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FLORIDA KEYS, March 3, 2020 – The Monroe County State Attorney’s Office in 2019 dealt with its share of violent crimes, environmental resource cases, contractor fraud, drug cases and much, much more.
Our office’s 50 employees partnered with our law enforcement partners and others to bring justice to crime victims and hold people accountable for violating our environment and taking advantage of our most vulnerable. Following are cases of note from 2019.
10 years for killing police officer
A Sugarloaf Key woman pleaded no contest April 12 to driving under the influence-manslaughter and other charges for killing a police officer and seriously injuring another while driving under the influence in Key West and was sentenced to 10 years in Florida State Prison.
Lacy Morris’ prison sentence for killing Christine Braswell will be followed by two years of house arrest and another year of probation, and her driver’s license has been revoked for life. Prosecutors and Braswell’s family agreed to the plea deal to spare the pain of a trial and to begin the process of achieving closure.
Morris was behind the wheel of a Nissan Altima on April 8, 2017, on Truman Avenue in Key West when she made a turn into a Yamaha scooter operated by Braswell, a Delray Beach police officer for 12 years who later died at Ryder Trauma Center in Miami. Her passenger on the scooter, fellow Delray Beach Police Officer Bernenda Marc, 25, suffered critical head and other injuries.
Morris’ blood alcohol content after the crash was .173 percent; under Florida law, .08 percent is considered legally under the influence
Nine years in prison for Lower Keys death
A Key West woman was sentenced May 8 to nine years in Florida State Prison after pleading guilty to killing a woman while driving drunk. Mary Elizabeth Bailey, 27, admitted to driving under the influence-manslaughter and other charges in a crash that caused the death of Ronalyn Maile Sylvia, 43, also of Key West.
Prison will be followed by four years of drug-offender probation and her driver’s license has been revoked for life. During her first year of probation, she must perform 120 hours of community service in a hospital trauma center.
On August 1, 2016, Bailey was driving a 2004 Toyota RAV4 south near mile marker 15 of U.S. 1. Traveling in front of her on a 1985 Harley-Davidson were Roger Dale Walden, who was operating the motorcycle, and Sylvia, who was his passenger. Bailey struck the motorcycle from behind and Sylvia was ejected. She was taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead. Walden was treated for a crushed leg and other injuries.
Bailey had a blood alcohol content of .18 percent, more than double the legal limit in Florida.
Eight years for man following third DUI, injury-causing crash
A Tavernier man who severely injured a Key Largo motorcyclist by running him down while driving drunk on U.S. 1 was sentenced to eight years in Florida State Prison.
At sentencing June 11 after pleading no contest to DUI-serious bodily injury and other charges, Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia noted that Greg Pope, 48, had two previous arrests for driving under the influence. After the crash, his blood alcohol content registered .33 percent. A blood alcohol content of .08 percent is considered legally impaired. He told the judge he drank a bottle of vodka while driving from West Palm Beach to the Keys.
Pope ran over a motorcycle operated by Phillip Weydener Jr. on October 15, 2018, in Key Largo. In court, Weydener described some of the injuries he sustained in the crash: Fractured skull, fractured right leg, fractured right foot, numerous abrasions, subdermal hematoma (blood collecting inside his skull). “They had to do brain surgery on me to relieve the bleeding in my brain,” he said. He also had cosmetic surgeries and surgery for nerve damage.
Man gets 10-plus years for killing wife while boating drunk
A Key West boater was sentenced June14 to Florida State Prison for causing the death of his wife, who died after she was tossed from a boat he operated while drunk in Key West Harbor.
Robert Everson, 64, pleaded no contest to boating under the influence-manslaughter enhanced in the 2012 death of his wife, Wendy Everson, who was 62. On June 14, Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones handed down a sentence of 124.5 months, or just under 10 and a half years.
Wendy Everson died at a Miami hospital on July 24, 2012, due to “submersion in water,” a medical examiner wrote in a report.
A judge signed a warrant for Robert Everson’s arrest and he was arrested at a Key West Harbor dock on September 27, 2012. He posted bond the following day and was released from jail but absconded. He was located in Indiana in March of 2018 and transported back to Monroe County to resolve the case. After his initial arrest, his blood alcohol content came back at .257 percent; in Florida, .08 percent is considered legally drunk.
Four years for repeat drunk driver
A Daytona Beach man with a history of drunk driving was sentenced to four years in Florida State Prison for his latest conviction, this one in Monroe County.
Monroe County Judge Mark Wilson sentenced Shawn Ryerson, 47, on August 16. A six-person jury had convicted him May 22 of felony driving under the influence-fourth or subsequent violation. The day of sentencing, Ryerson also pleaded to a misdemeanor count of failure to submit to a breath test following a prior driver’s license suspension for refusal. He had his driver’s license revoked for life.
