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Heating up in Highlands County

LAKE PLACID — For the second time in as many days, a shed in Highlands County went up in smoke. The fires were started in the same manner. Highlands County Fire Rescue units have been busy running calls in the arid county. No injuries were reported.

Thursday afternoon, first responders were called to a reporta of a fire near 11234 Bryant Street in Highway Park, a subdivision of Lake Placid. Upon arrival, firefighters were able to put out the flames of the shed that was close to a residence.

Newly promoted HCFR Battalion Chief Todd Barton said the fire was started from someone burning rubbish. The fire was left unattended and the fire spread to the shed. The fire will be ruled accidental.

According to Barton, anyone wanting to burn items needs to ensure the burn area is 25 feet away from their own structure and 150 feet away from any neighboring properties. In addition, the Florida Forest Service website shows a setback of 50 feet from paved public roads. Anyone wanting to burn might want to consider a permit from the Florida Forest Service. Burn information can be found on the FFS site at

On scene were units from Placid Lakes, Lake Placid, Highlands Park and Sun N Lakes Volunteer Fire Departments. A Highlands County EMS ambulance was also on scene in case of injuries to civilians or firefighters.

Spring Lakes serves up recreation fun

SEBRING — Pickleball is a serious sport with a funny name. Its players have embraced the odd name and the competition since its invention in 1965. Pickleball’s popularity continues to soar and Spring Lake Improvement District is keeping up with the trends by building a six-court pickleplex, if you will.

The courts will cover the footprint left by the old tennis courts since they have been razed at Pine Breeze Park. Ground was broken the week of Feb. 20 and construction is now underway. Construction is expected to last about 75 days. Spring Lake District Manager Joe DeCerbo said the target for the first serve is in mid May.

The NIDY Corporation will be doing the construction. NIDY is the same company that did the courts at Sun ‘N Lake and will be doing the City of Sebring’s courts as well.

Pickleball courts don’t come cheap. The county’s Recreation and Parks Advisory Committee (RPAC) will be putting in $90,000 with the District allocating up to $110,000, DeCerbo said. Spring Lake will own the courts and maintain them.

Players will be in perpetual pickleball heaven with six courts and a sheltered area. The courts will be open from dawn to dusk daily. There will be no lights. The courts will be open to the public during certain times as the Spring Lake Pickleball Club “will have designated times for their use only,” DeCerbo explained.

Pickleball was first invented by Congressman Joel Pritchard, from Washington State, and friends Barney McCallum and Bill Bell. The game was created to give their families something to do together while on a trip, according to The game combined aspects of badminton, ping-pong and tennis. The game is able to be played by all ages and skill levels, making an attractive sport.

Like the old infomercials used to say, “But wait, there’s more!” More recreation opportunities abound in Spring Lake with the completion of two new docks for fishing or wildlife watching. These improvements were made at the William H. Gentry Jr. Memorial ECO Park at 1661 Duane Palmer Blvd.

One wooden dock is Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliant and has a gentle slope to the structure. The other dock also provides great fishing and overlooks the water.

The District paid about $27,000 for the docks. They are found along the multi-use path that runs around tranquil waters. Covered pavilions near the water provide a shady spot for a picnic.

Whether teaching the grandkids to fish or bird watching with the neighbors, the ECO place is the perfect place to see a glimpse of unspoiled Florida.

Russia claims Ukraine crossborder sabotage raid; Kyiv denies

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian officials accused Ukrainian saboteurs of crossing into western Russia and attacking local villages Thursday, an accusation that Ukraine denied, warning that Moscow could use the claims to justify stepping up its own assaults in the ongoing war.

The exact circumstances of the incident reported in the Bryansk region were unclear, including what the strategic purpose of such an attack would be.

If confirmed, it would be another indication following drone attacks earlier this week that Kyiv could be stepping up pressure against Moscow by exposing Russian defensive weaknesses, embarrassing the Kremlin and sowing unease among Russian civilians.

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed Ukrainian “terrorists” for an incursion, claiming that they deliberately targeted civilians.

“It was yet another terror attack, another crime,” Putin said during a video call. “They infiltrated the area near the border and opened fire on civilians.”

Asked by reporters whether it could warrant a change in the status of what Russia still calls “the special military operation” in Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded with a coy “I can’t say for now.”

Peskov said that Putin canceled a planned trip to southern Russia set for Thursday and was receiving reports on the situation from the regional governor.

Thursday’s apparent incursion came just days after Putin ordered the Federal Security Service to tighten controls on Russia’s border with Ukraine.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak described the Russian reports as “a classic deliberate provocation.”

Russia “wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country (and) the growing poverty after the year of war,” he tweeted, suggesting that the attack was the work of Russian partisans.

Amid conflicting initial reports, Russia’s Federal Security Service said fighting with the sabotage unit was taking place in the Bryansk region.

The Federal Security Service was quoted by the Russian state Tass news agency as saying that “activities to eliminate armed Ukrainian nationalists who violated the state border” were underway.

Tass, citing Russian law enforcement, reported earlier that the saboteurs were holding up to six people hostage. The local governor said the group had fired on a vehicle there, killing one man and wounding a 10-year-old child.

Tass reported, citing an unnamed security official, that two villages in the Bryansk region — Sushany and Lyubechane — were under attack by “several dozen armed fighters.”

