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Fire destroys Leisure Lakes home

LAKE PLACID — Fire ripped through a single-family home on Durrance Road on Thursday morning. Several units from Highlands County Fire Rescue and Florida Forest Service were called to the blaze. As of press time, there were no injuries reported to the home’s residents or firefighters.

HCFR weas dispatched about 9:45 a.m. to the Leisure Lakes home. The nearest fire hydrant was at the Leisure Lakes Fire Department, so Florida Forest Service brought their new “6,000 gallon water tender,” said HCFR Chief Marc Bashoor. The truck had never been used on a structure fire yet.

Bashoor said the fire crews were on the scene for quite some time as there was a lot of overhaul to do since the roof fell in.

Out of the three adults who lived in the home, only one was home at the time of the fire. Bashoor said the occupant heard crackling, possibly from the garage before hearing the smoke detectors in the house. Those sounds were a potential life saver.

The house is surrounded by scrub on three sides but thankfully, there was a clear lot around the home. Because of the good clearance and the significant rain Lake Placid had Wednesday night, the fire did not spread.

The house should be considered a total loss. The rehab unit that is housed in DeSoto City came to provide firefighters with cooling chairs, refreshments and care. In addition, Desoto City, Highlands Park, Placid Lakes, Lake Placid, Leisure Lakes, County medics and Florida Forest Service aided in quelling the blaze.

The American Red Cross was called in to assist the occupants. Any donations can be sent to the Red Cross.

Pinwheels for Child Abuse Prevention event at H.C. Courthouse

SEBRING — Child advocates, community leaders and law enforcement gathered Thursday morning in front of the Highlands County Courthouse for the annual kickoff of Child Abuse Prevention Month and the Pinwheels for Prevention campaign.

Champion for Children Founder and Chairman of the Board and County Commissioner Kevin Roberts offered the invocation.

Ironically, as Children’s Advocacy Center Manager Sarah Beth Rogers completed her introduction of Roberts, many cellphones sounded an alert that stated a child had been kidnapped in Columbia County.

School Board of Highlands County Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Melissa Blackman spoke of the school district’s mentoring program that was introduced by Superintendent Brenda Longshore.

Also, the district partnered with local law enforcement agencies for the Handle With Care program in which the law enforcement agencies inform the district when a child should be handled with care, she said.

If there are children present, when law enforcement are at the scene of an incident they notify the district, which informs all the student’s teachers to be supportive and to handle the child with care, Blackman said.

“So far this school year, we have received 167 different events impacting over 200 children,” she said.

Blackman noted there was a survey of students at Avon Park High School about four years ago asking what they wanted and needed. She read a few of the responses from students.

“Every young person wants to be heard and respected so they feel they are part of something, like they can control things and make a difference.”

“Every young person needs a role model or influencer to help push them down the right path rather than go blindly or alone.”

“Every young person deserves a sense of comfort and security somewhere because it is important to have a place where they can be themselves and a place where one knows they can go when times get rough.”

“Every young person deserves a role model in their life to show them how to do things the correct way or even give them tips on what they can do to stay out of trouble.”

Blackman said the responses show that high schoolers are wise.

She stressed the needed to listen closely to what children say, not just listening to their words, but also how they say it to have a better understanding of what they are communicating.

She asked, “When was the last time you used your ears to listen to what a young person had to say? When was the last time you used your eyes to listen to what a young person had to say? When was the last time you used your heart to listen to what a young person had to say?”

Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Jamie Davidson, of the Special Victims Unit, said preventing child abuse and parenting is challenging even in the best of times. “The COVID-19 outbreak has shifted our world dramatically and rapidly into a place of great uncertainty,” he said.

He noted that circumstances – such as loss of income and housing instability – has increased parental stress and anxiety.

Not all children and families are experiencing the pandemic in the same way, Davidson noted.

“We have been working throughout the COVID-19 crisis to ensure our children and families are safe so our community may thrive,” he said. “Together we can foster a safe environment for our children in Highlands County.”

Sebring High School junior Miguel Arceo spoke about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which the CDC describes as traumatic experiences in childhood from birth to age 17.

The U.S. Attorney General’s Office, National Task Force on Children Expose to Violence, states that 90% of juvenile offenders have experienced some type of adverse experience in their childhood, he said.

“The fact that children are extremely susceptible to ACEs does not mean that the future is doomed,” Arceo said. “We still have the opportunity to reach out to these children in unstable settings and put them back on the right path.”

