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Drug doctor’s lawyers bid to recall jurors
week of May 17, 2018

Lawyers for Johnny Benjamin, the former Vero Beach spine surgeon facing life in prison on federal drug charges, clashed with prosecutors last week over a defense bid to bring the jurors who convicted the island resident back for the court room for questioning. Donnie Murrell, the lead West Palm Beach trial attorney on Benjamin’s case, asked the judge May 1 to recall the jury. Benjamin was convicted and jurors discharged April 27. After the panel was excused, a clerk found a document entitled “Here are 30 do’s and don’ts of jury deliberations,” Murrell wrote the court. While the list itself isn’t clearly prejudicial, its presence is proof that at least one juror ignored the court’s instructions and conducted their own outside research. “The concern, of course, is what is unknown here,” Murrell stated. “What other materials, if any, were brought into the jury room? If other material was introduced, how many jurors were exposed to it? Did it have an impact on their deliberations and/or the ultimate verdict? Unfortunately, the only way to determine the answers to these questions is to summon the jurors back to the courthouse and ask them.” READ FULL STORY

Director who brought big names to Sunrise Theatre dumped
week of May 17, 2018

When the City of Fort Pierce took over the historic Sunrise Theatre after a donor-funded $11 million renovation, officials apparently didn’t understand what the president of the board during that decade-long renovation, Vero attorney Michael Horowitz, says he already knew: “Theatres never make money, never,” Horowitz says. Now, the man Horowitz hired to bring big-city talent to the small-town theatre, John Wilkes, has been let go by Fort Pierce’s city manager. An interim director has been appointed – Sharon Engle, Wilkes’ assistant at Sunrise, while a search for Wilkes’ replacement is expected to take several months. The city intends to hold a public workshop in June to see what people “desire for the future of the Sunrise Theatre.” Wilkes, 65, had been chief operating officer of West Palm’s Kravis Center and executive director of Sarasota’s Van Wezel Hall before joining the Sunrise in 2008. An Ontario native who once handled booking for Toronto’s 10,000-seat arena, Wilkes had developed countless personal connections from his long career. READ FULL STORY

Tipster says Burkeen’s co-workers knew the boss was stealing tires
week of May 17, 2018

The day after retired Assistant Fire Chief Brian Burkeen was arrested for an alleged black-market tire sales scheme, Indian River County Commissioner Tim Zorc got an anonymous tip. While the community at-large might have been shocked to see Burkeen’s alleged fall from grace, those who worked alongside him knew what their boss was up to, but were too afraid to report him, the informant said. “There was a very real fear of retribution among the firefighters, so no one turned Burkeen in, though it was pretty widely known what he was doing,” the message states, according to e-mails obtained by Vero Beach 32963. “[The] County might want to institute some sort of anonymous tip line for waste and theft,” it said. Burkeen, 55, a longtime county official who also briefly served on the Sebastian City Council, was purchasing new tires at Goodyear stores using county funds and then selling them to private buyers he met at work and online, police say. READ FULL STORY

Sheriff seeks extra funds to cover cost of a lawman for every school
week of May 17, 2018

Sheriff Deryl Loar is asking for extra money in his 2018-19 budget to hire up to 15 new deputies to meet the state’s requirement that a law-enforcement officer be assigned to every public school. In the wake of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that mandated the beefed-up security on school campuses. To meet that demand, Loar was forced to temporarily reassign deputies to the School Resource Officer program for the remainder of the soon-to-end academic year – changes he said put a strain on the agency’s staffing and budget, since the School District covers only about half the cost of the additional manpower. “It’s definitely been a challenge since March,” Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers said. “We didn’t want to reduce our presence on the road, so we didn’t reassign anybody from our road patrol division. But it has impacted some of our specialty deputies.” Flowers said deputies from other units – crime prevention, agriculture, marine and traffic, as well as background investigators – were temporarily reassigned to schools. READ FULL STORY