Alexander Bogomaz, the governor of the Bryansk region, which borders Ukraine, said the group fired on a vehicle in Lyubechane, killing one man and wounding a child. He also said that a Ukrainian drone struck a house in the Sushany, setting it ablaze.

On Tuesday, drones that the Kremlin said were launched by Ukraine flew deep inside Russian territory, including one that got within 100 kilometers (60 miles) of Moscow.

Ukraine’s military intelligence representative, Andrii Cherniak, saw the Russian claims as evidence that it is facing what Kyiv alleges is an uprising among its own disgruntled people.

“This was done by the Russians, Ukraine has nothing to do with it,” he told The Associated Press.

Cherniak noted that a group calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corps had claimed responsibility for the attack in a video where they urge Russians to rebel.

The Russian Volunteer Corps describes itself as “a volunteer formation in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.” Little is known about the group and it’s not immediately clear if the group indeed has any ties with the Ukrainian military. Nor was it clear from the Corps statement what action it took and what specific objectives it wanted to achieve.

In Ukraine on Thursday, three people were killed and six others were wounded when a Russian missile hit a five-story apartment building in a southeastern city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that several floors of the building were destroyed in the strike, which occurred while it was still dark.

The State Emergency Service said in an online statement that it had rescued 11 people so far.

Zaporizhzhia is a large city that had a population of more than 700,000 before Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor just over a year ago. It’s the administrative capital of the partially occupied Zaporizhzhia region, which is home to Europe’s largest nuclear plant.

Russian artillery, drones and missiles have pounded Ukrainian-held areas in the country’s south and east for months. Moscow denies aiming at civilian targets, but its indiscriminate shelling has wrought wide destruction in urban centers.

The war largely slowed to a grinding stalemate during the winter months.

Zelenskyy said Russia “wants to turn every day for our people into a day of terror.” He added: “But evil will not reign in our land.”

Meanwhile, a fierce battle continued for control of Bakhmut, a key eastern stronghold where Ukrainian officials say they might strategically withdraw.

Ukraine’s General Staff reported that the Russian forces “continue to advance and storm the city,” but Kyiv’s troops repelled some of the attacks on the ruined city.

Donetsk regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko reported that one person was wounded in Bakhmut on Thursday morning.

Bakhmut was among cities and villages in the Donetsk region that came under Russian shelling, according to the General Staff update.

Taking the city wouldn’t only give the Russian forces a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks, but it might rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and allow the Kremlin’s forces to press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.

Second brother charged in BP shooting

LAKE PLACID — Highlands County deputies have arrested a second suspect in the Feb. 5 shooting of a carload of passengers in Lake Placid.

One man inside the Orange Dodge Challenger was shot in the head several times, but the shooters are also charged in the attempted murder of four other passengers at the BP Gas Station on U.S. 27.

Police arrested the first suspect, Joel Marriquin, 21, the day after the shooting and charged him with four counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of attempted second-degree murder with great bodily harm.

Three weeks later, on Tuesday, Feb. 28, deputies arrested a 17-year-old and charged him with the same crimes. The teen’s arrest came after someone inside described him as the chief attacker.

“The victims were coming forward and identifying (the teen) as the shooter,” a prosecutor told County Court Judge Anthony Ritenour at (the teen’s) first appearance Wednesday morning. As with other suspects at first appearance, (the teen) appeared from the county jail on a courtroom SmartScreen.

He wore a black-and-white striped jail uniform and shook his head from side to side as he heard the prosecutor speak.

Jennifer Powell, who is defending the younger of the two defendants, told Ritenour that the wounded passenger had been in a relationship with a relative.

Prosecutors asked for a high bond for (the teen).

“This was a very serious incident, some of the victims didn’t come forward for fear of retribution,” the prosecutor said. “And this is not (the teen’s) first time in possession of a gun.”

Powell urged Ritenour to release the teen on bond, pointing out that his family was in the courtroom.

“He has no priors, and he has a family here, a family that is going to supervise him, assist him.” The lawyer also told Ritenour that “there is a relationship between the victim and the defendant’s mother.”

Because attempted murder with great bodily harm is punishable by life in prison, Ritenour rejected the idea of giving the teen bond.

Sheriff’s detectives say Joel Marroquin and the 17-year-old drove after the Challenger in their mother’s Ford F-150 pickup truck after the car drove past the Marroquin home. A security camera captured the pickup pulling up next to the Challenger, but the view of what happened was blocked by a light post or other obstruction.

According to the car’s passengers, the two suspects fired into the car, striking Manuel Benito Guzman Reyes several times in the head. Reyes was airlifted to a trauma center in Fort Myers in critical condition.

The driver of the Challenger told police the group had unintentionally driven past the Marroquin house on a dirt street as they searched for a party that was underway in the area.

One of the passengers told detectives that the older of the two suspects yelled at the group, demanding to know why they had driven past their residence.

After the gunfire erupted, the driver of the Dodge drove off, but quickly realized Reyes had been hit by bullets. He returned to the gas station and called emergency dispatchers. Detectives found multiple .40 caliber casings near the bullet-riddled car.

The suspects also were charged with firing into an occupied vehicle.

The teen’s arraignment is set for April 3.