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Young K-9 recruit will grow into role

SEBRING — It bounces, rolls, licks, tumbles, yawns and greets its elders with a face lick – not exactly law enforcement material, yet.

The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office met its newest four-legged recruit on Monday morning when a 10-month-old bloodhound was delivered from a prison in Sumter County.

“This one came from Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell,” said Scott Dressel, Sheriff’s Office spokesman. “One of their bloodhounds, which they use to patrol perimeters and track escapees, had puppies.”

The yet-to-be named puppy (Dressel calls him “Copper” for now) is probably too young to be put through formal, intensive training, Dressel said. The future manhunter was undergoing preliminary introductions in the field with Deputy Jeff Turner Tuesday afternoon and was unavailable for an interview.

The sad-eyed, droopy-eared bloodhounds were originally bred for hunting deer, wild boar and, since the Middle Ages, tracking people.

However, Dressel says it will take some months before he’s ready for full-time training.

“Any bloodhound will have that innate tracking ability,” he said. “That means they’ll have that drive we’re looking for in our canines. There’s no guarantee that this dog is going to train out to the standards we need. But he probably will because his parents were trained.”

When he’s ready, a new handler will pick the dog’s permanent name, probably someone who is new to the unit, Dressel said.

The sheriff’s website says its K-9 Unit consists of four patrol dog teams, three bloodhound tracking teams and one single-purpose narcotics team. The patrol and narcotics dogs are made up of Belgian Malinois, one Dutch shepherd and one German shepherd. Patrol dogs chase suspects, leap over fences, crawl under houses, disarm bad guys, and act as defensive shields when their human team member is attacked.

What do bloodhounds have to offer?

They have up to 300 million scent receptors (thus the long nose). Their scent “picture” is more detailed than a photograph is for a human. Not only that, but the hounds have stuck to a single scent track for more than 100 miles – roughly the distance between Sebring and Palm Beach.

That may be a bit much to ask the new K-9 recruit, whose legs are too small to go very far, very fast, but the Sheriff’s Office has its bets on the little guy.

“By the time he’s six months hold, he will be ready to be honed and refined into what these dogs do naturally,” Dressel said. “How to follow your commands without being distracted by a rabbit jumping across the trail. Meanwhile, the handler will have to learn the characteristics of the dog and form a team.”

Uncharged count led to defendant's release

The woman charged in the drowning of her 5-year-old in 2020 met bail last week after a judge ruled her bond had been improperly set.

Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada, who also cited Philetta Breanna Moransit’s lack of criminal history, overruled Highlands County prosecutors, who argued that Moransit could quickly turn mentally unstable and uncooperative. They urged Estrada not to reduce her bond.

Moransit was arrested July 24, 2020 after police found the body of her son, Chance Peterkin, floating in Lake Lelia, also known by locals as Gator Lake. Family members reported Moransit and her son missing on July 23, 2020, in the early evening. They told police that no one had seen the pair since 9:30 that morning when they left a Purcell Street home. Relatives searched for the two without luck throughout that afternoon.

Later that evening, deputies found Moransit wandering unclothed in the Tri-County Human Services parking lot on College Road. The child was not with her, according to sheriff’s deputy Meghan E. Nielsen’s arrest report.

During questioning in the parking lot, Moransit gave investigators vague answers about swimming with the boy and seemed to be unaware of where she, or the child was, the deputy wrote in her report.

Detectives originally charged Moransit with resisting an officer without violence (Count 1); aggravated manslaughter of a child (Count 2); and neglect of a child with great bodily harm (Count 3). Total bond had been set at $400,000 – $100,000, $200,000, and $100,000 for counts 1, 2, and 3 respectively.

Moransit’s lawyers, citing uncharged crimes statutes, filed a motion to reduce her bond. Estrada heard their motions May 6.

Her attorney, Darryl Smith, argued that after Count 3 remains uncharged, the court should remove the $100,000 bond attached to the count. Estrada canceled that bond, and also reduced Count 1’s bond, for resisting an officer without violence, from $100,000 to $500, Estrada’s signed order shows. Count 2, aggravated manslaughter of a child, remains, as did that charge’s $200,000 bond.

Moransit, whom the court cited for contempt for erratic behavior during her arraignment last year, pleaded with Estrada to reduce her bond. The registered nurse promised to live with her aunt in Sebring if released. She also promised Estrada to make all her court dates.

Her aunt promised to provide any support or care her niece might need. During times when the aunt cared for others in their homes, an older cousin would watch the 30-year-old Moransit. Another friend told Estrada she would ensure Moransit followed the conditions of her release.