Cleveland Clinic a finalist to acquire Boca Raton hospital
week of May 17, 2018

Cleveland Clinic Florida has made it into the final round of health systems being considered by Boca Raton Regional Hospital. From a field of five announced in March, Boca Regional leaders have narrowed the field to two: Cleveland Clinic and Baptist Health South Florida. Orlando Health, a one-time suitor of Indian River Medical Center, did not make the cut. Boca’s search for a partner began in earnest in June 2017, a month after CEO Jerry Fidele announced he intended to retire in August 2018. Earlier this month, Fidele, widely respected for having turned the hospital around 18 months into his 10-year tenure, announced he is postponing his retirement by a year to ease the hospital’s transition to new ownership. Should Cleveland win out over Baptist, the addition of the 400-bed Boca hospital would provide a geographic lynchpin for a proposed South Florida-based system that appears to have Indian River Medical Center in Vero as its northernmost presence. Negotiations between Cleveland Clinic and Indian River are in the final stages, and advisor Jamie Burgdorfer said the transaction is “moving along well.” READ FULL STORY

Two oceanfront homes to be auctioned off in June
week of May 17, 2018

Concierge Auctions, which has become a regular player in Vero’s luxury real estate market, is getting ready to sell two more oceanfront homes on the island in June. The sales will come on top of six Concierge auctions here in 2017. One home, currently listed at $6.7 million by Sally Daley & Company Real Estate, is located at 1804 Ocean Drive in Old Riomar. The other, at 908 Holoma, behind the Village Shops in Indian River Shores, is listed with Premier Estate Properties broker associate Cindy O’Dare for $2.3 million. Both homes will be sold at no-reserve online auctions. Bidding will begin at 4 p.m. on June 12 and continue through June 15, to accommodate bidders in other time zones and countries. Bidders are required to put up a refundable $100,000 deposit and show proof of funds sufficient to close if they are the high bidder. The Riomar house is a beautiful example of the British West Indies-style, solidly built on pilings at a high elevation in 2012 in accordance with Florida’s updated building codes. READ FULL STORY

School superintendent plays fast and loose in presenting report card
week of May 17, 2018

Superintendent Mark Rendell tried to make the case that things are going great in the School District to the Indian River Taxpayers Association luncheon last week, and some of his claims played fast and loose with the facts. The guest speaker reported the School District was named “best place to work” in Indian River County last year, which is something he might well be proud of, and claimed the honor was based on results of employee surveys. In reality, CareerSource based the award on a single survey completed by an administrator. The questionnaire was filled out by then-Assistant Superintendent William Fritz, whose contract was not renewed. As head of the Human Resources Department, Fritz negotiated union contracts that ended in impasses last year, imposing big hikes in employee insurance premiums to make up for a $7 million deficit in the health insurance fund, which he also oversaw. Rendell said the district has given raises the last three years to teachers, resulting in a nearly $48,000 average teacher salary, which matches the state average. He added that Indian River’s average beats out surrounding counties. READ FULL STORY

UF psychiatry clinic gets funds to remain open
week of May 10, 2018

It seemed a sad way to spend a 10th birthday. The Vero Beach-based University of Florida Center for Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine, which over the course of a decade has become a critical element in Indian River County’s mental health services, learned that UF’s College of Medicine planned to close the satellite clinic if faced with another $300,000 shortfall for the upcoming academic year. Providing both adult and child psychiatric services with three psychiatrists and an addictionologist, the center also trains University of Florida medical students and fellows, bringing fresh young doctors into the Vero Beach – and with luck, some of them stay when their studies are over. Fortunately, the next crop of interns, residents and fellows can continue making plans to spend the year in Vero starting next month. The financial crisis appears to have been averted – at least for the moment. Bridge funding by the Indian River Hospital District and last week, another round of meetings with the United Way, all but assured the clinic doors would be kept open another year, according to Dr. Wayne Creelman, the center’s director since its inception. He said plans are being developed to secure the clinic’s future for the next five years. READ FULL STORY

Vero Beach looking for firm to take over city marina
week of May 10, 2018

The City of Vero Beach is fishing for competitive proposals to take over the city marina. Two months ago, City Manager Jim O’Connor reached out to a national marina management firm to get some input about the strengths and weaknesses of the city’s current marina operations. The good news is that the marina is well-liked and well-used. The bad news is that the city has dragged its feet on needed maintenance and repairs, partially out of budget constraints and partially out of indecision among council members. O’Connor said that in his opinion, farming out the management of the marina would only add an extra layer of costs for few benefits, and that the city would likely still get stuck with major capital improvements. A lease, he said could be a better option. He found six firms, some of them out of state, that could lease and operate the marina. The next step is to go to those firms and ask for them for a letter of interest. “I would like them to come down and visit the marina so they know what we have and the conditions that we’re looking at,” O’Connor said. READ FULL STORY

County landfill hits height limit, so new section to be opened
week of May 10, 2018

