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Judge rules out key evidence in ‘pill mill’ case
week of October 12, 2017

Judge Cynthia Cox has suppressed key evidence in three high-profile “pill mill” cases in Indian River County, putting in doubt prosecutors’ ability to convict defendants – who they say ran a statewide criminal organization – of drug trafficking, money laundering and racketeering. Prosecutors and law enforcement have long maintained that fraudulent pain management clinics, including the now closed Stuart Pain Management Center in Vero Beach, broke the law by prescribing excessive and unnecessary pain killers. Patients from as far away as the Midwest traveled to Florida for easy access to drugs like Oxycodone, while culpable doctors and other healthcare professionals made millions of dollars off their growing addiction and pain, prosecutors say. But the cases against three participants in what has been called “Florida’s pill mill epidemic” were put on hold Sept. 19 after Cox ruled that a detective with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office acted illegally when obtaining search warrants for residences outside of his jurisdiction. READ FULL STORY


Vero’s Triton, Aston Martin teaming up on supersub
week of October 12, 2017

Aston Martin, best known for the iconic cars featured in a number of the James Bond films, may soon add submarines built in Vero Beach to its portfolio of high-performance luxury autos and stunning speedboats. Talks are underway between the British auto maker and Triton Submarines, which manufactures multimillion-dollar recreational submersibles, to team up for “Project Neptune” – a code name which itself sounds like something right out of a Bond movie. Aston Martin announced the collaboration on Sept. 28, posting an image of a sleek proposed $4 million sub on its website. “A contract hasn’t been signed,” said Michael Haley, Triton’s U.S. director of sales and marketing. “But I think it will happen.” The potentially lucrative deal brings together two companies that have one major thing in common: both cater to a customer base with money to spend. Lots of money. “These are not for people who have a yacht,” Haley explained during a tour of Triton’s facility just off Interstate 95 in Vero Beach. “They are for people who have two yachts – one for traveling and the other for hauling their toys.” READ FULL STORY


Vero mayor comes up with new idea for getting city a share of ‘bed tax’
week of October 12, 2017

For at least seven years, Vero Beach officials have complained about the way money raised by the tourism and hotel tax – or “bed tax,” as it is commonly known – is distributed by Indian River County and spent by the Tourist Development Council. Five former Vero mayors and vice mayors have asked the county for a share of revenue raised from the 4 percent tax levied on lodging, arguing that more than 60 percent of the nearly $900,000 taken in last year was collected from hotels, motels and other lodging within city limits, most of it on the island. As it is, the city gets no money back from the county to spend on its own tourism priorities and, adding insult to injury, it has only has one seat on the nine-member Tourism Development Commission that decides how bed tax money is spent. Now, Mayor Laura Moss has come up with a novel approach to tapping into this revenue source. She has suggested that the tax be raised from 4 percent to 5 percent with the additional money raised going to Vero. READ FULL STORY


$8.2 million slipped into school budget remains a mystery
week of October 12, 2017

In the month between the first hearing on its tentative budget and the public hearing where the final version of the budget was revealed, the Indian River County School District tacked on an unexplained $8.2 million in expenditures that went unnoted by School Board members, who approved the inflated budget with little comment. The hall was empty for the final budget hearing on Sept. 7. Although school had been cancelled due to Hurricane Irma, the public hearing was not. Assistant Superintendent of Finances Carter Morrison didn’t mention or give reasons for the increase and none of the board members asked questions. In the month since, Superintendent Mark Rendell has not responded to a request for comment on the unexplained $8.2 million budget increase. The district published a legal advertisement in late July stating it would spend about $278 million from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018, which matched the tentative budget approved by the School Board on Aug. 1. But when the second hearing was held, another $8.2 million had been slipped into the budget, bringing expenses up to nearly $287 million. READ FULL STORY


Lagoon water levels higher than any time in recent memory
week of October 12, 2017

The Indian River Lagoon has been full to overflowing since Hurricane Irma blew by with heavy winds and flooding rains – so much so that high water has rivaled playoff baseball this past week as a topic of conversation. Docks that usually have a several feet of daylight beneath them have been awash and at times submerged, and the lagoon has crept up over low-lying roads and covered riverside land. Record-breaking rainfall in September and October, during Irma and after, is the main reason for the brimming lagoon, but other factors are at play too, including wind conditions, a full moon and global warming, according to local scientists and water managers. Vero Beach, Fort Pierce and Melbourne all set one-day rainfall records on Sept. 10, with more than 13 inches dumped in some locations, and all three cities received more than double the normal amount of rain between Sept. 1 and Oct. 4 when, according to one expert, the lagoon may have reached a historic high. READ FULL STORY


