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Havery, Stewart and Carlisle elected

SEBRING — Leonard B. Carlisle Jr., Harrison Havery and Joshua Stewart took the three available seats on the Sebring City Council in Tuesday’s election.

Havery had 21.74% of the vote with 408 – 219 of those on election day.

Stewart took 21.52% with 404 votes – 223 on Tuesday.

Carlisle nabbed third place with 20.94%, or 393 votes – 199 on Tuesday.

Unseated was Tom Dettman, who carried 18.59%, or 349 votes – 162 on Tuesday. Bobbie Smith-Powell had 17.21%, or 323 votes – with 165 of those on Tuesday.

It wasn’t a landslide or mandate by any means. Fewer than 800 of the city’s 6,542 active registered voters made it to the polls or managed to turn in a ballot before 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Instead, a record low turnout – 795 people, amounting to 12.15% of the city’s voters – chose the three seats.

None of the candidates run on party tickets or by district. Sebring City Council is non-partisan. When there are more candidates than available seats, winners are selected from the top vote recipients, even when none get a majority of the votes.

Election results came from six precincts in the city limits. Close to 4 p.m., unofficial records on the Supervisor of Elections Office website,, showed only 296 people had voted that day.

Another 252 had voted by mail, and 121 had cast ballots in a week-long early voting period. One vote was listed as provisional.

In total, with just three hours left to go in the polls, a total of 770 people had voted, according to

After polls closed at 7 p.m., the total number didn’t grow by much. Mail-in votes had risen to 258 and in-person election day votes had gone up to 415.

Of all voters, there were 502 undervotes. That many people voted for either just two people or only one, in an election that had just 85 votes between the highest and lowest vote-getters.

Xaver is guilty in slaying of five

SEBRING — With a courtroom full of surviving relatives watching Tuesday afternoon, SunTrust Bank Midtown Branch shooter Zephen Xaver pled no contest to five counts of premeditated first-degree murder in the deaths of five local women. Each of the charges is punishable by death.

Xaver, armed with a 9mm pistol and wearing a tactical vest under his T-shirt, entered the bank at lunchtime on Jan. 23, 2019 and ordered four employees and one customer to lay on the floor. He then shot and killed each woman

After Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden asked he how he pleaded to each of the five counts Tuesday, Xaver – wearing a black and white striped jail uniform – responded “Guilty.”

“I will accept your pleas of guilty of first degree murder with a handgun in the case of Marisol Lopez, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon-Williams, Jessica Montague, and Cynthia Watson,” Cowden responded after the pleas. “I adjudicate you guilty of five counts of first-degree murder by a firearm.”

Family members of the five victims wept quietly as Cowden read her verdict.

The plea ends a four-year wait for victim family members to see a conviction in one of the most heinous crimes in Highlands County’s recent history.

“I am glad to see this is happening and hopefully it will start to bring closure for everyone affected,” said Sebring Police Detective Stephen Williams, a relative of Ana Pinon-Williams.

A surviving member of another family said he would not be in court because he “could not trust himself to be in the same room” as Xaver.

Jermaine Montague, whose wife Jessica was killed in the bank, said, “It’s about time. It’s been four years.”

Jermaine, who owns a towing company, said he planned to attend a trial, but will attend the punishment phase of the case.

Karl Beckerich, a friend of Jermaine and Jessica, said, “It is in God’s hands, and let justice be served.”

Former Highlands County Prosecutor Steve Houchin, who viewed the massacre on the bank video while Xaver was still inside SunTrust, was present in the courtroom as were many other Highlands County prosecutors, law enforcement officers, some of whom responded to the bank on U.S. 27 on Jan. 23, 2019. Tenth Judicial Circuit Public Defender Howard “Rex” Dimmig sat at the defense table with Jane Allie McNeill and Xaver during the proceeding.

The pews on the prosecution side of the courtroom were filled with family members who lost someone in the shooting. Susan Gentry and her son Kevin, a Highlands County deputy, were in attendance in solidarity with the surviving family members. Susan Gentry’s son, Highlands County William Gentry Jr., was slain in May 2018 as he investigated a complaint at the Placid Lakes home of Joseph Ables. Ables also faces the death penalty.

Lead Tenth Judicial Circuit Assistant State Attorney Paul A. Wallace, along with assistant state attorneys Bonde Johnson and John Kromholz, sat at the prosecution table as Xaver pleaded guilty to all the charges.

McNeill asked the court to allow Xaver to make a short statement as to why he decided to plead guilty after four years, but Wallace objected, stating sentencing would be a more appropriate time for Xaver to make a statement.

Cowden then brought Xaver up to the podium and asked him a series of questions to determine if he understood the courtroom and the role of the judge, the prosecutors, and other players. He answered affirmatively as to having been diagnosed with a mental illness, stated that he takes medication for that illness, and stated that he takes that medication while in jail.

