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SNL hydrants examined; in good shape overall

SEBRING — After getting a full study from KDL Underground and Development Inc. about their hydrants, Sun ‘N Lake officials have, reportedly, managed to correct any problems.

“We’ve got the worst done,” General Manager Dan Stegall told the Board of Supervisors.

For the most part, the hydrants in the special improvement district were in good condition, according to the report. Stegall said that out of 416 hydrants tested, 384 were in “good” condition.

Of the rest, 26 were listed as “fair” and six as “poor.”

The valves serving the hydrants, he said, included 62 in “fair” condition and 32 in “poor” condition, meaning they were leaking.

“That’s OK as long as the hydrant [itself] is shut off,” Stegall said. “We need to start replacing valves.”

He said that involves notifying everyone on the street when they’ll have their water shut off for a valve replacement, and making sure that all of the underground valves have concrete pads over them to prevent damage from heavy equipment.

Currently, Stegall said, the district has 254 valves without protective pads. Those are being poured, he said.

The report mirrored a preliminary report KDL officials did earlier this month, stating that the majority of Sun ‘N Lake’s hydrants were working well. Some needed paint and some had valve issues, and some needed a 2-by-2-foot concrete pad poured over their underground valves, to protect them from heavy equipment running over the top of them.

While KDL officials said that any non-functioning hydrants would be priorities, officials said they hadn’t run into many of those.

In fact, Michael Dorman and Ken LaGrow of KDL said the whole system in Sun ‘N Lake is “way, way better than we anticipated.”

Stegall said a main issue for the district is that they need to inspect the hydrants annually, something that hasn’t been done in the past.

Business owner concerned over proposed traffic signal change

AVON PARK — Motorists who frequent U.S. 27 north of Avon Park may notice a change in the coming years.

Where they have a long stretch of uninterrupted travel between Stryker Road and Scenic Highway near Frostproof, they may find a new traffic signal.

It’s supposed to provide better safety as semi-trailers loaded with steel come in and out of Nucor by way of Sun Pure Road. But, according to another nearby business owner, it could cause some new safety issues.

Right now, Marty Graham brings in watermelons from his farms at an unassuming piece of property along the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 through at least three driveways, one of which sits opposite Sun Pure Road.

He and Mark Pillsbury of Pillsbury Services in Lake Placid told the Highlands County Board of County Commissioners that plans by state and local officials to put a traffic light there include closing the driveway across from Sun Pure Road, and possibly close others.

“The way it’s planned, I understand, the man says it’s a safety issue, but the man’s been in business 40-something years,” Pillsbury said, “and with what they’re planning on doing up there, it’s going to be a major impact on his business.”

They asked the county to hold off on the project until after they could meet with Highlands County Engineer Clinton Howerton Jr. and Florida Department of Transportation officials on the matter to work out a solution.

“It needs to be done properly to be orderly,” Graham told the Highlands News-Sun outside the meeting. “It’ll have to involve a U-turn the way they’ve got it.”

Graham said he has watermelon buses — school buses modified to perform as haulers — coming in and out of his property all day long. Traffic on that stretch of road is known for speeders, especially with no lights to interrupt travel between Scenic Highway in Polk County and Stryker Road.

Pillsbury said that the initial plan to close Graham’s driveways closest to the intersection would force his watermelon trucks and semis, once loaded with the produce, to turn right onto the highway and make a U-turn to go north.

The closest spot to do that is the open intersection at Lake Damon Road. Howerton said last year that intersection will be be closed to all cross traffic in the near future, only allowing left turns off the highway and U-turns.

However, having semis turning around on the highway may present its own problem, especially if it occurs where traffic is coming into the highway from a side street.

Howerton told commissioners that Graham wants to keep every driveway he has, but that he may have to lose some of them.

He also told the Highlands News-Sun he is working to render a graphic that will present how the intersection could look in the future. Current engineering plans, with multiple overlays, can get cluttered to the untrained eye.

“The plans we have are very technical and split up, so there is not a good ‘clear picture’,” Howerton said of getting a graphic for general understanding. “Basically though, there are no real changes to the roadway other than some lane lengthening and cleaning up of a bunch of driveways to vacant parcels that are not in safe locations for the intersection.”

At the meeting, Commissioner Kevin Roberts said he stood by the intersection, as it is now, with other officials and watched semi-trailers entering and leaving the road for Nucor and other industrial sites.

He was stunned by the danger of 80,000-pound, 18-wheelers trying to turn left.

“I saw a near crash,” Roberts said.

UN chief points to ' massive' rights violations in Ukraine

GENEVA (AP) — Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has triggered “the most massive violations of human rights” in the world today, the head of the United Nations said Monday, as the war pushed into its second year with no end in sight and tens of thousands dead.

The Russian invasion “has unleashed widespread death, destruction and displacement,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a speech to the U.N.-backed Human Rights Council in Geneva.

After failing to capture the Ukrainian capital in the opening weeks of the invasion and suffering a series of humiliating setbacks during the fall, Russia has stabilized the front and is concentrating its efforts on capturing four provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September — Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine, meanwhile, hopes to use battle tanks and other new weapons pledged by the West to launch new counteroffensives and reclaim more of the occupied territory.

Guterres said “attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure have caused many casualties and terrible suffering.”

The intense fighting for territory in eastern Ukraine was in sharp focus Sunday at a Ukrainian field hospital treating wounded from the intense battle for the city of Bakhmut, which is devastated. A constant flow of battered and exhausted soldiers came in on stretchers.