British paralympic athletes train (and are feted) in Vero
week of October 12, 2017

Visiting Vero Beach for a few days of sunshine and relaxation after two of them competed in Canada in the 2017 Invictus Games for wounded and disabled war veterans, three British Paralympic athletes and their coach were shopping in the Publix at Miracle Mile when an island woman heard one of them speaking. "My mother noticed the accent and immediately started a conversation," Louise Kennedy explained. That’s how the four men – two who lost their legs in combat, one who lost the use of his left arm in a cycling accident, and a British Army sergeant serving as their cross-country skiing coach – wound up spending a rainy Tuesday night last week dining at the Riomar Bay II home of Dr. Alastair Kennedy and his wife, Marion. The Kennedys’ daughter, Louise, was there, too; she's the head of the English department at St. Edward's School and arranged for the Brits to use the St. Ed’s weight room to train while here. READ FULL STORY


Town of Orchid doubles property tax to ensure funding for future beach repairs
week of October 12, 2017

Homeowners in the Town of Orchid will see their property taxes increase by 84 percent in the coming fiscal year, from $1,250 per $1 million assessed value to $2,300. The Town Council unanimously approved the tough decision during its final budget reading and public hearing Oct. 3, mainly to establish a reserve fund to pay for future emergency beach repairs without having to borrow money. The tax hike stems from the aftermath of last year’s Hurricane Matthew, when beach dunes between Sanderling and Wabasso suffered a massive wash-out and the Town was forced to take out a $350,000 loan from the Orchid Island Community Association to truck in sand and pay for repairs. Although previous Town Councils frequently discussed ways to fund emergency beach renourishment, they never quite took the leap. This time, after lengthy discussion at both budget hearings and public input, the Council, to a man, agreed they were willing to “take the heat” a tax increase would likely generate, deeming it better to be prepared before an emergency. READ FULL STORY


Shores pulls back from huge one-time tax cut
week of October 12, 2017

Unexpected road-repair costs derailed a $2 million tax rebate last week when the Indian River Shores Town Council voted 3-1 to cancel a planned, one-time cut in the property tax rate. Faced with a $4.4 million windfall from the auction of a city-owned piece of land to Naples-based Lutgert Companies for the development of a luxury residential community, the Town Council voted this summer to consider drastically reducing the property tax rate – temporarily. The one-time tax reduction would have, in effect, rebated nearly half of the windfall back to residents in a manner proportional to the taxes they pay on their homes, businesses and land. The idea was that the tax rate would return to normal next year. In the meantime, though, the town got hit with a one-two punch of bad fiscal news. First, it turns out a major reconstruction of Old Winter Beach Road is not going to benefit from grant funding Town Manager Robbie Stabe thought was probable. Second, a periodic engineering assessment of other town-owned roads revealed the need for additional expensive repairs that will total $500,000 or more. READ FULL STORY


Teachers often spend own money for classroom supplies
week of October 12, 2017

The Indian River County School District is flush with taxpayer funds. The district’s $287 million annual budget allows it to squander millions on ill-advised and fruitless legal battles and pays for administrators’ stays at Waldorf Astoria hotels when they attend out-of-town meetings. But for some reason, there doesn't seem to be enough money for classroom supplies. Elementary school teachers routinely spend hundreds of dollars of their own money to pay for things they need for their rooms and students. These teachers spent much of last summer gathering the supplies they knew they would need this fall; and their spending will continue throughout the school year as they strive to keep their kids engaged and interested. Nearly all of them have dipped into their own pockets again and again, each spending as much as $500 to support their individual teaching methods and meet state requirements. Third-grade teacher Debbie Irish says this phenomenon “is definitely happening to everybody, every year.” READ FULL STORY


Vero to get electric sale contract next week
week of October 5, 2017

Florida Power & Light and Vero’s attorney plan to have a draft of a formal contract for FPL to purchase Vero Electric at city hall by next Wednesday for City Council members to consider at their Oct. 17 meeting. FPL’s Regional Director of External Affairs Amy Brunjes last week gave the Indian River Shores Town Council an update on how the full sale of Vero Electric’s assets and 34,000 customers is progressing. Outside the meeting, Brunjes said there would be “no surprises” in the document, that it would adhere to the letter of intent already vetted by the council and the city’s Finance and Utilities commissions, with the addition of what she characterized as “about 100 pages of legal detail.” Of the two big hurdles that stood in the way of a closing – a dispute over whether Vero owed Orlando Utilities Commission $20 million or $50 million in contract cancellation penalties, and Vero’s successful exit from the Florida Municipal Power Agency co-op – the first apparently has been overcome and the campaign to clear the other is very much in the works. READ FULL STORY