Among the conditions Estrada listed: no contact with minor children; supervision under the court’s pretrial release program; take prescribed psychotropic medicine; attendance at all court proceedings; submission to random and warrantless searches and seizures, as well as psychological evaluations.

Prosecutors reminded Estrada of Moransit’s unpredictable mental state on the day before her child’s body was found floating in Lake Lelia.

“Defendant was found by law enforcement nude and incoherent at the Tri-County Building and failed to follow requests of law enforcement,” the release order reads. “It is unlikely she would now comply with the court’s instructions if she is released.”

Nor would her relatives and friends be equipped to deal with her instability once out of jail, prosecutors said. They urged Estrada not to reduce the bond.

Family members and a friend told Estrada they each could contribute to her bond, which they apparently did. She was released from jail at 7:48 p.m. Friday.


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TDC: Tourism coming back

SEBRING — Tourism officials believe the local tourist industry may have come back, at least in numbers of people staying overnight.

Local tourist tax collections for the first six months of this fiscal year exceed the amount for the same period two years ago, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, according to a report out by the Tourist Development Council (TDC), doing business as “VisitSebring.”

Officials credit several sporting events with making that change, including the Gran Fondo New York (GFNY) Marathon Florida, an international marathon, half marathon and 5K, now scheduled to take place every October in Sebring for three years, starting in 2020, and the Expedition Florida Adventure Race, which ran from Dec. 29, 2020, through Jan. 2, 2021.

The tourist development tax, a 4% fee paid by visitors on their stay hotels or short-term rentals of six months or less, brought in $644,479 from October 2018 to March 2019, considered the height of the tourist season for Florida when visitors take advantage of mild weather and “snowbirds” migrate from northern communities for milder winters.

This fiscal year, 2020-21, showed collections of $653,370 for that same time. October 2020 and November 2020 collections were the highest ever recorded for those months, which VisitSebring officials attributed to the GFNY cycling event and the re-scheduled 12 Hours of Sebring, which would have run in the third week of March, but ran instead in November.

March 2019 set a record high collection month with tourist tax revenues of $206,212, and March 2021 matched it, TDC officials said, with reported collections of $206,210.

“We are thrilled to see our six-month collection reports showing that tourism in our area is stronger than ever after the pandemic had a negative impact on TDT collections throughout most of 2020,” said Visit Sebring/TDC Lead Marketing Consultant Casey Hartt. “The data is showing that revamping our Event Grant Program and focusing on recruiting new events to the destination is paying off and infusing tourism dollars into our local economy.”

Collections have not yet been reported for April and May, the TDC is expecting strong collections figures to continue for the remainder of fiscal year 2020-2021 — ending Sept. 30 — thanks to the ProWatercross, American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) and Minor League Golf Tournament, the new Sebring Multisport Festival, the returned Heartland Triathlon, the Motosurf Games and Bono Bilt Youth Wrestling events in July and this year’s Caladium Festival, which was also canceled last year

The TDC has put marketing support toward the Visit Sebring Preview junior golf tournament hosted by the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA). It is now scheduled for every April for three years, starting in 2021. It’s part of a partnership with Airstream Ventures to bring sport events to the county using facilities and landscapes the county already has.

Early April also saw the premiere of the Liqui Moly ProWatercross National Tour 2021 season at Lake Jackson’s Veterans Beach, also thanks to the Airstream partnership. It brought 109 competitors from around the country, nearly 500 event attendees and hundreds of spectators.

TDC officials estimated the economic impact of the jet ski race event at $174,000 or more with at least 180 hotel room nights, as well as visitors spending in local restaurants and retail stores. VisitSebring also provided marketing funds to help secure that event.

The partnership also brought in two days of triathletes at the beginning of May, in and around Lake Jackson, as part of the Sebring Multisport Festival. Winners of the competition would get to represent Team USA in the World Multisport Championships by winning an Olympic distance triathlon, Olympic Aquabike and an Aquathlon running and swimming event.

More events are expected late this year. Spartan, the premier obstacle course race tour in the nation, has recently acquired Tough Mudder, a mud-based obstacle course race, and will hold a joint event for the first time this year in December in Highlands County. Joel Lamp, with Airstream Ventures, said in the grant application that each event alone could bring in 5,000 competitors for a weekend. Casey Hartt, lead marketer for the Tourist Development Council, estimates the possible economic impact at $3.45 million.