She also asked him if he understood premeditated murder, the death penalty, the jury’s role in determining punishment, and whether he understood he was giving up a jury trial and other Sixth Amendment processes by pleading guilty. Known as a colloquy, the list of questions are designed to ensure Xaver understands the consequences of his guilty pleas and has not been forced into making the plea.

Following the colloquy, Wallace recounted the state’s case against Xaver, including Xaver’s texts to a friend shortly before the slayings, in which he said, “I’m going to go out taking a few people with me.”

“He walks up to the area of the teller, pulls the gun out, directs all five ladies to lay down on the carpet,” Wallace said as he recounted the crime.

Some family members began to cry at Wallace’s description of their loved ones’ final moments.

Xaver’s change of plea came as a surprise to prosecutors and the public after Xaver’s lawyer spent the past year asking for continuances and filing motions pertaining to an upcoming trial.

In fact, Cowden had already scheduled jury selection for Jan. 16, 2024 – a week shy of the fourth anniversary of the slayings.

Wallace, who had been ready for trial for at least three years, had long complained about what they saw as McNeill’s delays. McNeill cited medical issues that prevented her from trying the case before January 2024.

The next step is the punishment phase, during which McNeill could put psychiatrists on the stand and present other medical evidence to convince a jury that Xaver should not be executed. Family members, former teachers, and others who knew him before the shootings could testify about his allegedly troubled childhood.

The prosecution will present their own mental health experts and other evidence to counter any claims of insanity by the defense. They can play the bank surveillance video of the shootings, play his confession to detectives, and the social media texts Xaver made before the shooting to convince jurors that he should be put to death.

Russian missile hits another Ukraine apartment block, 1 dead

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Russian missile struck an apartment building in the center of Kramatorsk on Tuesday, killing at least one person and wounding nine others in one of Ukraine’s major city strongholds in its eastern Donetsk region as it fights against Moscow’s invasion, officials said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted a video showing gaping holes in the façade of the low-rise building that bore the brunt of the strike.

The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office and regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko also reported on the attack, posting photos of the building with mounds of rubble in front of it. The impact damaged nine apartment blocks, a kindergarten, a local bank branch and two cars, Kyrylenko said.

The war, which erupted after Russia’s launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022, has brought heavy civilian casualties. Tuesday’s victims were among at least seven civilians killed and 30 wounded in 24 hours, Ukraine authorities said.

They included a 55-year-old woman killed when a Russian shell hit her car Tuesday in a border town in northeastern Ukraine.

“Russian troops are striking residential buildings, schools and hospitals, leaving cities on fire and in ruins,” Kyrylenko, the regional governor, said on Ukrainian television. “The Russians mark each meter (yard) of their advance in the region not only with their own blood, but also with the (lost) lives of civilians.”

Kramatorsk houses the local Ukrainian army headquarters. Ukrainian authorities say it has been regularly targeted by Russian shelling and other attacks in the past.

A missile strike on the city’s train station last April, which Kyiv and much of the international community blamed on Moscow, killed dozens of people and wounded more than 100.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking Tuesday during a meeting with workers at a helicopter factory in southern Siberia, once again cast the conflict in Ukraine as an existential one for Russia, charging that unlike the West — which, he said, is seeking to advance its geopolitical clout — it’s fighting for its existence as a state.

“For us, it’s not a geopolitical task,” Putin said, “it’s the task of survival of Russian statehood and the creation of conditions for the future development of our country.”

Ukrainian forces have also dug in, especially in the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut where Kyiv’s troops have been fending off Russian attacks for seven months and which has become a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance, as well as a focal point of the war.

Zelenskyy discussed the situation in Bakhmut with the top military brass and they were unanimous in their determination to face down the Russian onslaught, according to the presidential office.

“The defensive operation in (Bakhmut) is of paramount strategic importance to deterring the enemy. It is key for the stability of the defense of the entire frontline,” Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said.

Putin emphasized that his country’s industries have survived the blow of Western sanctions. But he acknowledged those sanctions could bring longer-term problems for the Russian economy.

Russia had welcomed a Chinese peace proposal to end the fighting, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that Kyiv’s refusal to have talks leaves Moscow with only military options.

Beijing has said it has a “no limits friendship” with Russia and has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion, or even refer to it as an invasion.

“We must achieve our goals,” Peskov told reporters. “Given the current stance of the Kyiv regime, now it’s only possible by military means.”

However, Moscow’s pursuit of its goals in Ukraine has been slowed by poor war management and short resources after being beaten back at the end of last year in a Ukrainian counteroffensive, military analysts say.

The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Tuesday that Russia’s artillery ammunition shortages “have likely worsened to the extent that extremely punitive shell-rationing is in force on many parts of the front.”

That shortcoming, it said, has “almost certainly been a key reason why no Russian formation has recently been able to generate operationally significant offensive action.”

