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Killer of Simpson to defend himself in murder retrial
week of April 19, 2018

The man who has been serving a life sentence for the murder of Brian Simpson during the 2011 burglary of the Central Beach resident’s home will represent himself as he prepares for a new trial. Henry Lee Jones, 29, requested to be his own attorney in April just weeks after Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Cox refused to allow him a new public defender. His decision came despite the judge’s repeated warnings that such a move could prove dangerous and disadvantageous to his case. Jones, who was convicted of first-degree murder and burglary, was granted a second trial in 2017 after the Fourth District Court of Appeals overturned his earlier conviction. Justices argued a new trial was warranted because Jones’ public defender was not allowed to question potential jurors about racial prejudice or bias. Jones is black. Simpson, 41 at the time of his death, was white. Jones shot Simpson through a bathroom door after he and an associate got caught burglarizing the family’s Fiddlewood Road home, according to testimony at the trial. READ FULL STORY

‘Holding my son, I watched the flames in disbelief’
week of April 19, 2018

It was just after 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning when I woke to screams of “Help.” I roused my husband, and ran downstairs to see someone banging frantically on our sliding glass door. Panicked, I couldn’t get it unlocked so I ran out the front entrance and called 911. “Someone is screaming for help at my back door,” I said to the dispatcher. “I don’t know what is going on.” It was then I saw a plume of smoke billowing from my neighbor’s roof. Our homes shared a wall at the Oak Villas Condominiums. A man, whose name I can never remember, was lying motionless on the grass. “There’s a fire!” I told the woman on the phone. “Someone is badly hurt.” I gave her our address and hung up. Others were already outside calling for help. I needed to make sure my family was safe. “John!” I screamed into the doorway. “Get Charlie and come outside. There is a fire!” I have never felt more relieved than seeing my husband come down our stairs carrying our sleepy-eyed son. READ FULL STORY

Lifeguards say more towers needed to cope with increase in beachgoers
week of April 19, 2018

Vero Beach lifeguards say they need a new observation tower and command center at Humiston Park, so they’re preparing to raise the $250,000 necessary to build one. “There are so many people coming to our beaches, we’re finding that people are spreading out into unguarded areas north and south of the city parks,” said Erik Toomsoo, president of the Vero Beach Lifeguard Association, which plans to launch a fundraiser in the coming weeks. “We need to get a better vantage point so we can see farther down the beach,” he added. “The city has 4 miles of beach, but only 600 yards are in city parks protected by lifeguards, and most of our rescues are done outside the parks.” Thus far this year, the VBLA reported 40,430 beachgoers in January, 97,305 in February and 95,100 in March. The February figure shattered the previous monthly attendance record of 90,000, set in March 2015. Last month’s attendance was the largest ever for March, at least since the VBLA began tracking those numbers in 2011. READ FULL STORY

State law on beaches seen solution to problem that doesn’t exist here
week of April 19, 2018

If you own a piece of oceanfront property – and have always wanted to keep the public from pitching their umbrellas or setting up their chairs on the upper part of your “private” beach – a new state law would make it more difficult for cities or counties to prevent you from roping off some sand. While this has been a problem in other parts of Florida, particularly with hotels and beachfront restaurants, no one recalls this ever being an issue on the Indian River County barrier island – where people have always strolled and sunbathed anywhere they want along the 22.4 miles of beach stretching from the Sebastian Inlet south to Round Island Park. But what this new law signed into law last month does is provide that counties and cities can no longer pass ordinances declaring all beaches public under the common-law doctrine of “customary use.” Only three of Florida’s many coastal counties and cities had ever seen reason to pass such ordinances – Indian River County and Vero Beach not being among them – and local officials generally see little need here for, and little impact from, the new state law. READ FULL STORY

Three applicants seek seat on Shores Town Council
week of April 19, 2018

The Indian River Shores Town Council has three solid, qualified applicants to choose from when members convene on April 26 to select a replacement to serve out the balance of Brian Barefoot’s term until 2020, but one name stands out as a favorite. The town would be hard-pressed to find a more fitting person to continue Mayor Barefoot’s legacy than Thomas Slater. Former Councilman “Tom” Slater served one four-year term, but did not seek re-election in November 2016 due to serious health issues. Sad to see him go, the whole town and the council pulled for Slater to bounce back and fortunately he has. A long-time John’s Island resident, Slater stated in the application he submitted to the town that “now health is excellent and can serve properly.” In 2013 in one of the Shores’ few contested elections, Slater was the top vote-getter without really trying – he spent a whopping $45 on his campaign – and promised a thoughtful and deliberate approach to governing the Shores and being attuned to the wants and needs of the residents. He more than delivered once elected. READ FULL STORY

