AVON PARK — A Thursday evening search ended in tragedy when Highlands County Sheriff Paul Blackman found the body of 5-year-old Chance Peterkin in Lake Leila at 12:20 a.m. Friday. Peterkin’s mother, Philletta Breanna Moransit, 29, was arrested on charges of felony child neglect and resisting an officer without violence.
The Highlands County Sheriff’s Office was notified at 5:59 p.m. Thursday the mother and son were missing. According to an arrest report, Moransit’s father had seen the two at approximately noon. He stated he left the pair for roughly 10 minutes and when he returned the two had taken off with no shoes on. He tried to locate the two in his pickup truck, but was unable to find them.
Other family members joined the search for the two during the afternoon and they came in contact with people in their neighborhood who had seen them, including several who offered Peterkin and Moransit a ride, which was declined, and the mother and son continued on foot.
Shortly before 8 p.m. Moransit was discovered unclothed in the Tri-County Human Services parking lot, which is across the street from the South Florida State College Criminal Justice Academy on College Drive. Moransit gave her name to deputies, but did not offer information on where her son was.
“She just wasn’t cooperative with us,” said Highlands County Sheriff Public Information Officer Scott Dressel.
Based on where Moransit left from and where she was found, HCSO deputies began to search the area around Lake Leila, known as Gator Lake by locals, and came across foot impressions left by an adult and a small child. Near the same lake, Moransit’s shirt was found.
An all-out search, which also involved Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Polk County Sheriff’s Office, took place, before Sheriff Blackman found the body.
“That’s never easy for anybody no matter how long you’ve been doing this,” Dressel said. “It was a rough night for everybody who was out there. You could see the shoulders sag and the faces drop when the sheriff got on the radio and said he had found him. Everybody was visibly deflated by that news. We were hoping for a much better outcome and we didn’t get it.”
The arrest report stated the area where the boy was found “contained extremely heavy shoreline vegetation with a water depth which was found to be impassable to a 5-year-old. There was also evidence of an adult creating a a visible trail through the vegetation to where the body was located.”
The report stated rigor mortis was already present, indicating Peterkin had been deceased for an extended period of time before the body was located.
Right now the Sheriff’s Office is trying to piece together everything that happened, which hasn’t been an easy task.
According to the report, family members said there is no history of drug or alcohol abuse or mental illness with Moransit.
“Even though we had all of this happen, we’re still in the early stages of this investigation,” Dressel said. “We’re going to have to wait on the autopsy results and other stuff before we can put together some of these bits and pieces. Depending upon where the investigation takes us, the charges could be upgraded. We still have some work to do to fill in the rest of the gaps.”
SEBRING — Of course there was the processional song, “Pomp and Circumstances,” at the start of the Sebring High School graduation ceremony on Thursday evening, and though the circumstances were different there was plenty of pomp for the SHS Class of 2020.
The families in the Alan Jay Arena kept a bit of distance from each other in the bleachers as the graduates made their entrance with space between them to sit on folding chairs with separation on the arena floor.
“It feels so good to finally get back together,” Sebring High Principal Kim Ervin said. When she met with the seniors at the start of the school year on Aug. 13 she told them to work hard and finish the year strong.
“Never in a million years did I think we would not meet,” in May for graduation, she said.
Ervin noted that many seniors provided help to the community during the pandemic.
“I know how important each of you are to your families, but also to your community,” she said.
“We are proud you reached this milestone in your education,” Erwin said. “We expect great things from you. Give back and help others and make the world a better place.”
The Class of 2020 History was presented by Lizbeth Martinez Gonzalez, who recognized the successes and individual achievement and hard work of the Class of 2020. There were successes academically, in sports and in extra-curricular activities, she said.
“With all the odds against us we are graduating,” Gonzalez said. “Class of 2020 — do great things.
“Go Blue Streaks!”
The SHS Bailey Awards went to Chase Alexander Doty and Hannah Martie Bauer.
The SHS Citizenship Awards went to Nathan Jay VanDam and Arieli Pilar Montalvo.