Man accused of trying to kidnap boy from school is committed
week of October 5, 2017

A stranger accused of trying to kidnap a 14-year-old student from the campus of Gifford Middle School last August was released from jail Sept. 26 but committed to a mental health facility. Records from the Aug. 25, 2016, incident allege Nikromuh Koondo was caught trying to snatch a young boy from the school at 45th Street and 25th Court where many island children attend middle school. A teacher and school resource officer managed to thwart the potential kidnapping. The boy and his friends told police they were walking toward the Indian River County GoLine bus when a strange man wearing no shoes started following them and smiling in their direction. The child felt uncomfortable so he moved to the back of the crowd to distance himself from the stranger. He told his friends to let the man pass, according to arrest affidavits filed with the court. “The male then begins to run after the juvenile and grab for him,” writes John Clark with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Department. Koondo was saying he was there to get his kid and pointing at the boy. But, the child had never seen the man before, Clark wrote in a Aug. 25, 2016, affidavit. READ FULL STORY


Vero woman seeks to help Puerto Rico
week of October 5, 2017

Let there be no doubt: Vero Beach is Nicole Perez's home. But her house – the one she grew up in – is in Puerto Rico, which she still affectionately refers to as "my island." And it breaks her heart to see so many of the people there suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. "We love it here, but not a day goes by when I don't think about the island and what's happening to all those people," said Perez, a Puerto Rican native who attended the University of Florida and, after getting married and living in Miami, New York and suburban Kansas City, moved to Vero Beach nine years ago. "It hurts," she added. "It hurts a lot to see people with no power, no gasoline, no way to communicate, struggling to get food and water. They're saying it could take up to six months to get electricity back, and it will take even longer to rebuild. "As a mom, seeing children's hospitals being evacuated because there's no fuel for the generators . . . that was very difficult." READ FULL STORY


Hear, hear! Verizon signs on to Shores cell tower; construction to start soon
week of October 5, 2017

Indian River Shores residents eagerly awaiting better cell phone service have cause for hope: Verizon Wireless is now under contract to be on the town's long-planned cell phone tower, and the project is now expected to get underway this month. "You should see construction begin within the next two weeks," Town Manager Robbie Stabe told the council last Thursday. Stabe said the town’s contractor, Datapath Tower, would be working to pull permits on Friday. Adding to the optimism, Stabe said that a lease agreement with a second major carrier, which he would not name, is in the works. Last month, town officials voiced major concerns over changing economic factors making it more challenging to negotiate viable leases with cell phone carriers. With the smartphone market virtually saturated, carriers big and small have engaged in a global price war to pilfer customers – a practice that has shriveled the dollars available to ink pricey long-term leases for space on cell towers. READ FULL STORY


Vero church sued for failure to repay loan given by member
week of October 5, 2017

It was November 2009, in the darkest days of the Great Recession, when Lori Biermann and her late husband responded to their church’s call for help. The couple loaned $40,000 to Vero Vineyard Christian Church to help it through a rough patch, accepting the treasurer’s offer of a 120-month repayment plan at 9 percent interest. The idea was that loans from the Biermanns and other congregants would help the church bridge a cash-flow crisis, expand and increase its income enough to repay the money. It didn’t work out that way. Today, Biermann finds herself nearly $30,000 in the hole and facing mounting legal fees as she sues to get her money back. The church on 20th Street, where she raised so many of her prayers, has dissolved, and Tony Valentino, pastor at the time of the loan, resigned after “multiple moral failures” were divulged, according to William Mefford, who took Valentino’s place. Valentino took with him $20,000 when the church shut down – revenue from a 2016 sale of the church building – Mefford writes in a June 19 letter to the court, which attempted to explain the circumstances of the loan and disclaim responsibility for repayment. READ FULL STORY


State adding 7-foot-wide bike lanes on 17th Street
week of October 5, 2017

If you have been wondering what is going on along 17th Street between the Alma Lee Loy Bridge and U.S. 1, where heavy concrete barriers have been lined up reducing the number of traffic lanes, here is the answer: The Florida Department of Transportation is widening the roadway to add bike lanes. The work, which will result in 7-foot-wide bike lanes in each direction along that three-quarter-of-a-mile stretch, began in mid-August, and is expected to be completed in fall 2018. The budget for the roadwork, initially bid at $1.6 million, has since nearly doubled to $3.06 million. Kathleen Dempsey, speaking for project engineers The Corradino Group, explained the increase. “Initially this was solely a milling and resurfacing project,” Dempsey wrote in an email. “Then the project scope changed to include widening to accommodate bike lanes. The widening required installation of new drainage structures, a new mast arm, and additional asphalt and concrete.” The impetus for the larger project can be traced back to the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. READ FULL STORY