In other developments:

— The Russian parliament’s lower house on Tuesday gave final endorsement to a bill that extends punishment for showing disrespect toward participants in the “special military operation,” which is how the Kremlin officially describes its war in Ukraine. The change makes it punishable to spread allegedly fake information not only about the military, but also members of volunteer units, in an apparent reference to the Wagner Group military contractor. Those convicted of spreading such information face a prison term of up to 15 years. The bill is set to be approved by the upper house before President Vladimir Putin signs it into law.

— Iceland’s prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Tuesday. She laid flowers at a ceremony for Ukrainian volunteers who have been killed in fighting since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and Russia-backed separatists started an insurgency in the eastern Donbas region. Jakobsdottir was expected to meet with President Zelenskyy during her visit.

The gates are open for the 2023 Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. Look inside for the Highlands News-Sun’s special section telling you everything you need to know for this year’s big event. Delivery of the Sunday edition of the Highlands News-Sun may be later than normal to accommodate Race coverage.

Marvin Kahn leaves legacy for citrus, civic service

SEBRING — Marvin D. Kahn had two big loves in his life: Elsa, and oranges.

His love of Elsa came through the grace of God, Kahn would say. They shared 68 years of marriage, as of last August. Of all the people in his life and his career as a Florida citrus grower, Kahn always said Esla was his source of constructive criticism, unconditional support and both “my best friend and the love of my life.”

Kahn’s love of citrus came from his parents, Mike and Sadie Kahn, Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States from Lithuania and migrated in 1923 to Florida’s Heartland for the opportunity to own and run an orange grove.

Marvin Kahn died Tuesday, surrounded by family and friends in hospice care. He was 89.

Throughout his life, he was one of the constant forces to promote citrus in Florida’s Heartland, to help manage water resources while protecting property rights and to give back to the community that had given to his family.

When his parents opened a store on Ridgewood Drive in Sebring, they bought a house and started raising a family alongside their first grove. It was from his father that Marvin Kahn learned how to care for groves.

Kahn’s father, Mike, got into the business in 1930 at age 32, and after his father’s death at age 52, his mother, Sadie, took over. Eventually the groves were all divided among the Kahn children.

At his peak, Marvin Kahn had grown his 400 acres to 5,500. In recent years, Kahn had become the only one of his family still in the business. Part of the reason for that has been citrus diseases and a tough market. However, Kahn thrived from his ability to manage groves, his own and others’, along with growing fruit.

Five years ago, when inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, Kahn said he would tell young people in citrus, “Where there’s a lot of problems, there’s also a lot of opportunity.”

Trevor Murphy, his business partner in Kahn Citrus Management LLC, was among those Kahn mentioned when he said he runs his business like a close family, just as his family did. As a result, employees stayed long-term.

In his life, Kahn led the industry, whether fighting for growers’ property rights, practicing and advocating for water management or as a community booster.

Kahn also headed up the first board of directors for the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association and was “extremely passionate about all things agricultural, especially citrus,” said Ray Royce, executive director for the Association.

As much as the growers, Kahn wanted to nurture the groves, Royce said, and stayed heavily involved in all aspects of the industry, sharing his perspective on what would help.

“He always wanted to be progressive and out front,” Royce said. “He never stepped back.”

Most of all, Kahn enjoyed giving back to the community, Royce said, and was an example of a life well lived.

As an early adopter of water management with overhead sprinklers, Kahn served on a work group for the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) to develop the state’s first water-use caution area: 5,100 square miles including all of DeSoto, Hardee, Manatee and Sarasota counties, and parts of Highlands, Charlotte, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

Goals that have been met, SWFWMD stated, included setting minimum flows in the upper Peace River, minimum lake levels along the Lake Wales Ridge, a minimum aquifer level to prevent saltwater intrusion and policies to ensure good water supply into the future.

The policies have reduced overall groundwater use from the Upper Floridan aquifer by more than 50 million gallons per day.

Locally, Marvin Kahn and others founded the Highlands County 4-H Club Foundation and established the Florida Cracker Trail Association and the Florida Cracker Trail Ride, an annual event to reenact the early cattle drives that grew Florida’s still-vibrant cattle industry.

Police seek shooter

SEBRING — Sebring police want your help in identifying who would have killed a young man Friday night.

Someone shot and killed a 17-year-old at 9 p.m. Friday while he was riding his bicycle on Grand Avenue in Washington Heights. Sebring Police Chief Karl Hoglund said the young man had just finished playing basketball at the Bountiful Blessing Church, and that he may have been on his way home at that time.

“We definitely need tips on this because there is not good evidence from video or surveillance,” Hoglund said. “Also, because of his age, there’s no clear motive.”

His officers and detectives are asking that anyone with information, no matter how little, please contact the Sebring Police Department at 863-471-5107.

You can report a tip anonymously and be eligible for a reward by calling Heartland Crime Stoppers at 1-800-226 TIPS (8477), or by visiting and clicking on the “Submit A Tip” tab.

You can also report a tip on a smartphone or tablet through the free “P3tips” app. You will always remain anonymous no matter how you submit your tip.

Tips are forwarded to law enforcement for follow up, and if they make an arrest based on your tip, you are eligible for a cash reward.