My Top Stories From 2014

Freelancing lets me write about myriad topics and beats.

I cover local news for one of the best newspapers in Florida – the Tampa Bay Times. I also am sharing stories of national interest for the oldest newspaper service in the country – the Associated Press.

I reported for other publications as well getting the chance to get the word out about issues, break news and guide community conversations.

Here are some of my favorite stories I got to cover in 2014 (in no particular order):

Iconic Clearwater Beach Surf Shop to Make Way for Craft Brewery

Spring Training Traditions

Guide Dog Coastie to Help Marine Corps Veteran

Little Library, Big Problem in Clearwater

Palestinian-American Teen Beaten in Israel

Checking out signature events like Sea Blues and Clearwater Jazz Holiday

Chatting with Shawn Wayans

Finding out when there were more remains found at a Florida reform school and when the first set of Remains were identified

Helping to report: Biogenesis Just Hints at Florida Anti-Aging Catastrophe

Air Potato Beetle Could be Boon to Invasive Plant Battle in Florida

Taking walking history tours in downtown Tampa and Ybor City

Songs in the Key of Free – Pianos in Pinellas

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2014: A Year in Review

From losing my job and creating a new one, to taking in a guide dog puppy in training and preparing to reenter the scholastic world, 2014 was a year of changes.

I was laid off late in 2013 and spent the next year working to reinvent, reestablish and move forward. I freelanced, volunteered, focused on home improvements and education. I even won an award for my reporting.

As a freelance journalist, I am fortunate to get the opportunity to cover local stories that matter for one of the state’s best newspapers and national stories with impact for one of the oldest news services in the country.

Almost immediately after getting laid off, I saw opportunities. I reached out to a former contact at the Associated Press to start freelancing. Soon I was covering national news for one of the most respected news service providers in the industry. I sat in the courtroom just a few feet away from Julie Schenecker when she called a psychiatrist a “liar” in court. She would later be found guilty for killing her children. I met the sister of a victim from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys. His bones were the first identified after exhaustive efforts to find answers for the unknown graves at the former reformatory. I conducted the first interview with a Tampa teen who was beaten by Israeli military during his stay in Gaza.

Living and covering news in the Tampa Bay area for so long also helped freelancing. A former editor at the Tampa Bay Times gave me a shot to write some stories. I got to share families’ love affair with Florida and their spring training baseball traditions, the closing of an iconic surf shop on Clearwater Beach to make room for a craft brewery and a guide dog that was paired with a Marine Corps. veteran.

I got to pitch in on an in-depth story about Tony Bosch and the chic HGH/ steroid scene for the Miami New Times. I covered a story about a quadriplegic girl from England who got to meet Winter the Dolphin for the Times of London, however that story did not run.

I got a gig writing with Visit Florida, the state tourism board. I also started writing for Visit Clearwater, a local blog.

I got to chat for almost an hour with epic comedian Shawn Wayans for Creative Loafing. I also started covering the Tampa area’s emerging technology, entrepreneur and startup community in the new economy for 83 Degrees Media.

While I kept busy freelancing I also received accolades for stories I reported in 2013. I was honored for my reporting about the Chunky Sunday community gatherings in Clearwater as a recipient of a 2014 Griot Drum award by the Tampa Bay Association of Black Journalists.

Writing was not my only focus.

The story of Coastie, is one of the first I got to write freelancing. It was a conclusion to a story I wrote nearly a year earlier about a guide dog puppy in training.

As I wrote the follow up story I was able to reconnect with those involved with Southeastern Guide Dogs. With my background watching friends and family pets, I felt I could offer my skills and learn some along the way. I know I have a long way to go but after spending the last year learning, applying and practicing obedience and commands with Mia, a guide dog puppy in training, I don’t know how people left me with their pets before.

The puppy raising experience has been extremely rewarding.

It was not my only volunteer experience this year. I also went to Academy Prep in St. Petersburg and spoke with middle school students about journalism, writing and reporting. The kids asked thoughtful, funny and interested questions. And they even sent me a thank you card.

Working and spending time from home meant I needed to refresh my space and make due repairs. I rearranged the “news factory,” my office. There was plenty of plumbing repairs including properly rehanging the lavatory sink, repairing water pipes, replacing stops in the bathroom and kitchen and closing a gaping hole in the wall under the sink. I replaced two jalousie windows in the Florida room.

The backyard saw vast improvements. I built a kayak rack after sanding and staining four 4x4s then sunk them in concrete. I used galvanized piping with larger PVC pipes over them to act as a roller for the kayaks to be set on. I found and repurposed broken down wheelbarrows into gardens. I made a corner garden and horseshoe court using beach sand recovered from volleyball courts. With some help I was able to trim the trees around the house as well.

