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County's murder cases moving forward
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SEBRING — One murder suspect jumped from the second tier of the Highlands County Jail, another blew his probation and faces a lengthy sentence, and a handful of other local murderers have been sentenced to life in Florida’s penal system.

There are other cases, however, that after years of slow progress, continue to move relentlessly through the 10th Judicial Circuit’s dockets. And always there are more cases — including two high profile death penalty cases — that add to the workload.

Highlands County Assistant State Attorney Steve Houchin and his fellow prosecutors have continued to try cases in a criminal justice system that relies on virtual hearings and other limitations during COVID-19.

Several cases are returning to court soon, bringing prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witnesses together in a search for justice, including two of the most visible and hard-hitting cases in the community, and both are death penalty cases.

•Zephen Allen Xaver, 24

Five women were shot to death in the Sebring SunTrust Bank in the middle of the day on Jan. 23, 2019: Cynthia Watson, 65, Marisol Lopez, 55, Ana Piñon-Williams, 38, Jessica Montague, 31, and Debra Cook, 54. There’s little doubt as to who the culprit is: investigators say Xaver called 9-1-1 and told dispatchers he was inside the bank and had shot five people. Not only that, but detectives, Houchin, and many others viewed the shooting moments after the crime on laptops linked to the bank’s video feed.

On Jan. 23, 2019, Xaver entered the bank with a 9mm pistol and wearing a bullet-proof vest. Unlike many mass shootings where suspects take their own lives, the community has a live suspect who faces the death penalty for destroying so many lives.

The next court appearance for Xaver, who faces five counts of first degree murder with a handgun, is May 28 at 1:15 p.m. at the Highland County Court House.

• Joseph Edward Ables, 72

Ables was charged with shooting Highlands County Sheriff’s Deputy William Gentry in May 2018 after Gentry and other deputies answered a call from a neighbor who believed Ables had shot her cat. Gentry’s body was found lying inside the screened entrance to the suspect’s home in Lake Placid.

Ables has a troubled past: he claims to be a Vietnam combat veteran and was convicted in 2016 for battery on an elderly person. As a felon, Ables was not allowed to possess a gun. He told police that he blacked out and didn’t remember shooting Gentry.

“This one also hit the community hard,” Houchin said. “I knew William very well, his brother is a deputy, and I knew his mother. He was well-respected around the courthouse and in law enforcement.”

Ables was charged with first degree murder of a law enforcement officer, possession of a gun by a felon and other charges. A pretrial conference is scheduled for May 28 and an evidentiary hearing is set for Dec. 21. The clerk of the court shows that jury selection is tentatively set for Oct. 10, 2021 at 8:30 a.m.

• Marquay Desawn Rockmore, 24

Six days before Christmas 2017, Rockmore and Dyshaun Quantray A. Collymore called Kyle Matthew Arjona across the street into an empty lot on Booker Avenue. As Arjona approached, Rockmore pulled a pistol and shot him in the head and neck. “Evidentiary problems and witnesses not cooperating and not appearing” led the prosecutors to agree to nine months served and 10 years’ probation for Rockmore in 2018, Houchin said.

Alas, in April 2019 Rockmore was among other passengers in a car in which Highland County Sheriff’s deputies found drugs and a .357 pistol with its serial number scored away. On May 11, though a jury cleared him of gun and drug possession, a judge found him in violation of his probation. Houchin hopes Rockmore will be returned to prison to serve the 10 years, possibly at a June 9 hearing.

• Dyshaun Quantray A. Collymore, 21

Rockmore’s co-defendant in the shooting case also took a plea deal for manslaughter in 2018. Collymore’s sentence was one year in jail and 12 years of probation.

• Van Lee Holder, 43

In June 2014 Holder told Highland County Sheriff’s Office investigators that he had dropped a 21-month old boy as he was bathing him. The child died two days later of brain swelling and Holder was charged with one count of Aggravated Manslaughter of a child. In September 2016, Holder pled guilty and received a 20-year sentence, with five years’ probation.