Shores Council approves luxury subdivision called The Strand
week of October 5, 2017

The Indian River Shores Town Council last Thursday approved a conceptual plan for what likely will be the last large-scale residential development ever built in the well-to-do six-mile stretch of the island. The Patten Company, a national real estate development firm with offices in Naples and Boca Raton, plans 47 substantial single-family homes and 21 townhomes on a parcel that extends from A1A to the Indian River Lagoon just north of Palm Island Plantation. “The community will have a coastal contemporary style that should blend with our existing neighbors,” said Patten Vice President of Acquisitions Katherine Dobbins, who bird-dogged the property and managed the purchase. “We will be selling lots as well as finished homes and are actively seeking local builders to join our preferred builder program, so that we will be able to offer several different models to buyers. We hope to break ground in early 2018.” Patten closed on the property June 30, paying $5 million for 34 acres of former grove land. The seller was Charleston Estates Vero LLC, an entity of Philadelphia billionaire Brook Lenfest, whose company Beachlen Development was active in Vero until recently. READ FULL STORY


School Board bid for relief from desegregation order going to judge
week of September 28, 2017

The School Board believes it has made substantial progress in fixing racial inequality in our public schools and wants to be let out from under some of the federal oversight it has been subjected to for nearly a half century. But the local NAACP disputes the board’s claims, and says little has been accomplished in recent years to comply with a federal desegregation order dating from the 1960s. U.S. District Court Judge Kathleen Williams will decide who is right. On Aug. 11, Williams ordered federal Magistrate Judge Shaniek Maynard to handle discovery in the case at the U.S. District Courthouse in Fort Pierce. An April 2018 trial date is expected. The desegregation order, which was imposed in 1968 and modified in 1994, defines eight school district functions in which whites and blacks were not treated equally that will remain under court oversight until corrected. The School Board believes it has created equality in three areas, and wants to be relieved of court oversight in those areas, filing for something called “partial unitary status” on July 31. The district cannot attain full “unitary status” until the court rules black and white students are treated equally in all regards and closes the case. READ FULL STORY


School Board sued over body slam by a wrestling coach
week of September 28, 2017

The Indian River County School Board is facing yet another lawsuit, this one filed by a mother who says her son suffered a broken collar bone when he was slammed to the ground by a wrestling coach at Vero Beach High School after the boy told the coach he was too tired to wrestle. In return, lawyers for the board pointed a finger at the minor child and his mother. In a court filing, Anthony Gonzales, an attorney with Carman, Beauchamp, Sang & Gonzales, P.A., said the boy could have been negligent in his participation at practice, and his mother may have been guilty of poor supervision for allowing her son to compete. Gonzales also argued the boy and his parents signed a waiver releasing the district from liability. Alene Ruggieri Angelone filed the complaint in December 2016 on behalf of her son with the help of Stuart-based law firm Stone and Capobianco. She is suing the school board and the coach, Brian Topp, in the 19th Circuit Court for damages in excess of $15,000. READ FULL STORY


Christ by the Sea reinstalls windows shattered by vandal
week of September 28, 2017

Almost six months after the Easter Week vandalism at Christ by the Sea United Methodist Church, during which several one-of-a-kind stained-glass windows were shattered, the repaired and now better-protected windows have been re-installed, and a dedication service is scheduled for this Sunday. After the three incidents of vandalism in April, the windows were shuttered, and the congregation celebrated Easter Sunday without the jewel-colored sunlight that normally floods into the sanctuary. Shock and sadness prevailed in the congregation as word of the damage spread, and no one appeared to have any idea of who might have done such a thing – or why. Pastor Cliff Melvin included the unknown perpetrator(s) in the congregational prayer on Easter Sunday. Then, on May 2, Vero Beach Police charged Keith Andrew McFarlane III with three felony counts of criminal mischief. McFarlane was a troubled 17-year-old at the time of the vandalism, but turned 18 while the case was moving through the courts. According to the Indian River County Courthouse Criminal Division, McFarlane has not been charged as an adult. READ FULL STORY