A city project will soon replace the septic system with a sanitary sewer. I also am working to create and establish a neighborhood identity and park for the newly annexed area.

Work, volunteer and get back into school.

I took a writing business plans and getting small business loans classes at St. Pete Greenhouse, a business/entrepreneurial incubator. It helped me identify potential business ideas and start writing plans to establish them.

I applied for an assistantship in the Digital Journalism and Design online master degree program at USFSP. Part of application included taking a digital skills assessment through a Poynter News U test. I scored an 87 and was accepted into the program without the assistantship. The caveat – I need to earn a ‘B’ or better in my first six credit hours. That should not be a problem. I find out Jan. 5 when spring semester starts.

I would like to think I have made a lot out of 2014 and strive for more in 2015.

More on Stolen Valor

First time in court back in January there was a drawn out series of sidewalk questioning for a few blocks by a television news investigative reporter while cameras rolled. Not this time. His defense lawyers had a Land Rover waiting outside the courthouse. They loaded and left without saying a word.

TAMPA — The fake Marine Corps hero finally surrendered Friday in U.S. District Court.

Angel Manuel Ocasio-Reyes, a 48-year-old civilian from Lutz, pleaded guilty to violating the Stolen Valor Act, bringing to an ignoble end his months of strutting around in a sergeant major’s uniform bedecked with the Navy Cross, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Combat Action Medal, Iraq and Afghanistan campaign medals, and several others.

Ocasio-Reyes was arrested in December on three counts: falsely wearing the medals, falsely representing himself as having been awarded decorations and medals, and falsely altering a military discharge form.

Punishment could be a year in jail and a $100,000 fine on each count, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Pizzo reminded Ocasio-Reyes that those guidelines are only advisory. He set sentencing at 10 a.m. June 21.

The Stolen Valor Act was passed in 2006 to impose harsher penalties for fraudulently wearing medals. Previous law punished only people falsely wearing the highest award, the Medal of Honor.

The Navy Cross ranks just below the Medal of Honor in distinction, and the Purple Heart recognizes those wounded or killed in combat.

This is the fourth time in 12 months someone has been prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida.

Roger Golden is the commandant at the Marine Corps League in New Port Richey where Ocasio-Reyes tried to gain membership last year. Golden was in the courtroom wearing a pressed, white uniform. Across his chest were the medals he earned while serving in Vietnam from 1963 to 1967.

Golden said Ocasio-Reyes came to the Marine Corps League post dressed to the hilt and that other club members took him in as one of their own.

But something made Golden suspicious, and he checked a listing of award recipients on the militarytimes.com Web site, and Ocasio-Reyes did not show up. After that, the story unraveled.

“This guy is a wannabe,” Golden said after hearing the guilty plea. “He is slapping everybody in the face.”

Ken Malone, 59, and Ken Sullens, 58, socialized with Ocasio-Reyes at the Marine Corps League post in New Port Richey. They also attended the court hearing. Both are Purple Heart recipients, and they wore vests full of military patches.

Sullens and Golden said they would be back in June.

“We have been following this from the beginning,” Sullens said.



The birds: ‘WQYK has kept them away’

As vultures circled my house overhead. And a flock of orioles foraged in the back yard later in the day. I wondered if they also read my story about the turkey vultures in downtown Tampa.

By Jared Leone

DOWNTOWN — Lisa Shasteen is toasting success.

For years, turkey vultures lined the ledges of the Floridan Hotel, but with some creativity and perseverance, they are gone.

For now.

Meanwhile, Betty Croft, just a few blocks away, isn’t so happy.

She first thought the evidence came from pigeons. White droppings dotted the sidewalk, sign and brick facade at the top of the Verizon building were she works.

Then while walking from the parking lot into the office a couple of months ago, she looked up and realized the “pigeons” were turkey vultures, believed to be the same ones that used to live at the Floridan.

While smoking a cigarette under a pavilion this week, Croft said: “It’s a mess.”

Turkey vultures have found roosts along high-rises downtown for years, leaving their nasty business behind and forcing building owners to battle the aviary assault. When one owner would get rid of them, they simply would find a home atop another building.

From the Floridan to the county courthouse back to the Floridan to Verizon.

In 2005, Tony Markopoulos purchased the aging Floridan for $6 million with plans to bring the 19-story building back to its Roaring Twenties luster.

But first, the vultures.

“The birds were a problem when we walked in,” said Shasteen, a real estate lawyer working with the developer. “When we first acquired the building, the stench on the sidewalk was really noticeable. And something had to be done.”

Their strategy?