• Jonathon Padron, 31

Padron shot into the passenger side of a Ford Expedition near Sebring Regional Airport and Industrial Park in May 2015 as another man allegedly tried to flee a marijuana deal without paying. Crime scene investigators found the victim, Thomas Nelson, 25, lying back in the front passenger seat, the passenger door open. The victim had his right foot on the ground as if he was attempting to exit the car.

After the shooting, Padron quickly took an Amtrak train out of Sebring to New York City, where he was arrested 17 days later. Padron pleaded no contest to manslaughter with a firearm and in January 2018 was sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by 15 years of probation. At the time of sentencing, Padron was credited with the 988 days he’d already spent in jail.

• William Glen Sneed, 53

In one of Highlands County’s most disturbing cases, Sneed shot and killed a woman in October 2014 who had accused him of sexual assault the previous August. He gunned down his victim, Sarah Abrams, in the bathroom of her Lake Placid home as she prepared for work.

According to detectives, two months before the killing, Abrams was taken to Florida Hospital by ambulance from Sneed’s home. She told hospital doctors that Sneed had forced her to perform oral sex and had battered her. As she was inside being treated, Sneed was in the hospital parking lot, where witnesses told Highland County Sheriff’s Office Special Victims Unit Detective Roger St. Laurent Jr., that Sneed was “wandering around angry, wondering where she was at …”

Detectives arrested Sneed and charged him with sexual battery. After he bonded out, Abrams or her children would call Laurent whenever they saw Sneed around town, such as in the Walmart in Sebring. Then, on Oct. 10, Sneed entered Abrams’ home and shot her twice with a .25-caliber pistol.

Sneed pled no contest to second degree murder with a firearm and received 40 years, which Houchin calls a life sentence. “He won’t be out until he’s in his 70s.”

• James Flowers, deceased

Flowers was arrested as he tried to escape police on a Walmart shopping scooter in March 2015. Detectives pulled him over on U.S. 27 and noted dried blood on his feet, hands and fingernails. When they searched his home, they found blood on the walls and floors and Flowers’ deceased roommate, Linda Barley, lying in the carport. Barley, 65, had been bludgeoned to death.

Flowers was charged with second-degree murder; detectives believed Sneed, who had been drinking vodka with his victim, had killed Blair in an alcohol blackout. His case ended after he tried to commit suicide in the Highlands County Jail in April 2016. An incident report provided by the Highland County Sheriff’s Office shows that Flowers had given his jail commissary away to a cellmate and had written a letter to family, directing them to tell his father about his situation and the accusations against him. He also denied causing harm to the victim in the letter.

Flowers’ intentional leap from a second-tier railing was caught on jail videotape. Incredibly, according to jail notes, Flowers survived the plunge with deep head injuries and after a hospital stay, was returned to the jail and was able to walk and talk. He also was taking his medication but soon stopped eating and drinking. He collapsed in the jail shower and was admitted to the jail medical unit with malnutrition. His condition worsened and in July 2016 — more than two months after his leap — family members took him off life support and he was declared dead.

The prosecutor’s office closed the case upon Sneed’s death.

• Sadat S. Hutchinson, 35

On June 19, 2014, Hutchinson entered Platters restaurant in Lake Placid and shot Marcos Garcia Rangel, with whom he’d been fighting. A jury found Hutchinson guilty of a lesser, second-degree murder charge and sentenced him to 25 years in prison on Aug. 19, 2016.

• Javon Douryan Moses, 26

“I had to bury my baby after Thanksgiving,” said Jeanine Council, mother of Dwayne Council Jr., the popular Avon Park High School homecoming king and football star who was gunned down on Nov. 23, 2013.

Last Christmas Eve, Jeanine recorded a Survivor’s Story video on YouTube. “His birthday is Dec. 25,” she continued. “Seven years later and it still hurts me. Every Christmas I have to remember that I don’t have him anymore and he’s no longer with me and that’s not fair.”

On May 13, 2016, his killer, Dwayne Jouvan Moses, was sentenced to life in prison for shooting Council several times.

