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Car crash leads to arrest of murder suspects
  • Updated

SEBRING — Bullet casings at a Tuesday evening traffic accident led to the arrest of two teens in the shooting death of a 14-year-old Sebring teen.

Sebring Police arrested Salvador Francisco Cruz of Winter Haven on Tuesday for the Sept. 5 murder of a Sebring youngster. Sebring Police detectives, with the help of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), pulled Lorenza Stevenson, 17, of Sebring, a second suspect in the youth’s killing, from the attic of a house in the 1900 block of Greenway Drive.

Both men are charged with premeditated first degree murder in the killing of Ricky Harris III.

“The two are known associates,” Sebring Police Commander Curtis Hart said of Cruz and Stevenson. “We received information that Stevenson was also involved.”

Detectives had already identified Cruz, 18, as their prime suspect by the time Cruz crashed his Dodge Challenger on U.S. 27 and College Drive in Avon Park. Crash investigators called the police after finding several fired shell casings in the road.

According to Sebring Police Sgt. Jeff Reinhart, the casings in Cruz’s car – as well as his Dodge Charger – directly link Cruz to the shooting death of Harris.

The report on Cruz’s arrest, which lists Reinhart as the reporting officer, outlined the events from Sept. 5 that led to Cruz and Stevenson’s arrests.

Highlands County central communications dispatchers received a report of a shooting near 1512 Colmar Ave. in Sebring shortly after 1 a.m. on that Sunday. The caller told dispatchers they heard someone fire 12 gunshots in the neighborhood near Rainbow Avenue. Officers went to the scene and interviewed neighbors and other possible witnesses.

Dispatchers received a call from a second witness at 1:22 a.m. who reported a person laying in a driveway near 1400 Beverly Ave. That caller also reported young teens running from the body toward Rainbow Avenue.

Investigators arrived at the address to find Harris, 14, dead from a gunshot wound near his right armpit. Investigators then spoke with two witnesses – one 13, the other 14 – who said they had been walking with the victim when a man pulled up in a car and fired at them. They described the car as an orange/red Dodge Challenger with beads and a pendant hanging from the rearview mirror. One youngster told police he may have been the intended target, not Harris. He also told police he had seen the vehicle and used the nicknames “Juice” and “Peso” to identify the men he had allegedly seen in the vehicle.

The crime sceneDetectives found three 9mm shell casings in the alley behind First Assembly of God Church at 4301 Kenilworth Ave. The church is adjacent to the property where the body was found. South of the church, detectives found two bullet strike marks in the grass and a third mark on a tree. Investigators discovered seven more shell casings at the base of a chain link fence that indicated the shooter had fired at the fleeing youngsters, but had hit Harris, who had fallen in the driveway of the Beverly Avenue house.

The investigators followed the tire tracks in the dirt and grass that indicated the driver had left the area and headed up Kenilworth Avenue. Security camera footage along Cruz’s route captured his Charger at various streets and intersections in the neighborhood.

In the minutes before the shooting, a camera at the Chevron Gas Station at 3303 Kenilworth Blvd. filmed Cruz parking his Charger, walking into the store and buying something at the counter.

After getting back in his Charger, Cruz sat for 13 minutes before driving east on Kenilworth. Cameras along his drive capture him turning south on Roseland Avenue from Kenilworth; the car is not seen for about six minutes, detectives wrote in their report. The detectives again used a string of security cameras to follow Cruz as he drove to the crime scene and entered the alleyway behind First Assembly Church in his car. A figure in one security video can be seen running away from Cruz’s car.

Bullets in the roadAfter Cruz crashed his car on U.S. 27 Tuesday, Reinhart had his suspect. Cruz then pointed to a photograph of Stevenson, identifying him as Cruz’s alleged accomplice in the shooting. Detectives executed a warrant for Stevenson’s arrest at 1 p.m. the next day.

“We have known Lorenza Stevenson for years so we put eyes on his house,” Hart told the Highlands News-Sun. “He was hiding in the house, and for a good hour-and-a-half the SWAT team worked on getting him.”

A Highlands County Sheriff’s spokesman said deputies heard noises in the attic as the warrant was being served. Stevenson was also believed to be armed.

“Everyone backed out and secured the residence and waited for a search warrant to be signed and for SWAT to arrive, the spokesman said. “Shortly after SWAT arrived and began to hail him over the loudspeaker, [Stevenson] came out and surrendered without incident.”

Highlands County Clerk of the Court records show that Cruz was found guilty on careless driving/open container charges in December 2020. He is scheduled to be arraigned on the murder charge before Circuit Court Judge Peter Estrada on Oct. 18 at 8:30 a.m.

Stevenson has a violent juvenile record. In January, he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and for being a delinquent in possession of a firearm; in February, he was charged with grand theft of a firearm. He negotiated a plea deal for the charges in June, was sentenced to time served and was released on three years’ probation.

