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SPD seeks help with cold cases

SEBRING — Sebring Police Department doesn’t have active warrants out for suspects in recent murders, but they would like to have them for not-so-recent ones.

Sebring Police Cmdr. Curtis Hart listed 10 cases Monday going back as much as 25 years, for which his detectives wouldn’t mind getting new information to spur the cold case and maybe finding someone willing to testify.

“That’s one of our biggest hurdles,” Hart said Friday. “They’ll give us a general ‘I wasn’t there,’ or ‘I was there but didn’t see anything.’ There’s a fear of retaliation.”

In many of the cases, police have a strong belief about the identity of the perpetrator, but the common factor is that police lack sufficient evidence to arrest anyone and take the case to trial.

  • If anyone has information about one of the following unsolved murders, they can call the Sebring Police Department at 863-471-5108 and ask for an investigator or email police@mysebring.com, or if they want to remain anonymous by contacting Heartland Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226-TIPS, TIPS via mobile phone or at www.heartlandcrimestoppers.com.

The earliest of these cases was Derrick Gray, who went to a house on Shirley Street in Washington Heights for a haircut, right before being killed. Hart said it was May 13, 1995.

News reports said the barber told Sebring police he had gone inside his residence just before the killing, and did not see what happened.

Another case from that time was the death of Darlene Carter, which Hart said was June 3, 1996. She was found dead in a house on Maple Street in Sebring, which had been used for migrant worker housing. Police have interviewed some people, but have yet to find a viable suspect.

The night of Aug. 24, 2005, a series of fights broke out in the Washington Heights. By 12:55 a.m. the next morning, Aug. 25, someone had shot and killed 19-year-old Demario Levar Johnson of Avon Park in the street at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lemon Avenue. Police said it appeared unprovoked.

On Feb. 1, 2010, police found 30-year-old Alton “Sarge” Perry dead at the dead end of Lemon Avenue. Although police have a suspect, they need evidence to prove it.

On April 2, 2013, police found Antwan Reeves of South Florida dead in his vehicle. He had friends in this area. Police had a couple of suspects, but one was later killed in another homicide and the other is serving a life sentence in prison on an unrelated charge.

Then, on Jan. 3, 2014, witnesses found 19-year-old Rischard Rooks dead behind some apartments in the 1300 block of Persimmon Avenue. Police have said they believe they know who killed Rooks, but there’s not enough evidence to make an arrest.

Local store clerk Mustak Ahmed, 59, was killed during a robbery at 6:45 a.m. Oct. 17, 2015, at the Shell Food Mart at 629 N. Ridgewood Drive. Police described the suspect as a black male, standing between 5 feet and 5 feet 7 inches, with a thin build, wearing a black leather or fake leather jacket with a black hoodie over his head. They may have even identified him, but don’t have adequate evidence or testimony to bring it to trial.

2016 saw two murder cases, both still under investigation. Andrew Lee Pieper, 27, was killed at approximately 6:30 p.m. Nov. 25, 2016. At the time, he was living with his grandfather just a few doors down from where he was found on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Dequante Yarde, 19, was killed on Oct. 7, 2016, at The Spot, a night club on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard at Lemon Avenue. Originally, police suspected one person, but found he may not have shot Yarde, although that person was involved in a bad drug deal that may have started several shootings that weekend.

2017 saw the death of Theodore King from a gunshot wound. Theodore King, 56, died on May 16, 2017, the victim of a midnight shooting that police believe may have been in retaliation for a shooting two days earlier in Avon Park.

Sebring police found King with a gunshot wound in his right leg at 12:12 a.m. in the 400 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Sebring. He died from his injuries at the hospital. Police believe their suspects drove north on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in a dark-colored, newer model, four-door Chevrolet and began shooting at a crowd of people near the front of Old Grocery Store.

Most recent unsolved case was the murder of Calvin Brown at about 10:55 p.m. April 23, 2019, in the vicinity of 420 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., near Lemon Avenue in Sebring. Hart reported at the time that Brown Jr. was possibly visiting a girlfriend in the area that night.

Calvin Brown Sr., long-haul trucker, raised enough money on his own to double the Crime Stoppers $5,000 reward on tips leading to an arrest, increasing that reward to $10,000.

Whether money might be the incentive, or just a clear conscience, police are hoping someone knows something and will come forward.

Come live our history: Highlands County celebrates centennial in two weekends
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SEBRING — This month, Highlands County turns 100, and you’re invited to her birthday party.

It starts next weekend and goes for a week. First, is the Heritage Festival at the Edna Pearce Lockett Estate on Saturday and Sunday, April 17-18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Staff will display historical photos and commemorate centennial T-shirts and serve orange juice courtesy of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.

Then, the following week, the Board of County Commission has moved its April 20 meeting from Tuesday to Friday, April 23, the official 100th anniversary of when Gov. Cary A. Hardee signed an act of the Florida Legislature that split the extensive DeSoto County into DeSoto, Charlotte, Glades, Hardee and Highlands Counties.