Ryerson was previously convicted of DUI in 1991 and 1998 in Seminole County and in 2013 in Volusia County. His most recent arrest was on September 12, 2016, as he tried to pull out of a convenience store at U.S. 1 and Sombrero Beach Road in Marathon driving a Dodge pickup. A Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputy arrived after receiving a call about a reckless driver.
Man faces death penalty for Marathon homicide
A Monroe County grand jury indicted Steven Matthew Wolf January 10, 2019, on a count of first-degree murder in the death of a Marathon woman. Following the indictment, the State Attorney’s Office filed a notice of intent in Monroe County Circuit Court to seek the death penalty if Wolf is convicted.
The grand jury found Wolf did “unlawfully from a premeditation design … effect the death of a human being, kill and murder Michelle R Osborne, a human being, by ligature strangulation in combination with anal and genital trauma” or, in the alternative, to have unlawfully killed Michelle R. Osborne “while engaged in the perpetration of sexual battery”
In seeking the death penalty, the State Attorney’s Office filing says “the murder was committed while the defendant was engaged in the commission of, or an attempt to commit, or flight after committing or attempting to commit a sexual battery;” “the murder was especially heinous, atrocious and cruel;” and “the defendant was previously convicted of another capital felony and/or felony involving the use or threat of violence to the person.”
Osborne’s body was found on November 21, 2018, in a wooded area near the Vaca Cut Bridge in Marathon. Wolf was arrested the next day when evidence linked him to the victim.
10 years for rapist in the Lower Keys
A Key West liveaboard boater was sentenced to 10 years in state prison after being convicted of sexually battering a woman on his boat.
Miguel Pestano, 44, was handed the sentence on January 11, 2019, by Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones. Pestano was arrested on February 12, 2018.On December 5, 2018, a six-person jury convicted him of sexual battery after about two hours of deliberation.
Pestano was arrested after a Monroe County Sheriff’s Office investigation into the January 6, 2018, offense, which happened on Pestano’s boat moored off Key Haven. The victim is a Marathon woman who reported the battery after seeking treatment at Fishermen’s Community Hospital.
The victim told Sheriff’s Office Detective Danielle Malone that on the morning of the attack, she was walking near U.S. 1 and South Roosevelt Boulevard to the nearby Sunset Marina, where she planned to spend the night. While en route, she encountered Pestano. Pestano offered to let her stay on his boat. That night, Pestano assaulted her.
Fatal punch lands man in state prison
A homeless Key West man who sucker-punched another man twice, killing him, was ordered to state prison.
On June 24, Fred Hauch, 55, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in front of Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Koenig, who sentenced Hauch to eight years.
On August 18, 2017, Hauch was at the Chevron gas station at Truman Avenue and White Street at the same time as Steven Sanderson, 62. A witness told police that Sanderson was speaking ill of an off-duty Chevron employee and that Hauch asked her, the witness, if he should “kick his (Sanderson’s) ass.” She told police she said yes, believing Hauch was joking, and that Hauch then punched Sanderson twice in the head, then rode off on a bicycle.
Sanderson’s injuries were so severe that he was airlifted to Ryder Trauma Center in Miami, where he died August 20, 2017. A medical examiner ruled the cause “blunt force head injury.” Hauch, found by police after he left the gas station, told police he did not intend to seriously harm Sanderson.
Shooting that paralyzed Key West man ends with 25-year sentence
A Key West man convicted of shooting and paralyzing an acquaintance in a dispute over money was sentenced March 12 to 25 years in Florida State Prison. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones gave Anthony Valdes Jr. the mandatory minimum sentence as authorized by state law.
On February 15, 2019, a six-person jury convicted Valdes, 43, of aggravated battery on Ray Anthony Alvarez, 31, following a week-long trial. The mandatory minimum sentence is because Valdes possessed and discharged a firearm causing great bodily harm. He had been charged with attempted second-degree murder but the jury convicted him of a lesser-included offense.
The shooting happened a little after midnight on October 15, 2016, at Valdes’ home on Duck Avenue in Key West. It left Alvarez paralyzed from the waist down and he now relies on a wheelchair/scooter.
Knife attack sends Stock Island man back to prison
A Stock Island man was sent back to prison for close to five years after pleading out to attacking another man with a knife.