Shores keeps eye on Vero Electric sale
week of April 19, 2018

The next hurdle to closing the Vero electric sale to Florida Power & Light is to gain approval by the Florida Public Service Commission of the financial terms of the transaction. Since that process does not seem to be moving as speedily as the parties would have hoped, Indian River Shores has put its utility lawyer back on the payroll to keep an eye out. On March 9, Holland and Knight’s Bruce May, and Town Manager Robbie Stabe were added to both of the PSC cases pertaining to the Vero electric sale, as interested parties. This means that they are now a part of the official record and will be notified electronically of any activity in the case. Florida Power & Light filed two petitions or “dockets” regarding Vero electric – one for the PSC to sign off on the transaction as fair and equitable to FPL’s existing 4.9 million ratepayers. The other docket seeks PSC approval of a redrawing of FPL’s service territory to include the City of Vero Beach, portions of unincorporated Indian River County and the southern part of Indian River Shores currently served by Vero, pursuant to a closing. READ FULL STORY

Island resident gets 7 years for fraud in Connecticut
week of April 19, 2018

An island resident has been sentenced to seven years in federal prison for defrauding investors of $64 million in a real estate and financing scheme on the Connecticut Gold Coast. John DiMenna, 75, pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud in September and was ordered to report to prison July 9. The Bermuda Club resident has been called a “mini-Madoff” for his dishonest business practices in Connecticut from 2001-2015. Court documents show DiMenna and two associates used various entities such as Seaboard Realty, Seaboard Stamford Investment Group and Seaboard Properties Group to secure millions of dollars in capital for the purchase, renovation and construction of hotel and large multi-tenant apartment projects. The group would sell membership interests to investors and obtain funds from institutional lenders in exchange for mortgage and securities interest. DiMenna lied about the true cash value of the projects he oversaw and often borrowed money from prospering entities to make improvements and pay interest on failing ones, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. READ FULL STORY

Former manager of Nino’s pizzeria pleads to theft
week of April 12, 2018

Croce Giambanco and Brennan Baker were like father and son. The owner of Nino’s Café, a popular beachside pizzeria that has mainland locations as well, hired Baker when he was just a boy, impressed by his work ethic. The two worked together for more than a decade, as Giambanco taught Baker the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. He co-signed on a car loan for Baker and eventually promoted him to manager of the Easter Lily Lane pizzeria, across from Humiston Park. Then, one day, the business owner was forced to notify police that his long-time employee was stealing from the business. It was a call Giambanco said he never wanted to make. Giambanco and his attorney twice attempted to settle the $21,000 dispute out of court, offering Baker the option to repay the stolen funds, along with an outstanding personal loan. But, Brennan Baker, also known as “Red,” stopped making payments Jan. 31 and the business owner finally recommended criminal prosecution. READ FULL STORY

Speeders taking shortcut off A1A being targeted
week of April 12, 2018

Island motorists accustomed to cutting through on one of the "tree streets" in Central Beach to avoid A1A backups en route to the Barber bridge will want to cruise very carefully if they keep using that shortcut. Over the past week, Vero Beach Police have issued 39 citations and three written warnings to drivers on the quiet, canopied streets where residents have long complained about speeding cars. At the Vero Beach City Council meeting last Tuesday, Central Beach residents cited incidents of cars clipping bicycles, nearly hitting leashed dogs and even careening into one home, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. More than one said they had considered moving or wished they’d never bought into what they thought was a quiet, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where their kids could play and they could stroll with the family dog without fear of being run over. After hearing an hour’s worth of citizen complaints, the City Council directed staff to crack down on speeders with extra police coverage – which has resulted in all those tickets – and to gather traffic data for possible additional stop signs. READ FULL STORY

Publix moving ahead with plans for island market, liquor store
week of April 12, 2018