Irma destroyed up to half of Indian River citrus
week of September 28, 2017

Hurricane Irma, which blasted through citrus groves across the state, ripping trees apart and leaving young fruit in sodden heaps on the ground, dealt already struggling Indian River orange and grapefruit growers a devastating blow, destroying 30 to 50 percent of the crop. “Once fruit touches the ground, it can’t be salvaged,” said Indian River Citrus League Executive Director Doug Bournique, so all the wind-stripped grapefruits and oranges are compost. More fruit will be lost in a second drop, he said, withering due to twisting stress that damaged tender stems as high winds whipped though the groves. Florida University Extension Agent Gene McAvoy said Irma was “probably the worst hurricane that we’ve ever seen” in terms of damage to citrus groves. His assessment was backed up by Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who called the scope of damage “unprecedented” after a post-storm aerial tour of citrus lands. Bournique said the storm hit at the worst possible time, destroying the banner crop Indian River growers anticipated would get the industry out of the red for the first time since greening brought it to its knees over a decade ago. READ FULL STORY


Details of death of John Kim, aspiring politician, remain unclear
week of September 28, 2017

It’s clear a tragedy occurred with the death of well-liked Vero resident and aspiring politician John Kim, but considerable mystery surrounds the circumstances of how his body came to be found in a subdivision pond in St. Lucie County. So far, the only document made public by the St. Lucie Sheriff’s Office is a missing person’s report filed by Kim’s aunt, Terri Kim, who lives in Portofino Shores where Kim’s body was discovered around 11 a.m. last Tuesday, Sept. 19, a day and half after he went missing. An autopsy was performed on the 24-year-old man’s body the next day, and the Sheriff’s Office says “there were no signs of foul play,” but the report is not public record yet and it is unknown if drowning was the cause of death. A toxicology report will take about six weeks. READ FULL STORY


Owner of Village Shops Jay McLaughlin buys Garage Pizza
week of September 28, 2017

It’s been two years since Village Shops developer and national retailer Jay McLaughlin developed a yen for pizza that couldn’t be sated by Vero’s plethora of pizza parlors. He wanted to open a spot at his boutique shopping center in Indian River Shores, but when plans to install pizza ovens in a former flower shop in the plaza fizzled, he set his sights on the mainland. Last week, McLaughlin bought the business that was Garage Woodfired Pizza, which closed right after Hurricane Irma passed through Florida. That downtown pizza place at 1802 Old Dixie Highway opened in late 2015 under the creative hand of Michael Lander, former executive chef of the Moorings Club who went on to open the fine dining restaurant, Michael’s Table. Lander’s son Dylan, a culinary school graduate who eventually ran Garage Pizza on his own, has left Vero for a restaurant job in Colorado Springs. The building now leased by McLaughlin is a former Texaco station that Lander and his investors gutted and restored with red banquettes and a large 850-degree wood-fired pizza oven at its center. READ FULL STORY


Accused island murderer acts as own attorney at hearing
week of September 28, 2017

Asbury Perkins II, the island resident charged with the murder of his estranged wife, appeared Sept. 20 as both defendant and legal counsel in a contentious, hour-long hearing before Judge Cynthia Cox. Dressed in a red, jail-issue jumpsuit, with his legs shackled and hands bound in metal cuffs, Perkins demanded and got approval for a new investigative team to help prepare his defense. The accused was allowed to drop his public defender in August 2016 and is now representing himself pro se, a Latin phrase that means “on his own behalf.” Perkins was arrested in connection to the murder of Cynthia Betts in November 2015 after Indian River County sheriff’s deputies found him inside Betts’ home on Seagrape Drive with her body wrapped in a rug in the laundry room, according to an arrest affidavit filed with the court. There were garbage bags tied over her hands and her legs were separated. Someone had shot her in the back. There was a blood trail between the laundry room and a bedroom and detectives found a loaded .38 caliber revolver in a dresser drawer. READ FULL STORY


Storm slows the completion of St. Paul’s Church on the island
week of September 28, 2017

Hurricane Irma has delayed for at least a month the opening of St. Paul's Church, currently under construction on Flamevine Lane. St. Paul's Rector Jon Robbins was planning to welcome worshipers to the new sanctuary on Oct. 8, but he said the September storm – which produced 60-plus mph winds, more than a foot of rain and an evacuation of the island – has forced him to push back the date of the first public services to November. "Irma definitely has impacted us," Robbins said last week. "Exactly to what extent . . . and how much it will delay us, we're still figuring that out. "I suspect it's going to be at least a month, but I don't know for sure, so I'm reluctant to say," he added. "We're still in the process of working with the builder." Robbins said work on the new church, located just west of Ocean Drive in the Central Beach business district, came to a halt as the hurricane passed through the area. READ FULL STORY