Shasteen, a self-described animal lover, wanted to approach the situation as humanely as possible.

First, workers ran around the roof trying to scare the birds away, and installed inflatable snowmen. Next came the needlelike, metal spike strips as deterrents to landing, and a boom box blaring country music.

They haven’t been back this season. “WQYK has kept them away,” Shasteen said.

• • •

Eric Tillman, a wildlife biologist with the USDA National Wildlife Research Center in Gainesville, gets thousands of calls this time of year from homeowners and building tenants trying to cope with turkey vultures.

They like to soar high without having to flap their wings. The strong, warm winds that stream by the skyscrapers are perfect to help with takeoff and flight.

The birds are smart, too. Products like fake owls and balloons are like dud grenades.

They can’t be shot like giant skeet targets. The birds are protected by federal law. They can be shot only with permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Tillman recommends metal spike strips. Other weapons are electrified tracks that send shocks to the birds, motion-activated sprinklers, and a “coyote roller,” a device that makes it difficult for animals to grab a foothold on fences.

But getting rid of vultures takes time.

“These birds are very habitual and once they find a comfortable roosting site they want to return there,” Tillman said. “It can take a week or two weeks before they find a new location.”

For the most part, turkey vultures are migratory and spend October through March here, coming down from as far north as Canada. Many, though, take up residence in Florida year-round.

Loud music can work, Tillman said, but the birds will likely come back within a couple of days.

• • •

Roy Stokes has worked security detail at the Sam M. Gibbons Federal Courthouse for 12 years. He is no stranger to these winged beasts. When the courthouse opened in 1998, the raptors started roosting on its concrete ledges.

Judges said the birds would land outside their windows, sometimes crash into the glass and often leave half-eaten carcasses of small animals on the ledges.

Officials tried to get rid of them by broadcasting the simulated cry of dying turkey vultures. Success came when they used electric wires that mildly shocked the landing birds.

Now, many of the birds perch on the Verizon logo and on ledges of the company’s adjacent 17- and 10-story buildings at Zack and Morgan streets. Droppings paint the sidewalks and the logo sign.

Bob Elek, Verizon spokesman, said this is the first time the birds have roosted here.

But Elek, who has worked downtown for 11 years, is familiar with the flock. “They’re legend.”

The company is fighting back. Officials have installed spike strips across some ledges and signs on the buildings. They put up dummy vultures, too.

The tactics are helping. The sidewalk doesn’t need to be pressure cleaned week in and week out, as it had. But many birds remain, sitting mostly with their backs facing their old hotel home.

Shasteen knows they could return: “We are actually in detente. It is a friendly standoff. We are hopeful yet vigilant.”

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or jleone@sptimes.com.

More on defective Chinese drywall

I wrote the following story which appeared here in the St. Petersburg Times:

TAMPA — Mobile homes and recreational vehicles soon could be parked next to permanent homes in Hillsborough County, as residents rid their residences of defective Chinese drywall.

And federal grants may pay for some of the work.

Commissioners are considering a change to the county’s temporary housing ordinance to allow temporary housing for “non-natural” disasters, including the drywall debacle.

They learned this week that community development block grant money could be used to fix homes built with the defective product.

Public hearings about the temporary housing ordinance are planned for 2 p.m. Jan. 21 and at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 9. Commissioners also will hear a report from the county Affordable Housing Department on Jan. 21.

“I’m glad to see Hillsborough County’s taking quick action,” said Sen. Bill Nelson, who pushed federal housing officials for the ruling allowing block grants to be used to replace drywall. “I hope other counties will take note.”

The temporary housing provision would allow homeowners to remain close by, for up to a year, while repairs are made.

The Housing and Urban Development Department recently announced that community development block grant money could be used to help homeowners affected by the defective drywall.

Generally, the grant money may be applied if one of three objectives is met: the money must benefit low- and moderate-income people; eliminate slums or blighted conditions; or address an urgent need of community health or welfare.

Hillsborough County has $6 million for community development block grant projects for fiscal year 2010 and expects to have another $6 million the following year.

An estimated 100,000 houses nationally were built with the defective drywall.

In Florida, as of Dec. 14, there were 642 reported complaints in 30 counties, according to the state Department of Health.

The Hillsborough County Health Department reports 56 complaints. However many more are affected. The county Property Appraiser’s Office offers a reduced assessment to home­owners who can verify their house has the defective drywall. So far, 176 people have sought this exemption.

Defective Chinese drywall emits a sulfuric smell and has been linked to corrosion of copper and other metals.

Homeowners have reported health symptoms that include irritated and itchy eyes, bloody or runny noses, recurrent headaches and difficulty breathing. State and federal agencies are investigating long-term health risks.