Meanwhile, the Councils continue on without their son.

“He was engaged to be married,” his mother said. “He was snatched away from us. His whole life was in front of him. It was all snatched away from him, senseless, so unfair.”

The two longest-lasting cases in Highlands County have yet to be resolved; both date from 2014.

• Phillip Justin Markland, 37

Phillip Justin Markland of Sebring, is charged with first-degree murder in connection with the murder of his uncle, Thomas Markland, 65 on June 15, 2014. Thomas Markland had shot his nephew, Phillip, who had been acting belligerently toward his uncle. Thomas was on the phone with dispatch when Phillip shot him in the back of the head.

The first Highlands County Sheriff’s deputy to arrive at the home in Sebring testified that Phillip Markland was standing in the front yard, without any clothes on, with blood on his face, chest and shoulders. “And he shouted out a bunch of stuff about how ‘I had to do it, my uncle, you know, he just snapped.’” Another investigator on the scene heard Phillip declare himself to be Jesus Christ.

Detectives found his uncle, Thomas, dead inside the residence. While his uncle was on the call to dispatchers, Phillip allegedly picked up a rifle with a high capacity magazine and shot his uncle in the back of the head at least 17 times with .22 rounds, detectives reported.

The case has lasted through Stand Your Ground hearings, mental competency hearings, witness depositions, and countless other motions.

“He’s on his third attorney, who is getting up to speed,” Houchin said. Markland’s lawyers hope to rely on an insanity defense, based on substance abuse testimony from friends and family who’ve seen Markland’s behavior over the years, as well as testimony by psychiatrist Dr. Edmund Settles. The next court date is June 23, almost exactly seven years after the shooting.

• James Ivan Sanders, 34

This case, from October 2014, is nearly as old as Markland’s case. On Oct. 14, 2014, Highlands County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested James Ivan Sanders, a 28-year-old lawn care employee, for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. According to the arrest affidavit, the child’s mother, Geisy Alvarez, had left Mercedes Blair in Sanders’ care while she went to work. The little girl died from a disfiguring skull fracture and internal injuries, which police say were the result of blunt force trauma.

The next court date for Sanders, who is charged with aggravated child abuse and first degree murder, is tentatively set for June 22, which will be a pretrial conference. A judge has set Oct. 18-25 as a tentative date for trial, including two days for jury selection.

• Frederick Leneal Washington, 28 and Daryl Cason, 32

The court refused Washington’s request for a jail furlough to attend the funeral of his brother in May.

Washington was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery with a firearm after shooting Aaron Hankerson on Oct. 9, 2016. The attack occurred just before 2 a.m. as Hankerson and his girlfriend walked in the parking lot of Shooters bar in Sebring.

Hankerson’s girlfriend watched in horror as two men emptied their pistols into the victim. When she rolled him on his side to comfort him, Washington walked up and pointed the gun in her face, telling her, “Bitch, don’t touch him.” She put her hands up and backed off. Washington was convicted, and was sentenced to life without parole on July 5, 2019.

Jury selection for Cason’s trial is set for 8:30 a.m. on June 1. He is charged with shooting Hankerson at the same time. A pretrial hearing is set for May 27. Both are virtual hearings and can be viewed at www.jud10.flcourts.org.

• Adrian Lavon Hawthorne, 33

In November 2014, Johnny Trevor Jackson was shot twice with an AK-47. Police found multiple 7.62 high-caliber casings in the roadway near the store where Jackson went down, hit with high-velocity rounds in the arm and abdomen.

When a witness tried to load Jackson into a car to get him to the hospital, Hawthorne, of Lake Placid, allegedly ordered her at gunpoint not to move the victim. When she loaded Jackson in the car anyway, Hawthorne allegedly fired on her car as she drove away.

Police determined that Hawthorne had been found guilty of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon in 2007; since he was a convicted felon, he was not allowed to possess the AK-47. They arrested him and subsequently charged him with second-degree murder with a firearm and aggravated assault.