Plans for a Publix supermarket on the North Barrier Island are rolling forward like a loaded shopping cart. Shortly after a presentation to the Orchid Town Council and a chamber full of residents on April 4, Publix notified Town Manager Noah Powers it will proceed with an application to build an upscale market on a 7-acre property north on County Road 510 within the town’s boundaries. A parking lot full of golf carts and a Council Chamber packed with Orchid residents testified to the intense interest – and concern – the proposed project has generated among those who would be its neighbors, and the Publix team got an earful of questions, suggestions and concerns. The Florida-based company, currently one of the 10 largest-volume supermarket chains in the country, came prepared with slides, flipcharts, conceptual site plan drawings, and answers to most of the audience questions. At 31,000 square feet, the proposed island market will not be petite, but it will have a smaller footprint than a typical 45,000-square-foot Publix - and be about half the size of the Miracle Mile Publix. READ FULL STORY

After fire, Citrus Grillhouse to reopen with new look in October
week of April 12, 2018

Citrus Grillhouse chef/owner Scott Varricchio and partner Matt Gaston said their restaurant will be out of commission until October in the aftermath of a kitchen fire in the early morning hours of March 27 – a blow to island diners who patronize the popular seaside spot. On the plus side, Varricchio said, come October, customers will walk into a new-and-improved Citrus Grillhouse with a more open layout, lighter decor and quieter setting. “We’re moving quickly, trying to do everything we possibly can to get things cleaned up so we can start the makeover,” Gaston said last week as a ServiceMaster crew donned safety masks and continued to remove soot-covered, water-soaked floors, walls, ceilings and insulation. “We’ve got to re-do the entire interior,” he added, “but we need to get everything out first.” READ FULL STORY

Palm Island Plantation finds sweet spot in housing market
week of April 12, 2018

The final phase of development in Palm Island Plantation, 20 courtyard homes each priced around $900,000, will hopefully be sold out by December less than two years after construction began on the enclave, according to broker Steven Owen. “We started in January 2017 and we’ve already sold 14,” Owen says. “I’d be very surprised if we don’t sell another three or four in the next six weeks or so before everyone goes back north, and I am certain we will sell out by the end of the year.” The 58-acre Palm Island Plantation ocean-to-river community contains a mix of estate homes, carriage homes, townhomes, condominiums and courtyard homes, ranging from 2,300 to 6,000 square feet. “There will be only 131 units here at build-out,” says Palm Island Owen. “Other communities our size don’t have a beautiful beach club like ours. It is an exceptional amenity for a community this size.” “We only have 18 single-family lots left and we are building spec homes on some of those,” Owen says. “If the market stays strong, the entire community will be sold out in another 18 months.” READ FULL STORY

Piper’s China order would not be impacted by threatened tariffs
week of April 12, 2018

Piper Aircraft CEO Simon Caldecott said last week he does not expect the Vero Beach-based company to be hurt by the tariffs threatened by Beijing in response to President Trump's trade-war rhetoric targeting Chinese exports to the United States. He said the planes Piper is building for a Chinese aviation company, which ordered 150 training aircraft in February, are well below the weight range cited by China's commerce ministry on its list of U.S. imports that could be subject to duties. The list of American-made products that could be hit with retaliatory Chinese tariffs includes small aircraft, but only those weighing over 15,000 kilograms. "Currently, Piper Aircraft manufactures eight different models of aircraft with the largest weighing significantly less than 15,000 kilograms," Caldecott said in a statement. "While we are continuing to review the list of 106 products," he added, "given the current information available to us, we do not believe that Piper products will be subject to the described duties should China decide move forward with implementing the tariffs.” READ FULL STORY

Island jolted by smash-and-grab on Ocean Drive
week of April 5, 2018

Detectives on Monday were still looking for suspects in two island break-ins that rattled the nerves of oceanside residents last week. An unknown person smashed the front display window of Estate Jewelry of Orchid Island around 3 a.m. on Tuesday, March 27, and made off with 25 pieces of sterling silver jewelry, valued at around $4,000. The store is located at 3115 Ocean Drive in the heart of the upscale Central Beach shopping and dining district, across the street from the historic Driftwood Resort. Some of the jewelry was later found by a maintenance worker on the grounds of the Driftwood, according to Estate Jewelry manager Tom Grimshaw. “I feel bad this happened to this city, to the town of Vero – not that it was just our store – but that it happened here, because it doesn’t feel quite as safe now,” Grimshaw said. “It is upsetting that they would have the audacity to do this to anybody on this street.” READ FULL STORY