Anatoliy, the chief of the medical service, said his team treats dozens of soldiers every day and barely has time to eat.

“My medics work practically non-stop. Before the full-scale invasion we had 50-60 wounded in a nine-month rotation, and now sometimes we have more (than that) in one day”, he told The Associated Press. He provided only one name for security reasons.

Guterres’ remarks came as the Ukrainian military said that Russia launched attacks with exploding drones on several regions of the country that lasted from late Sunday until Monday morning, killing two.

Guterres cited cases of sexual violence, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and violations of the rights of prisoners of war documented by the U.N. human rights office.

He decried how the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, now 75 years old, has been “too often misused and abused.”

“It is exploited for political gain and it is ignored, often, by the very same people,” Guterres said. “Some governments chip away at it. Others use a wrecking ball.”

“This is a moment to stand on the right side of history,” he told the council, the U.N.’s top human rights body. Russia withdrew from its seat last year amid a surge in international pressure over the war in Ukraine.

Russian officials have shown little sign they may be reconsidering their attack on their neighbor, however.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday, “We aren’t seeing any conditions for a peaceful settlement now.”

Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council that is chaired by President Vladimir Putin, went a step further, once again raising the specter of nuclear war and a nightmare outcome to Europe’s biggest and deadliest conflict since World War II.

He chided the U.S. and its allies for providing Ukraine with military and other support to help push back the Kremlin’s forces. Their longer-term aim, he claimed, is to break up Russia.

“They have crazy illusions that after finishing off the Soviet Union without a single shot they could bury today’s Russia without any significant problems for themselves simply by disposing thousands of lives in the conflict,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous mistake, it won’t work like it did with the Soviet Union.”

Putin has also framed the war in those terms, saying it’s an existential risk to Russia.

In the Sunday-Monday attacks, Ukraine’s General Staff said Kyiv’s forces shot down 11 out of 14 Iranian-made Shahed drones.

Ukraine’s presidential office said Monday that at least two civilians were killed and nine others were wounded by Russian attacks over the previous 24 hours.

It said that intense fighting has continued around Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Vuhledar in the Donetsk region, which have come under relentless Russian shelling. Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said Russia is using aircraft and heavy artillery there.

In the south, the city of Kherson also came under Russian shelling, killing one and wounding two civilians. The city of Nikopol across the Dnieper from the Russia-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant also was struck by the Russian shelling, which damaged residential buildings, power lines and a gas pipeline.

Odesa and the surrounding region suffered a complete blackout Monday. The authorities didn’t give the reason for it, but said that repair crews will start work to restore the energy supply.

In other developments, the Russian military claimed its forces struck an electronic intelligence center near Brovary, just east of Kyiv.

Russia’s Defense Ministry also said that Russian forces struck a special operations center of the Ukrainian armed forces near the western city of Khmelnytskyi.

The ministry didn’t say when the strikes were launched, and its claim couldn’t be independently verified.

Molina pleads not guilty to murdering associate

SEBRING — Miguel Angel Molina-Etchechury pleaded not guilty in Highlands County felony court Monday to second degree murder, abuse of a dead human body, and tampering with physical evidence.

The admitted member of Sur-13 is accused of killing associate Jonathan Diaz in a Sebring garage in December 2018. Molina’s next court date is April 20.

Molina, who faces life in prison if convicted, allegedly killed Diaz after Diaz’s girlfriend stole, or used, methamphetamine worth thousands of dollars for which Molina was responsible. At the time of the murder, Molina was part of a Dallas-based methamphetamine ring that included a cousin and others.

According to a March 2019 federal indictment in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, Molina and eight other defendants acquired meth from sources in Dallas and Mexico, coordinated the distribution and delivery of the drug to Texas, Florida, and elsewhere, and used wire transfers, bank funnel accounts, and “bulk cash smuggling” to get the money to a member of the drug ring.

The Drug Enforcement Administration, which obtained a guilty plea from Molina and the other defendants – says one of the other defendants received the proceeds from the sales of the drug.

Once runners delivered methamphetamine to other co-conspirators or customers in Florida, they would send a portion of the proceeds from the sale to the defendant by wire transmittal, structuring that money into multiple bank accounts. The rest of the money would be taken back to Dallas by runners and given to the defendant.

A federal judge sentenced Molina to 11 years in federal prison. He is now “on loan” to Highlands for trial. If convicted here for the bigger crime, he’ll finish the federal time then be transferred to a state facility to finish out what could be a life sentence.

At the time of Diaz’s murder, Molina and another defendant – who told investigators he was in the garage when Diaz was killed but did not name Molina as the killer — distributed the organization’s methamphetamine in Highlands and other Central Florida counties.

The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, which investigated Diaz’s murder, says Molina was responsible for bringing up to 13 kilograms (28.66 pounds) of methamphetamine a week – with a street value of almost $975,000. The drug was distributed in Lake Placid, Sebring, Avon Park, and other areas of the county.

After allegedly beating Diaz to death with a hammer in the garage, Molina allegedly set Diaz on fire, which led to the “abuse of a dead human body” charge. Molina then allegedly buried Diaz in another acquaintance’s backyard, which led to the “tampering with physical evidence” charge.

Assistant Public Defender Bruce Carter, who was to represent Molina at his arraignment, asked Circuit Court Judge Angela Cowden to allow him to withdraw from the case. Carter’s office has defended another Molina acquaintance in Highlands County.

Cowden assigned Molina’s case to Derek S. Christian of the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel. That office takes up cases when defendants or lawyers have conflicts with other cases and defendants.