Ervin recognized Ilene Eshelman who recently retired as assistant principal and was present for her final Presentation of the Graduates.
The graduates included Jeremiah Sawyer, who was born and raised in Sebring. He sang baritone in the SHS Show Choir, and works at Glass Bottle Outlet in Lake Placid. He already started attending SFSC on prerequisites for a nurse practitioner program.
When asked how COVID-19 affected him, he said, “It’s made me want to get into the field that much more.”
He wants to get onto the “front lines” of health care.
Sawyer and his girlfriend were looking forward to prom and graduation prior to COVID-19, and were frustrated they couldn’t get all their family together, whether at or after the ceremony.
Amberlee Rogers with the SHS Student Resource Office, and Class of 2020 senior sponsor, said each graduate got two tickets maximum, with family trios sitting two or three seats apart – approximately six feet on each side – on alternating rows of the bleachers in the convention center.
Valorie Morris is a parent of two, and her oldest, Drew, was graduating Sebring High School.
“It’s terrible that we’re living this life,” Morris said.
She said it’s definitely not going to be after this how it “used to be,” adding that the “media has everybody paranoid.”
Morris found the situation uncomfortable and confusing and lamented that Drew’s senior year got cut short.
Drew Morris has taken an offer to play baseball for SFSC.
His mom said they don’t have a lot of family here locally and many have reached out with congratulations.
She’s not scared of interaction with his friends, if he keeps a safe distance.
“Everybody has to do the best they are doing,” Valorie Morris said.
Highlands County saw an additional six deaths attributed to COVID-19 with the release of Friday’s updated numbers by the Florida Department of Health. Three of the six cases had contact with a confirmed case, while two were unknown and one was listed as not having contact with anybody who had a confirmed case.
One of the six was a 31-year-old male, who is the youngest person to have died from COVID-19 in Highlands County. A 59-year-old male had previously been the youngest person to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the county.
The overall count in the county saw an increase of 56 cases, bringing the total in Highlands County to 968. There have been 120 hospitalizations, with 57 currently hospitalized. The county’s hospitalization rate of 12% is nearly double the state average.
The median age on new cases reported in the last 24 hours was 34, marking just the second time in the past two weeks that number has been below 40. The county median overall is 48 years of age.
Florida saw an additional 135 deaths among Florida residents to bring the total to 5,653. An additional non-resident death was reported to move that total to 115, making the combined count 5,768 deaths.
The average number of deaths in July is 89 per day, which is more than double the 41 deaths seen per day in April. Both May and June were below 40 deaths per day.
There were 12,444 new confirmed cases in Florida, with a positivity rate of 13.31%, which is more than double the 5% the World Health Organization likes to see before recommending re-opening. The median age for new cases in the state was 42, making the 12th straight day that number has been between 40 and 42.
Miami-Dade County saw an increase of 3,362 cases, bringing the county total to 98,430. There were 16 new deaths in Miami-Dade, which has now seen 1,370 COVID-19 deaths.
Broward County reported 1,566 new cases and Palm Beach County added 737 new cases to move to 29,004 cases.
In nearby counties, DeSoto County saw an additional 22 cases to move to 1,144 total. The county’s positivity rate was 7.4%, marking the sixth time in the past seven days DeSoto was under 10%.
Glades County has been fairly stable the past four days — with just seven new cases, but has only given 41 tests in that time period. The majority of cases in Glades are correctional facility cases, which have been responsible for 175 of the 293 cases, which is 60%.
Hardee County saw a massive jump of 25 cases, bringing its total to 759 cases. The county has seen a positivity rate greater than 10% in 10 of the last 11 days.
Okeechobee County saw 27 new cases after seeing 70 the previous day, but also did fewer tests. Okeechobee County is now at 797 cases.
Nationally, the United States moved to 4,057,100 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. There have been 144,524 deaths in the country attributed to COVID-19.
Globally, the count now stands at 15.6 million cases and 634,594 deaths.