Brian Barefoot: Epitome of an elected official
week of April 5, 2018

Indian River Shores Mayor Brian Barefoot is the epitome of what an elected official should be, and that’s why he’s stepping down next week after five years of service to the town. He’s way overqualified for the job, so he’s not wrapped up in his office. He gets no power trip from being mayor of a town of a few thousand people. “This is not heavy lifting, there are other people who can do it,” Barefoot said. A John’s Island resident since 2008 and local property owner since 2000, Barefoot is known locally for his work with St. Edward’s School Board of Trustees during an important transition period for the school community, and with the Indian River Medical Center Foundation Executive Committee. A consultant and professional director, Barefoot is a former Executive Vice President and Director of Investment Banking at Paine Webber, and a current director of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, as well as President Emeritus of Babson College. READ FULL STORY

Several proposals for the relocation of historic house
week of April 5, 2018

After a story in Vero Beach 32963 revealed the historic, 108-year-old Laura Riding Jackson house was facing a costly relocation from its current location on the Environmental Learning Center’s Wabasso campus, house foundation president Marie Stiefel scheduled a public meeting to discuss options. The meeting, which took place in March at the Laura Riding Jackson Writing Center on 14th Street, revealed widespread interest in the quaint house, which is one of the few authentic Florida Cracker homes still standing in the county. “We have felt alone – but we’re not,” said Stiefel. The house’s uncertain future came to light last summer when house foundation board members met with ELC’s new leadership to discuss an ambitious multimillion-dollar expansion plan the environmental center has undertaken. They were told the ELC plans don’t include an ongoing role for Laura Riding Jackson’s one-time home. Stiefel said no specific timeframe was provided for when the structure would have to be moved, leaving the board uncertain about how best to proceed. READ FULL STORY

Any local buyer for the downtown Post Office?
week of April 5, 2018

The Vero Beach City Council has a $1.2 million offer on the table for the mid-Twentieth Century block structure that houses the downtown U.S. Post Office, plus the parking lots on either side of the building, but not everyone wants to sell it. The council announced recently that a resolution declaring the property surplus would be on the April 17 agenda. Should a majority of the council approve, City Manager Jim O’Connor said that resolution gives city staff the power to enter into a contract for sale. He said the city may hire a closing agent, but the potential buyer has offered to cover the cost of that agent and other expenses related to the closing. Members of the public questioned why the city would want to “lose control” of the property and what it might become down the road should the postal service ever move out, but Mayor Harry Howle is in favor of the sale for several reasons. “The city doesn’t have the best history when it comes to being a landlord,” he said. READ FULL STORY

Dodger Pines Country Club property remains vacant
week of April 5, 2018

More than 15 years have passed since the last round of golf was played at the Dodger Pines Country Club, and still the property sits idle. That's not likely to change anytime soon. "Obviously, we're planning to develop it at some point," said Jennifer Orsi, vice president of Sunfield Homes Inc., the New Port Richey-based development and real-estate company that owns the 222-acre property adjacent to the Vero Beach Regional Airport. "We put together a proposal a couple of years ago, but the city had some issues with the plan, so we've put things on hold for now." The issues, according to Vero Beach Planning Director Tim McGarry, involved the design of a proposed residential development of 780 single-family homes. Sunfield wanted to build a more traditional community with limited access and cul-de-sacs to put more homes on the property and, thus, generate greater profits. Under the city's master plan, however, the property is zoned for more "innovative land use," McGarry said, citing a desire for "more connectivity" within the development through a grid-like street pattern and more access roads into the community. READ FULL STORY

Victims’ plea for leniency spares Island Club burglar a long prison sentence
week of April 5, 2018

A plea for mercy by the victims of a north island home burglary has spared their neighbor, a 33-year-old opioid addict, from spending years of his life in prison. The Hon. Cynthia Cox sentenced Christopher Lockwood to just one year in the county jail followed by two years of probation. He had been facing between 4 and 125 years in prison for his crime. Lockwood pled no contest in December to burglarizing his neighbors’ Island Club home when they were out of town. He stole an estimated $9,000 worth of jewelry, fine cutlery and cash, pawning the items throughout the Treasure Coast and lying about their origins. Cox in March adjudicated Lockwood guilty on 11 felony counts for the crime, which happened in the summer of 2017. The charges include burglary, giving false information to a pawnbroker and dealing in stolen property. The negotiated plea is in the state’s best interest and the victims’ request for leniency justifies a deviation from the standard punishment, Cox told the defendant and his family at the sentencing hearing documented in transcripts provided by the 19th Judicial Circuit. READ FULL STORY