Mount Dump, the highest elevation in Indian River County, is finally topping out at 180 feet. The 25-acre mound of garbage has reached the height limit imposed by the state – you can see the dirt covered hill from I-95 – and a new section of the Indian River County Landfill needs to be opened. Engineering and construction costs to close and cap the old section, or cell, will be approximately $10 million, and it will cost another $8 million to put in the infrastructure for the new 11-acre section. The work will take about a year and a half to complete. The county commission last month approved a contract for both phases of construction with low-bidder Thalle Construction Company of Hillsborough, N.C., for a little over $16 million. Engineering and design work, awarded to CDM Smith of Vero Beach in July 2017, will total a little over $2 million by project end. The county has money for the closure on hand in a DEP-mandated escrow account, but only has about $2.2 million available to build the new section, leaving it $5.8 million short. READ FULL STORY

St. Ed’s sues family for breach of contract
week of May 10, 2018

Vero Beach’s private island school filed a lawsuit against the mother of a fifth-grader in circuit court last month alleging a breach in the student’s enrollment contract. The courtroom maneuver, intended to recoup some $19,000 in lost tuition, legal damages and fees, is a familiar financial strategy for Saint Edward’s School, which has filed at least eight similar lawsuits in the last decade. A 2012 New York Times article detailed the emerging trend of private schools suing for past due tuition. Parents face large bills even when their children never attended classes, it says. Contracts are written with very specific deadlines which parents are held to regardless of personal circumstance. Schools, like Saint Edward’s, claim such actions help cover unplanned tuition losses, but parents have argued their child’s spot could easily be filled. Court decisions have been mixed, some favoring schools and some favoring parents, and many cases settle out of court with nondisclosure agreements. The most recent suit filed by St. Ed’s alleges a Port St. Lucie mother made a $2,099 deposit for her son’s enrollment in March of 2017 but paid nothing after. READ FULL STORY

Residents fear Publix would increase traffic on Jungle Trail
week of May 10, 2018

Residents living near, but not in, the Town of Orchid who are opposed to the proposal to build a Publix on County Road 510 say the supermarket would increase traffic on Jungle Trail, contending that shoppers would use the historic road as a cut-through to Windsor and other communities on the northern tier of the barrier island. County planners downplayed their concerns. Both Stan Boling, the county's community development director, and Phil Matson, staff director of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization, said it was unlikely a significant number of shoppers would opt for an unpaved road with a 30-mph speed limit as a shortcut to and from the store. "I don't think they would drive a mile on an unpaved roadway when they could take 510 to A1A, which is a smoother and faster route," Boling said. "There would be no direct access to Jungle Trail from the supermarket site – you'd have to go out to 510, anyway – and there's really not that much congestion at the 510-A1A intersection. READ FULL STORY

Signs of increased pollution at Blue Cypress Lake reported
week of May 10, 2018

County Commissioner Bob Solari raised the alarm last week about deteriorating conditions at Blue Cypress Lake, where increasing phosphorous levels have raised the specter of algae blooms that could kill off plant and animal life and be dangerous to boaters and fishermen. St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman attributes the surge in phosphorus to human sewage sludge being used as fertilizer by farms in the watershed. More than 16 million pounds of the phosphorous- and nitrogen-laden waste material was imported into Indian River County and spread on fields near the lake in 2016, according to the Florida Department Environmental Protection. With a surface area of nearly 11 square miles, Blue Cypress is the largest lake along the Treasure Coast, a relatively unspoiled ecosystem that produces abundant fish life and is one of the two most prolific osprey breeding sites in the world, according to the American Ornithological Society, with 300 breeding pairs returning year after year to huge nests built in the lake’s namesake cypress trees. READ FULL STORY

Yearly financial report shows county is lean and growing
week of May 10, 2018

Indian River County’s population is the highest ever, land values are close to pre-recession levels, the average wage is up and unemployment is down. Despite fat times, however, the county is remaining conservative in its spending and is paying down debt, according to the financial report for fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017. Indian River County Clerk of the Court and Comptroller Jeff Smith presented the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report to the County Commission last month. It reveals the county had a rare, totally clean audit. The independent auditing firm, Rehmann Robson CPA, had no negative findings and no comments on the county’s finances, which include the general and special funds and the budgets for the county’s five elected constitutional offices: the sheriff’s department, tax collector, property appraiser, supervisor of elections and clerk of the court/comptroller. Smith said the county is fiscally conservative and limits government. Direct services – public safety – which includes the sheriff’s office, firefighters and emergency services, comprises 46 percent of expenditures at $83.4 million, he said, while general government is less than 14 percent, at about $24.7 million. READ FULL STORY