To celebrate, the Board will read a proclamation to honor the milestone and hold an outdoor exhibition from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. in front of the Government Center at 600 S. Commerce Ave. in Sebring, with booths from various cultural, agricultural, conservation, historic and public service organizations.

Booths will feature historical photos and artifacts, while the parking area will host past and present emergency vehicles to show how much the county has advanced, along with its pace of life. Booths will feature Highlands County’s Board of County Commission, Supervisor of Elections, Sheriff’s Office, Tax Collector, Property Appraiser and Clerk of Courts, along with the School Board of Highlands County and Highlands Hammock State Park

Weather permitting, the event will include an aircraft flyover at 11 a.m. in downtown Sebring area.

For those who want to learn more about Highlands County’s history over the last 100 years, view collections of media, maps, and more at “A Century Later: Reflections of Highlands County History,” a county-produced website at bit.ly/HC100years. The site includes photos and recordings of oral history.

The website also has commemorative T-shirts for sale both as souvenirs and to raise funds for a future mural commemorating the county’s centennial.

Our history

According to the county website, Native Americans roamed the flat coastal plains, low rolling hills, and sandy ridges long before they were called “Highlands County,” which was dotted with more than 80 freshwater lakes making up 78 square miles of water. Archaeological evidence shows people lived here in the Okeechobee Basin as early as 1000 B.C.

In the early 16th century, the website states, Spaniards arrived and explored present-day Florida. At a site called “Goodnow Mound,” archaeologists found silver coin beads, indicating contact between natives and Spaniards by the beginning of the 17th century. By 1821, Spain had transferred its interest in Florida to the United States.

Present-day Highlands County stayed largely unsettled up through the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, when troops under Colonel Zachary Taylor cleared land, built forts, and cut roads through the wilderness. Soon after the war ended, Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act which gave 160-acre tracts of land to the head of any family willing to settle in certain parts of southern Florida.

The website states that settlers during the late 19th century cultivated citrus, molasses and hogs as cash crops in the uplands and raised cattle on range land. Venus, with just three settlers, started as the county’s first settlement, but in 1884, Oliver Crosby set up a formal, planned development that became Avon Park. In 1911, Ohio businessman George Sebring visited the area around Lake Jackson and decided to set up a town, then Lake Placid was platted in 1919, originally called the Town of Lake Stearns.

Those areas have continued to grow through the boom and bust years, always having citrus and cattle to bolster the local economy, aided in later years by tourism, outdoor sport events and — thanks to local airports and highways — transportation, distribution and industrial hubs.

Small town “isolated” Florida is alone no more.

COVID cases remain high in youngsters
  • Updated

Highlands County saw an increase of 31 COVID-19 cases, according to Saturday’s numbers released by the Florida Department of Health. That brings the total to 7,909 cases, with 7,813 resident cases and non-resident cases holding at 88.

Of the county’s new cases, six of them were in the 14-and-younger age group, with another five cases in the 15 to 24 age group, as Highlands County is mirroring the state in that aspect. The county has now seen 528 cases in those 14 and younger.

FDOH made a correction in deaths, lowering the number from the 330 reported on Friday to 329.

Testing in the county dropped considerably from the previous day and as a result, the county’s positivity rate saw an increase to 9.6%. In seven of the last 14 days the county has seen a positivity rate of 10% or higher.

There were four additional hospitalizations since Friday’s report was released and according to the Agency for Health Care Administration, there were 27 hospitalized as of early Saturday evening.

The state numbers continue to be high, with an increase of 6,906 cases. Of those new cases, 12% were found in youngsters 14 and younger, with the 15 to 24 age group making up 18% of the new cases, as young people are becoming infected at a higher rate than in the past.

The state has now seen a total of 2,118,713 cases, with 2,078,784 resident cases and 39,929 cases involving non-residents.

The state reported an additional 50 deaths, raising the overall total to 34,676.

The positivity rate for the state was 6.94%.

While the seven-day average for daily cases is 19% higher than it was two weeks ago and the positivity rate is 14% higher, deaths are down 20% from two weeks ago, as many of the most vulnerable have been vaccinated.

Numbers in the United States have remained pretty consistent over the past three days, as states reported 75,752 new cases and 882 deaths.

The country’s positivity rate has climbed from 3.7% a month ago to an average of 4.4% over the last month, which is still below the World Health Organization’s recommendation of 5% or lower before reopening things back up.

Michigan continues to face an uphill fight, as the state’s seven-day average in cases has climbed 392% from a month ago, while hospitalizations are up 269% and the positivity rate is 253% higher. The state reported 6,892 new cases and 74 deaths on Saturday, although 57 of the deaths were found while reviewing death certificates, which the state does three times a week.

Texas has seen steady improvement in its numbers over the past month, with daily cases down 42% compared to a month ago and deaths down 66%. The state’s seven-day average positivity rate has moved from 7.14% to 3.58% in the past month.

No state has rebounded as well as California, which has seen new cases, deaths and positivity rate each drop by more than 70% from two months ago.

According to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the United States has seen 31,085,251 cases and had 561,074 deaths.

Globally, there have been 134.7 million cases and 2.91 million deaths.