Cleveland Clinic may add Martin, St. Lucie to Vero
week of March 29, 2018

In January, Cleveland Clinic’s chief strategy officer told Vero hospital officials the health system wanted to add not just Indian River Medical Center but a string of hospitals to its Florida division. How soon? “Last week, if it were under our control,” she said. Increasingly, it appears Cleveland is getting control. With a letter of intent signed by Stuart-based Martin Health announced last Thursday, the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic may be poised to add not only Indian River Medical Center but up to four other coastal hospitals. After Boca Raton Regional Hospital announced earlier this month that Cleveland was a finalist in its partnering process, Martin Health revealed it was a step ahead of that, opting to forgo a lengthy courtship phase with multiple suitors and focus solely on a Cleveland merger. Currently in the midst of due diligence, Martin officials say no timeline for negotiations is included in the letter of intent. At maximum, talks could lead to a merger that would add Martin Health’s three hospitals to the lone hospital Cleveland has here now, in the southwest Broward County community of Weston. That is a two-hour drive from Vero Beach. READ FULL STORY

Prosecutor: State not stalling on road-rage shooting
week of March 29, 2018

State Attorney Bruce Colton flatly denied growing speculation that prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges in a fatal road-rage shooting in Vero Beach in November and are deliberately putting off an announcement in hopes the public will lose interest in the case. “That’s not true,” Colton told Vero Beach 32963 last week, adding that he had discussed the case with assistant state attorneys Steve Gosnell and Chris Taylor only days earlier “to see where we are” more than four months after the shooting. The top prosecutor in Florida’s 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Indian River County, Colton said the shooting remained under investigation – that witnesses were being re-interviewed, more detailed information was being gathered and evidence was still under review. He said most of the witnesses didn’t see anything until they had heard the shots. “We want to know all the facts, or as many as we possibly can, before we make a legal determination,” Colton said. “Once we do, we will make public our decision. Whether it’s a popular or unpopular decision, we’ll make a public statement, and let you know what it is and why. READ FULL STORY

Wachter retiring after 4 decades of service at St. Ed’s
week of March 29, 2018

A longtime leader at St. Edward’s, Bruce Wachter, is retiring after a remarkable 45 years at the private barrier island school. Wachter is concluding his career of service June 30 as Associate Head of School and Head of Upper School. His wife Joanie is retiring at the same time, after 40 years at the school – she took five years off to have their daughters – teaching in a variety of elementary grades and serving for the past 22 years as the Lower School technology coordinator. Bruce Wachter began working at St. Edward’s in 1973, eight years after the school was founded and one year after the Upper School opened its doors. He had just graduated from the College of William and Mary and was barely older than some students when he arrived as a first-year teacher, along with the school’s first senior class. “The interesting thing is that members of that class are now, at the very least, eligible for social security and many are probably receiving it,” Wachter says. “Which I think is kind of fun. I was 22 and many of them were 18.” READ FULL STORY

More progress on electric sale but the deal not done yet
week of March 29, 2018

The Florida Municipal Power Agency unanimously approved Vero Beach’s exit from the statewide electric co-op on March 21. Now the city needs the Florida Public Service Commission to approve the sale of Vero’s electric utility to Florida Power & Light, so the deal can close as planned on Oct. 1. The PSC has not yet scheduled a hearing to approve the sale or redraw FPL’s territory to encompass Vero’s 34,000 customers. Vero and FPL officials had been hopeful the matter might get a final hearing before the PSC in late April, but that probably will not happen until May. The PSC is tasked with making sure the $185 million purchase price, plus all ancillary agreements and considerations, are fair and equitable to FPL’s 4.9 million customers across Florida. To that end, it has conducted an audit of the proposed transaction, and now it appears PSC attorneys are digging into the side deal FPL made with the Orlando Utilities Commission, agreeing to pay a reported $25 million extra to OUC to avoid a lawsuit over the size of Vero’s exit penalty from a power-buying agreement. READ FULL STORY