Island burglaries may be work of gang active in 3 counties
week of May 10, 2018

Indian River Shores Public Safety officers are working with multiple law enforcement agencies on the Space and Treasure Coasts, pooling information on home burglaries in hopes they can take down a stolen property ring that has hit several barrier island homes over the past month. Det. Kip Benham said two homes have been burglarized in the Shores, plus one attempted burglary since March 26. Suspects were caught on video surveillance inside one victim’s home on April 16 around 1 p.m., in middle of the day. The footage shows three black males who appear to be in their 20s in the living room of a home on Indian Lane in the Shores where valuables were taken. Though he couldn’t reveal the details or specific methods involved in the ongoing, regional investigation, Benham said the burglars are grabbing small items – mostly cash, jewelry, firearms and phones – and systematically off-loading them for quick cash. Police believe two other island burglaries could be related to the Shores break-ins, one that happened in Central Beach, on Silver Shores Road in the City of Vero Beach, within a half-hour of the April 16 Shores burglary, and another in Ambersand Beach in the Sheriff’s Office territory on the unincorporated barrier island north of Windsor. READ FULL STORY

John’s Island building apartment complex for seasonal staff
week of May 10, 2018

After more than 20 years of housing seasonal workers in leased apartments in the Vero Beach area, John's Island's Club is building its own mainland apartment complex at the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 15th Place. The 4.2-acre parcel was recently cleared, and the club has hired Proctor Construction to build three two-story buildings that will provide 12 two-bedroom and 24 three-bedroom apartments to be leased exclusively by the club's employees, mainly seasonal workers from out of town. John’s Island, which has about 275 year-round employees, typically hires an additional 250 employees in the busy winter season to bulk up its restaurant, golf course, and housekeeping staffs. Club General Manager Brian Kroh said the project – county records list it as the John's Island Club Workforce Apartments – is expected to be completed by October 2019. "We're not getting into the apartment-rental business," Kroh said. "This is just for the John's Island staff. We understand that these apartments will probably have limited use, mostly during our busy season, but there will be some people who will use them on a year-round basis. This will enhance our ability to hire the people we want to work at John's Island." READ FULL STORY

Generally good job, unemployment news for county
week of May 10, 2018

Local employment in the financial activities, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing industries grew faster than the statewide rate over the past year, adding nearly 1,000 jobs to the county's work force. According to a CareerSource Research Coast report comparing employment in the Sebastian-Vero Beach market to the state's other metropolitan areas from March 2017 to March 2018, the local economy posted the fastest annual job-growth rate – 8 percent – in the financial activities industry. It also racked up the second-fastest annual job-growth rate (6.9 percent) in the leisure and hospitality industry, and the third-fastest annual job-growth rate (3.7 percent) in "other services," a catch-all category that includes auto repair, car washes, hair salons, funeral homes, pet care and religious organizations. Local employment in the manufacturing industry jumped 5.3 percent. On the flip side, however, the employment rate in the Sebastian-Vero Beach metro area barely moved – up 1 percent for a net increase of 500 jobs – because of losses in other industries, particularly professional and business services, which had 300 fewer workers. READ FULL STORY

Drug-dealing doctor facing life in prison
week of May 3, 2018

A federal magistrate was introduced to two sides of Dr. Johnny Benjamin six months ago as he contemplated whether the surgeon, facing felony criminal drug charges, should be granted pretrial release. There was the Vero Beach physician held in high esteem by his neighbors and peers, a respected community member with no children of his own who once offered to help pay for a high school valedictorian’s college education after hearing about her financial struggle. And then there was the debt-stricken doctor who abused his privilege and profession for personal and monetary gain. This man took advantage of America’s opioid addiction and supplied toxic painkillers to users on the street with little regard for human life. Benjamin had “guns galore” at his island home on Painted Bunting Lane, federal prosecutors alleged, as the doctor stood across the courtroom from them weeks after his Oct. 12 arrest wearing blue prison scrubs and shackles. A woman is dead because of this doctor’s poisonous trade, they said. He is too dangerous to be allowed to go home. READ FULL STORY