Each year, event organizers from “Pinwheels for Prevention” Prevent Child Abuse Florida, The Ruth E. Handley Children’s Advocacy Center, the Highlands County Board of County Commission, Heartland for Children and the Champion for Children Foundation of Highlands County Inc. plant dozens of blue and silver pinwheels in the lawn and within the planters.

Prevent Child Abuse America introduced the Pinwheels for Prevention campaign in 2008 since people respond positively to pinwheels, a symbol of childhood whimsy and lightheartedness, as stated on PreventChildAbuse.org.

State sees big COVID jump

Highlands County had a mixed bag when it came to COVID-19 numbers when the Florida Department of Health released its daily coronavirus update Thursday. New cases were nearly double from Wednesday’s report and while the positivity rate came down a bit, it was still high.

One bright spot of the report was there were no new deaths reported in the county. Deaths remain at 321.

There were 30 new COVID cases in the county. The number of cases has risen to 7,685. Of those infections, 7,598 were from residents and 87 non-residents who contracted the virus.

Testing was up considerably and 275 resident tests were processed with 245 negative results. This generated a positivity rate of 10.91%, which is more than double the 5% the World Health Organization recommends for reopening.

Hospitalizations remained at 604. The Agency for Health Care Administration showed 39 people in the hospital with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19, which is seven more than Wednesday.

FDOH numbers show Highlands County having vaccinated 33,088 people, with 19,198 having received one dose and 13,890 as having completed the series, which in this case means received their second shot of the Moderna or Pfizer, or received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. So far, 237 people have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Of the people vaccinated in the county, 25,445 of them have been age 65 or older.

Florida saw a big increase in its daily count, as there were 6,790 new cases, which is the largest daily increase in the state since March 2. That brings the total number of cases to 2,064,525 million, with 2,026,083 cases found in residents and 38,442 non-resident cases.

As is happening in other states, one reason Florida is seeing an increase in the number of young people contracting the virus. There were 788 new cases involving youngsters 14 years of age and younger. While they have accounted for 8% of total cases in the state, they have accounted for nearly 12% of the cases over the past three days.

While the case count was up, testing was also the highest it’s been in the last two weeks, so the day’s positivity rate of 6.41% is comparable to numbers seen the last two weeks, as they’ve fluctuated between 5.06% and 7.57% over the last 14 days.

The state reported 69 new resident deaths and two more non-resident fatalities. The state has now seen 33,494 resident deaths and 649 non-resident deaths for a total of 34,143.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting 99,565,311 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is 30% of the country’s population and 99,088,138 people 18 and over have received at least one dose, which is 38.4% of the adult population. There have been 40,337,888 people age 65 and over to have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which is 73.7% of the senior population 65 and over.

The Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering is reporting 30.52 people in the United States to have contracted the virus, with 552,942 deaths.

Globally, there have been 129.2 million cases and 2.82 million deaths.

Gentry murder trial tentatively set for 2022

SEBRING — Although more than a year away, a trial date has been tentatively set for the murder case against Joseph Edward Ables, the man accused of killing Highlands County Deputy Sheriff William Gentry Jr. in 2018.

Four weeks have been set aside for the 2022 trial.

His case is tentatively set to begin Oct. 3, 2022 with jury selection, though that could change. For now, his case has been continued for a status hearing at 1:15 p.m. May 28.

Last month, attorney Julia Williamson of Auburndale said a doctor in the case was supposed to follow up with her, but had to reschedule an appointment because of bad weather.

Thursday afternoon, she said they are still working on mental health mitigation. She reiterated statewide and regional COVID-19 numbers as one of the impediments.

Williamson said in the coming weeks she plans to file for a change of venue and other motions concerning mitigation and the penalty phase.

Assistant State Attorney Kristie Ducharme, who took the case over upon the retirement of Steve Houchins, requested that the violation of probation portion of the case be heard sometime in December. That charge stems from a June 2016 case of battery on an elderly person.

In addition to first-degree murder of a law enforcement officer, Ables also faces charges of of attempted first-degree murder; possession of a firearm, weapon and/or ammunition by a convicted felon; tampering with physical evidence; resisting an officer with violence, and felony cruelty to a cat.

Gentry died May 7, 2018, after being shot the previous night. Gentry had walked over to Ables’ house, after talking with a neighbor, to get his side of a dispute involving a cat, which Ables allegedly had shot.

Ables, a Vietnam veteran, now 72, said in arrest reports that he recalled a man coming to his door with a gun belt with a gun, but contends “he blacked out and remembers nothing.”

Arrest reports said he shot Gentry with a .22-caliber handgun, which he allegedly had on him the Sunday night of May 6, when Gentry knocked on his door to talk with him.