Hart said Sebring Police detectives Cpl. Michael Hirsch, Detective Odalys Del Rio, and Detective Steven Williams spent a lot of hours investigating the complicated crime scene and piecing together the movements of the Charger from various security cameras and other evidence.

Home court advantage: Uncle, nephew help hometown recreation

SEBRING — A place that holds memories and launched dreams may have a chance to keep doing that.

Two men from Highway Park, who walked and played on those grounds, hope to keep that place alive for many more to come.

Quavis L. Shuler and his nephew, Jovanni Shuler, have started donating funds to help restore and maintain the basketball courts at Carver Park, also known as MLK Park, in their home neighborhood.

This month, already, they have given $1,638 to pay for asphalt sealing and restriping of the courts at Carver/MLK Park. They plan to give more.

“Some of my best memories actually happened on that basketball court,” Quavis Shuler said. “We would pretend we were Michael Jordan.”

He said kids and adults — the whole neighborhood — would gather at that park, just come together and have fun.

In February 1998, right out of high school, Quavis Shuler entered the military — the U.S. Marine Corps — where he would spend the next 22 years and five days.

“What drew me to the Marine Corps? At that time, I knew I didn’t want to go to college. The only other thing available for me [to do] at that moment was working at Burger King,” Quavis Shuler said.

He was even offered the position of manager, he said. He turned it down to become a Marine. The hardest branch of the service, it gave him the challenge he wanted and took him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Belgium and Amsterdam.

Jovanni also had dreams on the Carver/MLK Park basketball court, once he finally got to play.

“As a kid, it was hard to get on the court,” Jovanni Shuler said. In middle school, he was small and since most of the bigger kids would come on the holidays, he didn’t get a lot of time with the ball.

That was, he said, until he reached ninth grade. Up until then, he was the last one picked for junior varsity basketball. Then he had a growth spurt, from 5 feet 9 inches to 6 feet 2 inches.

“That was when my self-motivation kicked in,” Jovanni Shuler said.

He was soon playing varsity, and then went to Savanna State, a Division I school, after graduation. There he made three school records: most points in one game, most points in a season and most steals in one game.

Only the record for steals still stands, he said, but he held the rank at that time as one of the top 50 individual players in that division, as well as an ESPN listing among the top 50 for steals.

From there Jovanni played international basketball, first in Iceland, then in Kuwait, Portugal, France, Canada, Germany, Luxembourg, China, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia. He learned three other languages along the way.

Jovanni found himself just 45 minutes from Normandy. He visited the beaches of D-Day and Normandy American Cemetery. Quavis, now retired from the Marines, said he now hopes to make these travels and see all the things he couldn’t see as a soldier.

As the years went by, the Shulers started hearing talk that their home court – their “Field of Dreams” – had become deserted. Quavis Shuler, now owner of Q&A Trucks LLC, got together with his nephew and they decided to donate funds to bring the courts back up to playing specifications.

They believe that having that place, that central space where everyone gathered and which everyone considered a part of “home,” helped them to reach out and achieve their dreams. They want to see it inspire others.

“The more support we can get in there, the more we can do in our community,” Quavis Shuler said. “We can continue to do great things in Lake Placid and Highlands County, as a whole.”

Alan Jay Network acquired; Wildstein to stay in charge, locally

SEBRING — Alan Jay Wildstein has confirmed reports that he has sold 85% of his business to LMP Automotive Holdings Inc., and will stay on as regional vice president of LMP.

Wildstein wants to assure his Alan Jay team members and valued customers, as well as local business associates, colleagues and civic organizations that have worked with him, that nothing will change in the relationship he currently has with them. That will include the sponsorships, charity work and civic partnerships that Alan Jay Automotive Network has built over the years.

Wildstein said he will stay on as dealer operator and 15% equity owner. In addition, he said that there would be no staff changes, and the leadership team at all the locations would remain the same. People in the community could expect to see the same familiar faces.

“I’m looking forward to continuing to serve the central Florida community with the same corporate and civic involvement as we have for nearly three decades,” Wildstein said.

Wildstein said the sale came about mutually as he was looking for partners and as LMP was looking to acquire dealerships.

“The timing was right and they were the right partners,” Wildstein said. “I’m excited about opportunities with their organization in the future.”

He also said this arrangement, hopefully, would allow him to spend more time with family, particularly his three daughters, ages 26, 25 and 21.

A definitive acquisition agreement between Wildstein and LMP would have the company buy an 85% interest in Alan Jay Automotive Network. The transaction is expected to close in the fourth quarter of this year.

LMP will acquire one pre-owned center and 21 new vehicle franchises: one Buick, one Cadillac, two Chevrolet, one GMC, two Chrysler, two Dodge, two Jeep, two Ram, two Ford, one Lincoln, one KIA, one Nissan, one Toyota, one Maserati and one Alfa Romeo.