Sebastian River gets failing grade for hospital safety
week of May 3, 2018

Sebastian River Medical Center scored an “F” in the Leapfrog Group’s Safety Grade, the largest hospital safety survey in the nation. According to Leapfrog, of the 2,500 hospitals reporting nationally, only 1 percent got F ratings, and only two of those were in Florida. Most of the data going into the score came from 2014 and 2015, when the hospital was owned by Community Health Systems, not its current owner, Steward Health Care, which took over in February 2017. The failing grade, the lowest possible score, included the worst rate of patient falls among the 2,500 hospitals surveyed – 1.767 falls per 1,000 patients. The average hospital showed .37 falls per thousand. It also showed a problem with dangerous bed sores, with a rate three times the average. And in a category of errors known as “never” events – mistakes so horrible they should never be made – Sebastian scored in the red zone on its incidence of dangerous objects being left in a patient’s body. The worst-performing hospital in the nation had a rate of .397 per thousand patients discharged; pre-Steward Sebastian’s rate wasn’t much better: .320. The average rate was .022 per thousand. READ FULL STORY

With Vero electric utility sold, next targets are water-sewer and trash
week of May 3, 2018

Utility activists Dr. Stephen Faherty and Glenn Heran think Vero should not only get out of the electric business, but that the city should sell its water-sewer system to Indian River County and turn solid waste collection over to a private company. It’s all about economies of scale, Moorings resident Faherty and CPA and South Vero resident Heran say in a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the May 1 City Council meeting. Councilman Val Zudans sponsored putting the matter on the agenda. It’s his general position that the city should take a hard look at all of its enterprises and activities to seek greater efficiencies, possible partnerships or even privatization of services if that makes sense for taxpayers. Selling the water-sewer utility is an old idea that cropped up around 2009-2010 but was rejected, in part because then-Mayor Jay Kramer led the charge against the sale, saying that the $48 million price the county was offering was akin to highway robbery of the city’s assets. READ FULL STORY

Tom Slater rejoins Shores Town Council, and becomes mayor
week of May 3, 2018

Moments after former councilman Tom Slater was unanimously selected to serve out the nearly three-year balance of Mayor Brian Barefoot’s term on the Indian River Shores Town Council, he was elected to succeed Barefoot as mayor. A long-time John’s Island resident, Slater served one term previously but did not seek re-election in November 2016 due to health issues. He was welcomed back with open arms last Thursday. Slater said he looked forward to quickly getting up to speed on pending matters. “There are a number of issues that are important for all the residents that I hope can be settled in the best interest of all the Town,” he said. Outgoing Mayor Barefoot, who had said it was an opportune time to step down from the Council with the Vero electric sale in the home stretch and the cell tower up, was honored for his service in the unique Shores tradition, the presentation of a Shores Public Safety fire helmet. Barefoot was a good sport and donned the helmet, commenting, “My grandkids will love this.” READ FULL STORY

Police arrest suspect in jewelry theft from village shops
week of May 3, 2018

A tip from a Central Beach resident led to the capture and arrest of a woman accused of stealing more than $21,000 worth of jewelry from the Belle Cose store in the Village Shops, and it turns out that she’s wanted in California on other criminal charges, according to court records and police reports. As of press time Monday, 55-year-old Dawn Jeannine Van Dorne, who had been living in her parent’s home at 610 Flamevine Drive, was being held at the Indian River County Jail without bond on a Felony Fugitive of Justice warrant from California. Locally, she is facing third-degree grand theft charges for allegedly lifting two pink tourmaline and diamond rings, valued at $15,000 and $6,100, from the top of a display case at the Belle Cose boutique on March 27 during a trunk show. After Shores police put out a be on the lookout notice on social media with a brief description of the theft and a very clear surveillance camera image of the yet-unidentified Van Dorne, a Club Drive resident called to say she recognized the blonde woman from an odd encounter in that resident’s front yard and driveway. READ FULL STORY

Opposition to new Orchid Publix mounts among island neighbors
week of April 26, 2018

A growing group of Old Orchid residents say they and many of their neighbors oppose Publix’s plan to build a supermarket in Orchid, adjacent to their community, and add they they’re worried their voices won’t matter – because they’re not town residents. “I can’t speak for the whole neighborhood, but a lot of us here are not real pleased by this proposal,” Old Orchid resident Susan Shea said. “And some of us would like to express our opposition. But I keep hearing this is up to the (Orchid) Town Council and that we have no say. How can we have no say when this property abuts our community and we’re definitely going to be impacted by what goes in there? That’s unbelievable.” But also true. The seven-acre parcel on which a relatively small Publix would be built is entirely within Orchid’s town limits, even though the site is just west of the southwest sector of Old Orchid, a 100-home, gated community located in an unincorporated area of Indian River County. READ FULL STORY