Man accused of sex crime at Disney resort in plea deal
week of March 29, 2018

A Kentucky man accused of having unwanted sexual relations with a 21-year-old schizophrenic woman at Disney’s Vero Beach Resort has pleaded to a reduced charge, avoiding the possibility of spending decades in prison. Farhad Zakerhaghighi, 61, struck a deal with prosecutors this month, avoiding the felony charge of sexual battery on a person with a mental defect. He pled no contest March 13 to misdemeanor battery and now faces no more than one year of his life behind bars, as compared to a 30-year maximum for the original felony charge. A sentencing hearing is set for May 21 in Circuit Court Judge Cynthia Cox’s Vero Beach courtroom. The defense is seeking to avoid jail time altogether, said attorney Andrew Metcalf, who represents Zakerhaghighi. He said his client denies guilt and accepted the plea because he felt it was in his best interest. A detective with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office responded to the beachside resort July 11, 2016, according to a warrant affidavit filed with the court. READ FULL STORY

Tiny ‘offending’ image leads IRMC to toss large artwork
week of March 22, 2018

Retired CEO Duke Habernickel spent two years assembling the 2,400 photos he shot for his “Studies in Green,” a 30-foot-long montage that recently hung in the annual John’s Island art show. And still a tile or two can suddenly catch his eye. “Look at that,” he said a half-dozen times one morning last week, interrupting his own interview to lean in at an image. Habernickel believes that a single photo will draw in a particular person for a reason. At least that’s how he explains how a hospital executive stepped out of her office last week and zeroed in on one 2-inch by 2-inch slightly risqué photo out of the vast wall of images. “And that was it,” said Habernickel. “After that, this thing was non grata.” It happened just minutes after the artwork was installed outside an Indian River Medical Center waiting room, a dream for Habernickel, who wanted the artwork displayed where it would serve a purpose: distracting and delighting people in a stressful situation. READ FULL STORY

Hospital seeks to reduce delays at jammed ER
week of March 22, 2018

A bad flu season combined with drastic staff cuts at the county’s health department have combined to jam up patient flow at Indian River Medical Center, making emergency room waits longer. Last week, IRMC’s interim CEO Karen Davis described to the Hospital District board a systemwide effort to ease congestion at the hospital resulting from a 10-percent increase in patients. “It’s just a crunch everywhere,” said Davis. “Every bed that we can physically put in that building, we have put in. “We’ve moved people out of offices [to make room for patients] . . . I don’t want to leave the chair in my office for long for fear that someone will be in that chair too.” Davis anticipates that some of the estimated 600 patients a month who are being turned away by the Health Department due to recent cuts in primary care will be turning to the ER for treatment. Some may be arriving for minor non-emergency problems, while others will have true emergencies that are the result of not having been treated at an earlier stage. READ FULL STORY

Island’s biggest house, sold 3 months ago, back on market for $29.9M
week of March 22, 2018

The biggest house on the barrier island, auctioned off for $19.6 million just three months ago, is back on the market for $29.9 million. The investment group that bought the property put “several million dollars” into redecorating and refurbishing the 40,800-square-foot estate in hopes of flipping it at a profit, according to Premier Estate Properties broker associate Clark French. “As soon as the sale closed in January, the owners turned over the keys and a very generous budget and we’ve had dozens of workers in there putting in 18-hour days, completely redoing all the finishes and putting in all new furniture,” French said. The revamped house, located at 1940 S. A1A in the Estate Section, was debuted at a party earlier this month attended by more than 300 potential buyers and influence brokers, according to French. Hosted by Jonathan Goldsmith, who played “The Most Interesting Man in the World” in Dos Equis beer commercials for 10 years, the party featured luxury product displays by Mercedes Benz and Rolex, along with a premium tequila bar serving Astral tequila, the brand Goldsmith now represents. READ FULL STORY

Dr. Anton Post out as director of Harbor Branch after just 15 months
week of March 22, 2018

After just 15 months on the job, Dr. Anton Post is out as executive director of Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, but Florida Atlantic University is portraying the move in a positive light. Harbor Branch has seen considerable turmoil and uncertainty since longtime executive director Margaret Leinen left to take a job at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego in 2013, with an unpopular interim executive director overseeing the decline of its marine mammal rescue and research program, and a lawsuit filed by the Harbor Branch Foundation against FAU. When Post, a renowned oceanographer with a blue chip career, was hired to lead the Institute in November 2016, many viewed it as a new beginning and hoped for smoother sailing going forward. Now, though, Post is gone, replaced by James Sullivan, Ph.D., who was appointed interim director last week. A principal Investigator and research professor for the last three years, Sullivan is a “rising star,” according to university insiders. His concentration on harmful algae blooms in the Indian River Lagoon and the applied science and solutions that may come from the research have gained notice. READ FULL STORY