“First, I would like to welcome Alan Jay Wildstein, Michael Witham and James Lizotte to the LMP organization,” LMP’s Chief Operating Officer Richard Aldahan said via press release. “Upon close, Alan Jay Wildstein will be regional vice president at LMP, partner, as well as dealer operator of the acquired dealership group.”

Aldahan also said Witham will continue as the group’s chief operating officer, and Lizotte will be vice president of operations. Each has over 30 years’ experience in the automotive industry.

“I look forward to working with each of them in our future partnership,” Aldahan said. “This acquisition will further expand our management team and Southeast footprint. We intend to continue expanding aggressively in this region as we are seeing a record amount of interest in our dealer partner model.”

Sam Tawfik, LMP’s chief executive officer, said this acquisition, combined with others, brings LMP’s total franchise and dealership count to 51 and 35, respectively, with consolidated annualized revenue estimated at approximately $1.6 billion.

LMP’s release said Wildstein, a seasoned executive with nearly three decades of experience in the automotive industry, has served as chief executive officer of Alan Jay Automotive Network since 1992, and is currently a director and past chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association. Long regarded as one of the region’s largest community partners, he has sponsored and donated to hundreds of organizations, events and individuals each year.

Wildstein holds a BBA from Northwood University in Michigan, the release states, and both he and the Alan Jay Automotive Network have received the Business Leadership Award, Time Magazine Quality Dealer Award, Dealer of the Year Award and Sebring Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year. His was one of six Ford dealers globally to win the 2017 Salute to Dealers recognition, both selected and presented by the Ford family.

LMP Automotive Holdings Inc. (NASDAQ: LMPX) is described as a growth company with a long-term plan to profitably consolidate and partner with automotive dealership groups in the United States to provide new and used vehicles, finance, insurance and automotive repair/maintenance.

The company promotes its proprietary e-commerce technology and strategy as a means to leverage experienced teams, a growing selection of owned inventories and its physical logistics network to provide customers with a seamless experience both online and in person.

CRA approves facade, land use change for proposed apartment building

SEBRING — The apartment building proposal for the former Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel property is moving forward with various approvals needed before the multi-million dollar construction project can begin.

CRA Executive Director Kristie Vazquez said the CRA Board approved on Monday both the facade design and Comprehensive Plan Amendment for the proposed building at 139 North Ridgewood Drive.

The City’s Planning and Zoning Board on Tuesday also approved the Comprehensive Plan Amendment.

The Historic Preservation Commission was going to consider approval of the facade design application at its Sept. 9 meeting, but they didn’t have a quorum, Vazquez noted. The CRA is waiting for a new meeting date to present the facade application.

The first reading of the Comprehensive Plan Amendment will go before the City Council at its Sept. 21 meeting.

“It is a great project to incorporate new living opportunities in downtown Sebring,” Vazquez said of the building plans for 139 N. Ridgewood Drive. “We have never had a project of this size, so that is encouraging to help fill that [housing/rental] supply and demand issue that we have within, I think, the entire county.

“If we can get apartments and people living in the downtown to utilize all of the other businesses that we are working so hard to bring in, that is a perfect combination for us.”

CRA Board Chair David Leidel said, “It’s coming together. We go to the City Council next week, which is one of the final steps for that. It’s moving along and still making progress.”

After the developer referred to the project as a four-story building, the agenda item on the land use change states the proposed structure will be five stories high.

Highlands News-Sun asked Leidel how many stories are proposed for the building?

Leidel responded, “I have heard it called four, five and six. I am going to defer to the developer. I believe it is a four-story building with parking on the first floor and then three residential floors above that. I know they are looking for 60 feet high.”

The plans show four stories plus “floor five” being the “rooftop amenity deck,” which includes a pool, rooftop restaurant and “skyview” bar.

The city-initiated application amending the Sebring Comprehensive Plan Future Land Use Element adds a new Future Land Use Classification of High-Density Mixed-Use Redevelopment with Site Specific Application to 139 N. Ridgewood Drive, for a residential building.

This city-initiated application is in two parts:

• The creation of a new Future Land Use classification titled High-Density Mixed-Use Redevelopment. This new classification is designed to apply to properties with site-specific conditions.

• The assignment of the new Future Land Use classification of High-Density Mixed-Use Redevelopment to the property located at 139 N. Ridgewood Drive with site-specific conditions.

The current Planned Unit Development zoning assigned to the former Nan-Ces-O-Wee Hotel property allows for 40 dwelling units per acre.

A developer has submitted a proposal to develop 50 apartment units in the building on the .43-acre site, with about 4,200 square feet of non-residential uses including retail, management office, and fitness center are proposed on the ground floor along with parking.

The zoning/land use change will allow a maximum density of 117 dwelling units per acre, which calculates to 50 dwelling units for the .43-acre property.

Construction Revolution Inc. estimated the building’s construction cost at $9 million with the total development cost to be $11 million.