Since then, prosecutors dropped the case but sentenced him to five years for battery on an inmate and he faces for even more time for tampering in a felony life capital proceeding, court records show. His next court date is June 1 for violation of parole status stemming from the 2007 case.

• Michael Cellelo, 61

In what Houchin considers a tongue-twister of a case, in June 2016, “Michael Celello killed his roommate, who was Michael Cerillo, shot him multiple times in Highlands County and took the body down into the Everglades,” the assistant state attorney said. “Broward County began working the case, and then realized this is a Highlands County case, so almost all my witnesses at the crime scene, the detectives, everybody, were from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office.

Cellelo was deemed guilty of second-degree murder and possession of a firearm by a felon and other charges. On Dec. 16, 2019, Celello was sentenced to life in prison and 13 years.

• Virgil Lee West, 26

This slight young man in the orange jump suit listened as his defense attorney, Julia Williamson, asked Judge Peter Estrada in early May to redact parts of West’s interrogation by detectives. The interrogation included comments by detectives on the number of times West must have reloaded and shot and other comments that she believed were hearsay, banter or otherwise speculative or prejudicial statements the jury shouldn’t hear.

On July 14, West shot Shawn Zeigler and Carrie Leaphart as the two approached West’s pickup truck on a golf cart in Lorida. West allegedly admitted to giving the middle finger to Leaphart, which angered Zeigler. When he stopped his golf cart to confront West, Zeigler was shot several times and died at the scene.

During West’s interrogation, he told detectives he thought Zeigler may have been reaching for a weapon. West sought to have the charges dismissed based on Stand Your Ground laws, but has so far been unsuccessful.

West was charged with murder, dangerous and depraved without premeditation, firing into a vehicle, and tampering after he told detectives he had thrown spent shells out his truck window as he drove away from the crime scene. His next court date is a status conference on June 4. Estrada has ruled on Williamson’s redaction requests.

County nabs Spartan Race, Tough Mudder events
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SEBRING — Spartan, the premier obstacle course race tour in the nation, has recently acquired Tough Mudder, a mud-based obstacle course race.

The two will hold a joint event for the first time this year, in Highlands County. The Board of County Commission approved a Tourist Development Council grant application for up to $90,000 each year — starting this one — for the next three years.

Joel Lamp with Airstream Ventures, the company working with the TDC (VisitSebring) to bring in sporting events, said in the grant application that each event alone could bring in 5,000 competitors for a weekend. Combined, he said, the event could generate as many as 15,000 entries and create another high-demand weekend for lodging and hospitality in the county.

The possible economic impact, just from overnight travelers, is estimated at $3.45 million, said Casey Hartt, lead marketer for VisitSebring.

Highlands County hoteliers and restaurateurs will have time to get ready. Proposed dates for the event are Dec. 11-12, 2021, with dates still to be determined for 2022 and 2023. Hartt said the event would start with a welcome celebration in downtown Sebring that Friday night, with competitions from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Hartt said she is working with the Sebring Community Redevelopment Agency to have the downtown ready for a welcome event.

Of the predicted 15,000 entries, Lamp estimates 8,000 would come from out of state, with a possible 1,200 spectators each day — 250 from out of state and 950 from Florida. The event could also bring in three to four-dozen officials and media, Lamp said. He estimates the minimum number of paid room nights the event could generate at 4,000.

Hartt said finding venues for this event in Highlands County has not been easy, but noted that every community has the potential to host part of the event, including Lake Placid, where she said one venue is the best prospect.

“Casey [Hartt] read my mind,” Commissioner Arlene Tuck said when she heard Lake Placid might host the event, or most of it.

Tuck also said her granddaughter, now State Rep. Kaylee Tuck, has taken part.

“Only crazy people do this,” Tuck said. “My granddaughter is one. They have to go under barbed wire. They have to run in the mud and carry bags of sand.”

Commissioner Chris Campbell, who sits on the TDC for the county commission, said as the last event of the year, this joint event should have a huge participation.

“The TDC just lit up,” Campbell said of board members hearing the news.