Weapons indictment added to drug charges against Vero doctor
week of March 22, 2018

Vero Beach spine surgeon Johnny Benjamin was indicted a second time by a federal grand jury this month as prosecutors added an additional weapons charge to the doctor’s litany of drug charges. Two codefendants, the informants who cooperated with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as it investigated Benjamin, were named for the first time and indicted on multiple drug charges. Zachary Steward and Keven George Slater were charged with one count of conspiring with Benjamin in Palm Beach County to possess and distribute a controlled substance resulting in death; one count of distribution there during the fall of 2016; and an additional count for illegal distribution of a controlled substance in Indian River County as early as January of that year. Each defendant faces 20 years to life in prison if convicted. The two informants agreed to work with the DEA in exchange for consideration of cooperation at sentencing, court documents note. One secretly recorded multiple conversations with Benjamin to help investigators gather evidence. Bond for both men was set at $250,000 each last week. READ FULL STORY

2 nursing aides arrested for defrauding John’s Island couple
week of March 22, 2018

Police arrested a pair of home healthcare aides last week claiming they defrauded a John’s Island couple and spent more than $500,000 of their elderly clients’ money on personal expenses and luxury goods, including a Bahamian cruise, a stay at the Plaza Hotel in New York City and a five-day Rolls Royce Ghost rental priced at more than $900 a day. Both victims suffered from dementia and cognitive impairment and one of them passed away during the early stages of the investigation, adding urgency to the detectives’ work, Indian River Shores Police Chief Rich Rosell said. Officers at the Shores Public Safety Department didn’t stop working on behalf of the victims when the suspects were behind bars, Rosell added. The lead detective on the case went to ask credit card companies to forgive the stolen debt. He was able to get Citibank and American Express to forgive over $400,000 in fraudulent debt. Police allege Chiquita McGee, 29, and Sophia (Brown) Shepherd, 30, both of Vero Beach, used their position as caregivers to take advantage of their elderly and disabled clients. READ FULL STORY

FMPA approves letting Vero exit statewide power co-op
week of March 22, 2018

By the time Vero Beach 32963 hit mailboxes this week, the Florida Municipal Power Agency had voted to allow the City of Vero Beach to exit the statewide electric co-op. The vote was scheduled to happen last Thursday morning (March 15), and a motion to approve the long-awaited escape had been made and seconded, but then electric co-op members got nervous about not having enough time to review four complex resolutions presented to them only hours prior to the meeting in Orlando. So the critical vote needed before the city closes on its $185 million sale of the Vero Beach electric utility to Florida Power & Light was tabled for one week. The 19 member cities that have ownership stakes in FMPA’s power projects, along with Vero Beach, have already approved the Vero sale and exit from the electric business in concept. Over the past five months, FMPA officials traveled the state educating city officials about the details of the exit agreement and each governing board has given the formal go-ahead for that city’s designee to approve the deal. READ FULL STORY

Doctor: $2.5M fraud settlement was ‘shakedown’
week of March 15, 2018

A healthcare fraud case against the founder of Treasure Coast Dermatology was dismissed in federal court last week after Dr. Tim Ioannides agreed to a $2.5 million settlement with the U.S. Government. The move comes years after a former patient told authorities the physician allegedly billed Medicare for a procedure she never had, a violation of the False Claims Act. Ioannides, a Vero Beach island resident who owns dermatology offices in Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties, insisted he had done nothing wrong. He called the government and its lawyers corrupt and termed what happened to him a “shakedown.” Ioannides’ deal does not admit liability and the allegations against the doctor were never proven. His medical license is unaltered, though his billing practices and books will be now subject to additional audits as part of an integrity agreement. The patient who brought the original complaint to the government will receive $475,000 in the multimillion-dollar settlement deal. The False Claims Act allows whistleblowers to receive a portion of any financial recovery the U.S. Government is awarded. READ FULL STORY

Daughter on Teel shooting: ‘I wish deputy had waited’
week of March 15, 2018

The daughter of a woman shot and killed by an Indian River County Sheriff’s deputy responding to an attempted suicide call told investigators she wished she had never dialed 911. In documents released to Vero Beach 32963, Susan Teel’s family details the horrific events leading up to her tragic death and their thoughts on law enforcement’s handing of the situation. Interview transcripts were provided by the Office of the State Attorney in response to a public records request. The agency conducted an investigation into the fatal incident last July and brought its findings to a grand jury for review. The officer was cleared of both criminal and administrative wrongdoing, though an attorney for the Teel family has notified the Sheriff’s Office of intent to file a civil complaint. Susan Teel was shot within minutes of Deputy Jonathan Lozada arriving at her home. The confrontation between the distraught woman and deputy happened so fast, her husband, an emergency room physician, didn’t even make it up the stairs before his wife was shot. READ FULL STORY

