each goat.

Russia hits targets across Ukraine with missiles, drones

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia unleashed strategic bombers, killer drones and rockets in a barrage of attacks across Ukraine early Friday, as a military push by Moscow that Kyiv says has been brewing for days appeared to pick up pace ahead of the one-year anniversary of its invasion.

The Kremlin’s forces focused their bombardments on Ukraine’s industrial east, especially the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces that make up the industrial Donbas region where fighting has recently been most intense, the Ukrainian military said. Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces there since 2014.

But the barrage went further, also taking aim at the capital, Kyiv, and Lviv, near Ukraine’s Western border with Poland. It also struck critical infrastructure in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city in the northeast. Seven people were wounded there, two of them seriously, regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov said.

Air raid sirens went off across much of the country. The Ukrainian Air Force said its defenses destroyed five Kalibr missiles and five Iranian-made killer drones.

The bombardments could be an effort by Russia to soften up Ukraine’s defenses ahead of a ground assault, which Kyiv believes Moscow is planning in the east where the Kremlin is striving to secure areas it has illegally annexed and where it claims its rule is welcomed.

In the Donetsk region, local Ukrainian officials reported that the Russian military deployed additional troops and launched offensive operations. “There is a daily escalation and Russian attacks are becoming active throughout the region,” Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

In Luhansk province, the Russian army is trying to punch through Ukrainian defenses, according to regional Gov. Serhii Haidai.

“The situation is deteriorating, the enemy is constantly attacking, the Russians are bringing in a large amount of heavy equipment and aircraft,” Haidai said.

There has been little change in battlefield positions for weeks.

Also Friday, Moldova’s Ministry of Defense said that a missile was detected traversing its airspace near the border with Ukraine. Moldova’s foreign ministry said in a statement that the Russian ambassador in Chisinau has been summoned for talks over the “unacceptable violation”.

The ministry said that the missile was detected in its airspace at around 10 a.m. and flew over two border villages before heading toward Ukraine.

The spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Forces, Yurii Ihnat, told The Associated Press that another missile crossed the airspace of Romania, a NATO member country. Romania’s defense ministry denied that, however, saying the closest the missile came to Romania’s airspace was approximately 35 kilometers (20 miles).

High-voltage infrastructure facilities were hit in the eastern, western and southern regions, Ukraine’s energy company, Ukrenergo, said, resulting in power outages in some areas. It was the 14th round of massive strikes on the country’s power supply, the company said. The last one occurred on Jan. 26 as Moscow seeks to demoralize Ukrainians by leaving them without heat and water in the bitter winter.

Zaporizhzhia City Council Secretary Anatolii Kurtiev said the city had been hit 17 times in one hour, which he said made it the most intense period of attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022.

Ukraine’s Air Force shot down 10 Russian missiles over Kyiv, according to the Kyiv City Administration. The fragments of one missile damaged two cars, a house and electricity wires. No casualties were reported.

The Ukraine Air Force said Russia launched up to 35 S-300 anti-aircraft guided missiles on the Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia provinces. Those missiles cannot be destroyed in mid-air by air defenses but they have a relatively short range so the Russians have used them for attacks on regions not far from Russian-controlled territory.

The Khmelnytskyi province in Western Ukraine was also attacked with Shahed drones, according to regional Gov. Serhii Hamalii.

Russia has in the past used Iranian-made Shahed drones to strike at key Ukrainian infrastructure and sow fear among civilians, according to Western analysts. They are known as suicide drones because they nosedive into targets and explode on impact like a missile.

The onslaught lent a sense of urgency to Ukraine’s pleas for more Western military support. The need prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to make a rare — and daring — two-day trip abroad this week to press allies to grant Kyiv more aid.

Due to the threat of a missile attack, emergency power outages were enacted in Kyiv city, the Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, according to private energy operator DTEK.

The head of Kyiv City Administration, Serhii Popko, said that Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers, which can carry cruise missiles, were in the air.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that fragments of a Russian rocket fell in the Kyiv region and damaged a private house and a car.

A Russian rocket fell but did not explode in Ukraine’s western Lviv province Friday, according to regional Gov. Maksym Kozytskyi. Kozytskyi said on Telegram that there were no victims when the rocket fell close to a village bus stop.

Moscow’s ambitions have narrowed since it launched its full-scale invasion, when the capital Kyiv and the installation of a puppet government were among its targets. It is now focusing its efforts on gaining full control of the Donbas.

Numerous battlefield setbacks, including yielding eastern areas it had initially captured, have embarrassed Russian President Vladimir Putin.

School Board discusses topics in health education


SEBRING — The School Board of Highlands County discussed, at a special meeting, how to meet the minimum state requirements for middle school health education with the program Relationships Under Construction (RUC) from the Choices Pregnancy Center.

It was noted that the topics of teen pregnancy, abstinence and teen dating violence needed to be covered.

School Board Member Nicole Radonski said she wanted to know how the RUC program can address child abuse, human trafficking, and exploitation, which are things that need to be takin into account as well.

School Board Vice Chair Jan Shoop said she has been at the Choices Center the past two weeks reviewing the curriculum and, “I don’t think there is anything there that you would be offended by, especially on this area. As a matter of fact, I know there is nothing you would be offended by on what we have here.”

School Board Member Reese Martin, “I want to get away from how we classify this. It is health education. I don’t want to classify it as sex education. We kind of want just a health education for our children. We want to make sure we are not classifying you the same as we did in the past [health program].”

A representative from the Choices Center said, “My understanding, Reese, is you are not wanting to normalize teen sexuality and sexual behavior in our students and we totally agree with that. We do not need to be doing that.”

The School Board approved a motion to have staff request the Choices Center provide the materials that are necessary to address the topics of the awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teen pregnancy as well as teen dating violence. They are expected to present that material to the board at its Feb. 21 meeting.