Woman makes off with rings from Village Shops boutique
week of April 26, 2018

For the past two weeks, Indian River Shores police have been trying to track down a woman suspected of stealing more than $21,000 worth of jewelry from an island boutique via a sleight-of-hand trick during a busy trunk show on March 27. The blonde, suntanned and designer-clad woman, described in a police report as 5 feet 7 inches tall and approximately 110 pounds, allegedly came into the Belle Cose luxury boutique in the Village Shops in Indian River Shores, with her dog in tow, during a jewelry trunk show event. She arrived around 1:42 p.m. and then departed, telling the store owner she had to go get some earrings that she wanted to match, but that she would be back. The report states, “The owner of the store retrieved some jewelry to show some patrons that visit the store regularly. These items were set out on a display case in clear view of a security camera. At about 1750 hours (5:50 p.m.) the suspect returns without the dog. She shows her earrings and engages in conversation. There are other patrons and friends present.” READ FULL STORY

Witnesses build drug case against Johnny Benjamin
week of April 26, 2018

FORT LAUDERDALE – One by one, prosecutors paraded witnesses into a federal courtroom this past week to build their case against a Vero Beach spine surgeon accused of illegal drug distribution and providing the fentanyl-laced pain killer that caused a Palm Beach woman’s 2016 overdose death. Dr. Johnny Benjamin sat calmly in court, sandwiched between his lawyers, as testimony was taken on Monday, the second day of the trial. He wore glasses, a dark suit and tie. His mother watched from the pew behind him. If convicted, he faces life in prison. The case hinges on the testimony of Kevan Slater and Zachary Stewart, two DEA informants whom prosecutors say sold prescription and counterfeit pain pills on the street for Dr. Benjamin and assisted in a scheme to build the surgeon’s inventory of illegal pills as the illicit operation spread throughout the Treasure Coast. Three people testified Tuesday they were recruited to fill prescriptions of a hundred or more pain pills in exchange for the promise of pain relief, drugs, money or friendship. Though their individual stories varied, each said they drove to Vero Beach for pills like oxycodone or hydrocodone. They would wait in the ProSpine Center parking lot before being presented with a signed script from Benjamin’s prescription pad. READ FULL STORY

County: No money for railroad overpasses
week of April 26, 2018

Most of the county’s population resides west of the railroad tracks, and both of its local hospitals are located east of the tracks. So if Brightline’s passenger trains begin hurtling through the county 32 times per day – joined by more lengthy freights – a couple of years from now, what will ambulances do? Most times, they’ll be forced to idle at the crossings, because county administrator Jason Brown says building overpasses to allow vehicular traffic to continue to flow over the tracks would be “very expensive” and there’s no money budgeted for such projects. Phil Matson, staff director of the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, said cost estimates approached $30 million when local officials explored building overpasses at two crossings in the early 1990s. At that time, however, officials decided the potential benefits weren’t worth the expense, Matson said, given how infrequently freight trains blocked emergency vehicles from crossing the tracks. The price tag would be much higher now – so high that Brown said an overpass probably won’t be built unless Brightline builds it, which isn’t likely to happen. READ FULL STORY

Designer defends effectiveness of Spoonbill Marsh
week of April 26, 2018

The designer of the county’s Spoonbill Marsh recently defended the county’s water purification facility against charges by environmental activists that it is hurting – not helping – the lagoon, and contended that the project is in fact a “great success.” The activists cite high nitrogen numbers, disappearance of salt marsh habitat taken over by mangroves, and flooding of property next door owned by the Indian River Land Trust as evidence that Spoonbill Marsh may actually be harming the environment. But Chip Swindell, owner and head engineer of Ecotech Consultants, which was hired by the county to design the project a dozen years ago, said he has successfully designed 35 facilities similar to Spoonbill that use the natural filtration of plants and soil along fresh- and salt-waterbodies to clean pollutants. “I want there to be more of these multipurpose facilities – to preserve and promote wildlife and natural habitat and to treat waste water – and there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so in Indian River County,” Swindell said, waving a list of wildlife species he said he has identified on the 69-acre site. “Spoonbill Marsh has been a great success.” READ FULL STORY

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