New questions raised about effectiveness of Spoonbill Marsh
week of March 15, 2018

Indian River County’s controversial $4 million Spoonbill Marsh facility may be contributing to the nitrogen load in the lagoon instead of reducing it, according to two concerned citizens who have successfully petitioned the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to hold a public hearing on the matter. Nitrogen, which comes mainly from fertilizer runoff and faulty septic systems, is harmful to the lagoon because it feeds algae blooms that kill seagrass and smother marine life. Barry Schapiro, a retired advertising executive and environmental activist, and Carter Taylor, former president of the Indian River Neighborhood Association and a long-time member of its lagoon committee, say nitrogen input and output numbers the county self-reports and sends to the FDEP grossly inflate the nutrient-removing capabilities of the marsh to meet an environmental benefit level the facility must show to remain in compliance with its permit. The county constructed the 67-acre Spoonbill Marsh in 2008, on the western shore of the lagoon north of Grand Harbor. It is intended to treat mineral-rich effluent left over from drinking water purification – which environmental regulations prohibit from being dumped directly into the lagoon – by mixing it with lagoon water and filtering it. READ FULL STORY

Vero Beach looking for ways to improve municipal marina
week of March 15, 2018

With the Vero Beach Municipal Marina at capacity much of the season, and well-used year around, the city government is fishing for ideas on how to run it efficiently enough to afford upkeep and much-needed renovations. The marina is technically a municipal enterprise fund, meaning it is supposed to be self-supporting, and this year, the marina’s submitted $1.7 million budget looks balanced. But that hasn’t always been the case. The city has frequently bailed the marina out, using property tax dollars, on the premise that having such an amenity enhances the overall quality of life in Vero Beach and helps boost the local economy. The marina’s website states that more than 3,000 vessels visit per year, resulting in 20,000 overnight stays. Slips and mooring ball spots are rented nightly, weekly and monthly, and people staying over on their boats spend money at stores, restaurants and other venues. City Manager Jim O’Connor recently announced a possible solution to the recurring bailout problem that could right the ship, but it would take a major infusion of cash. READ FULL STORY

Will Boca hospital join IRMC as part of Cleveland Clinic?
week of March 15, 2018

Boca Raton Regional Hospital announced Wednesday that Cleveland Clinic, slated to take over IRMC later this year, made the cut out of 12 hospital systems and is now one of five finalists to assume control of 400-bed Boca hospital as well. Boca is a bit behind Vero in the partnership process, though it appears they could catch up. According to Thomas Chakurda, Boca Regional’s vice president of marketing, he expects “to conclude the process this summer.” Indian River and Cleveland are expected to have negotiated a definitive agreement by the beginning of June, with closing anticipated by August, following state and federal approvals. For now, the Boca hospital is also considering Orlando Health, one of Indian River’s finalists, along with Miami-based Baptist Health South Florida; Hollywood-based Memorial Healthcare, parent of Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital; and Novant Health, a North Carolina-based system that has not yet entered the Florida market. Boca Regional’s pursuit of a partner began in earnest last June when the hospital formed a steering committee that served much the same purpose as the Collaborative Committee in Vero Beach. READ FULL STORY

$6.9m north island ceanfront spec home coming onto market
week of March 15, 2018

North Shore Club developer Yane Zana is happy with the progress of his boutique luxury community, located on the ocean between Sea Oaks and Disney’s Vero Beach Resort, and probably has good reason to feel that way. His latest North Shore spec home is hitting the market at the height of the barrier island’s busy season, when homebuyers are abundant. The county issued a certificate of occupancy in late February, and the $6.9 million oceanfront estate will make its debut at a gala open house later this month. What makes the timing even better is a lack of competing product. There are only two similar new oceanfront homes on the island, one that is nearing completion in Castaway Cove listed for $7.9 million and a spec house about the same size as Zana’s in the Estate Section offered for $9.9 million. “I try to keep my feet on the ground about pricing,” Zana says. “I think we are offering good value for new oceanfront construction on a large lot.” READ FULL STORY