Commissioner Kevin Roberts asked about marketing Highlands County as a destination as part of the event, and Hartt said that is exactly what VisitSebring would do with event participants.

“Are you going to be in it?” Roberts asked.

“That depends on my ankle,” Hartt said.

“You’ll come out looking like mud,” Tuck said.

This story has been edited to reflect the correct dates for the events.

Former Hansen House building rezoned
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SEBRING — It was once a temporary home for children whose home life had taken a turn for the worse.

Now the building on Sparta Road that once housed the Hansen House has been rezoned. County commissioners voted last week to take the conditional use restriction off of it, making it easier to sell.

The site, a little less than a mile south of U.S. 27, will still be R-3/high-density residential zoning. It just will no longer have the conditional use it had before when the Children’s Home Society used the site to house children who had been removed from an abusive or unstable home until they could be reunited with their parents, put in long-term foster care or even adopted.

Commissioner Kevin Roberts, who formerly worked for the county in Human Services and who is both founder and board chair for the Champion for Children Foundation, said he found it a sad closing on a chapter in the county history where many people and groups came together to raise funds for a “go-to” facility to care for abused or neglected children.

The building was large enough to house siblings at the same facility, he said.

Roberts later told the Highlands News-Sun that the facility, in later years, transitioned from housing children to housing troubled teenagers, which may have hastened some of the maintenance issues as well as operational difficulties, including teenagers trying to escape.

Sarah Beth Rogers, manager of the Children’s Advocacy Center, said that her office had records on 120 children in foster care as of the start of March, but only 17 licensed foster homes in the county.

With some homes housing siblings, Rogers said approximately 97 kids are being housed out of county in either Polk or Hardee county, as long as those counties have space for them.

If not, a few might have to go outside the Tenth Judicial District, she said.

“It’s sad to see it closed when it’s needed so much,” Roberts said.

County sees just 2 COVID cases
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Highlands County saw just two new cases of COVID-19, according to Sunday’s numbers released by the Florida Department of Health. Both cases were seen in children, with one being 2 and the other being 10 years old.

The two new cases bring the county’s total to 8,726, with 8,629 being resident cases and the remaining 97 non-resident cases.

There were 89 resident tests processed, with the two positive tests, which yielded a positivity rate of 2.25% for the day.

The state is showing an increase of two deaths for the county, which would bring the total to 363. FDOH did subtract two deaths from Highlands County on Saturday’s update.

The state shows there were 364 vaccines given in the county on Saturday, although it typically takes several days for all of the numbers to come in from various locations.

So far, there have been 45,467 people in the county vaccinated, according to FDOH. There have been 11,771 people to have received the first dose and 33,696 to have gotten both shots in the series.

In the state, there was an increase of 2,069 cases, bringing the total to 2,310,335 cases. There have been 2,267,144 cases involving residents and 43,191 non-resident cases.

The state processed 52,496 resident tests and had 50,442 negative tests, which resulted in a positivity rate of 3.91%, making it two straight weeks with a positivity rate under 5%.

There were an additional 53 deaths reported, which raises the overall total to 37,207, of which 36,474 have been resident deaths and 733 have been non-resident deaths.

Vaccinations in the state were the lowest they have been in the last two weeks, with FDOH reporting 27,083 doses given on Saturday, although that number will likely increase some over the next few days.

There have now been 10,005,987 million people in Florida to have been vaccinated, with 7,965,477 having received both doses and 2,040,510 people having received the first dose.

The U.S. is approaching the 50% vaccination mark, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as 163,309,414 people have received at least one, which is 49.2% of the population. The percentage of the country that is considered fully vaccinated is 39.2%.

Among those 12 and over, the percentage climbs to 58.2%, while 61.3% of all adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

Seniors have been getting vaccinated at a higher rate than any other group, with 85.4% of those 65 and over having received at least one dose and 73.9% of seniors having been fully vaccinated.

According to the John Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, the U.S. has now had a total of 33.1 million cases and had 589,855 deaths.

Globally, there have been 166.8 million cases and 3.45 million deaths.