Ted Williams, 41, pleaded no contest on March 7 to felony battery. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced him to 57.57 months in Florida State Prison. This is Williams’ second time in prison in Florida since 2015. He also served prison time in North Carolina.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrested Williams on March 6, 2018, after being called to a house on Geiger Key about Williams being “intoxicated in the residence and armed with a knife.” The victim, a 46-year-old man, told deputies that Williams was a co-worker and that they had an argument that escalated and became physical. He said Williams, without being provoked, tried to cut his neck with an 8-inch knife and bit one of his fingers. Another man in the house corroborated the victim’s account of what happened.
On March 5, 2015, Judge Jones sentenced Williams to 38 months in prison after Williams pleaded no contest to burglary of a dwelling, aggravated assault and petit theft. In North Carolina, Williams has served time for assault on an officer or state employee, resisting an officer, causing damage to property, breaking and entering a vehicle, and larceny.
Repeat offender lands behind bars
A Key West man facing several battery counts was ordered to state prison, closing the book on the charges against him.
Joseph Silva, 25, pleaded no contest on June 6 to all counts. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones accepted the pleas and handed down an 18-month sentence.
In one case from July 2017, a 66-year-old man told police he went to the pool area of an apartment complex he worked at on Seaside Drive to secure the gates. Silva charged at the victim, punching him in the face unprovoked. When police arrived, he battled with officers before being arrested. In December 2017, Silva pleaded no contest to battery on a law enforcement officer and battery on a person older than 65 and received 36 months of probation but violated terms of it by, among other things, getting arrested in March 2018. He admitted to violating probation.
In the March 2018 case, Silva was arrested after a man walking down Duval Street told police Silva had punched him for no reason near Old City Hall. Silva pleaded to two counts of felony battery with priors. Then in November 2018, while in the Monroe County Detention Center, Silva punched another inmate in the face. Silva pleaded no contest to battery upon someone in a detention center.
Prison for knife attack on visitor
A Key West man was sent to Florida State Prison for a violent knife attack on a visitor from California.
Christopher Yarema, 44, pleaded no contest December 20 to aggravated assault and felony criminal mischief. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced him to 24 months in state custody followed by 36 months of probation. His wife, Stephanie Burnham, 37, pleaded no contest in November to battery and received a year in the Monroe County Detention Center.
On October 27, 2018, the victim and his partner were at Wisteria Island in Key West Harbor enjoying a day of recreation and were getting ready to take their rented inflatable dinghy back to a larger boat they had rented that was anchored out. Yarema and Burnham approached in a skiff, yelling. One of them used a sexual epithet toward the victim and said “get the [hell] off our island.” The victim was packing his belongings to leave, not wanting a confrontation.
Yarema swung at him twice with a knife, missing both times, but did stab the inflatable twice. The victim and his partner were able to get away by holding onto the deflating inflatable dinghy, using it as a raft. They made it back to their anchored boat and called for help over the boat radio.
Combative man gets prison for Big Pine fight
A Jacksonville was sentenced to more than three years in Florida State Prison for instigating a fight with several people and battering police officers who responded.
Shawn Roehm, 43, pleaded no contest on October 10 to two counts of battery on a person over 65 years old, two counts of felony battery with priors, and one count of battery on a law enforcement officer. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced him to 38.25 months in prison.
Roehm was arrested on Big Pine Key. That day, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer who lives in the neighborhood where the batteries occurred was approached by a witness who told her “there’s a guy next door attacking everyone over there.” She walked over to the house and heard “numerous voices yelling for help” and saw three men and a woman “in an altercation.” While being taken into custody, he repeatedly fought sheriff’s deputies called to the scene.
Roehm has previously served time in state prison for battery on a law enforcement officer or firefighter.
Lobster mobsters jailed, given lifetime ban from Florida fishing
Four of seven men arrested in 2017 for illegally harvesting 320 lobsters and other marine life from Marathon waters over two days were ordered to jail followed by lengthy terms of probation. The crimes sparked widespread outrage.
They pleaded guilty to two felony counts of possessing more than 100 undersized lobsters and 31 misdemeanors, among them possession of wrung tails on or in the water, possessing more than 25 lobsters during the closed season, spearing lobster and possessing stone crab out of season. In Monroe County, the lobster limit it six per person per day.
Francis Bartkiewicz, 59, of Eufaula, Alabama; Leon Reeves, 50, and Jeffrey Honnell, 47, both of Phenix City, Alabama; and Jeffrey Meide, 46, of Rome, Georgia, pleaded on November 6 before Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker.
Judge Becker called the crimes “incomprehensible” and a “crime of violence against our precious resource.” She said they were “some of the most egregious resource violations this court has seen” in her nearly 30 years on the bench.
She sentenced them to 60 days in the Monroe County Detention Center for the misdemeanors and 10 years of probation for the felonies. Another defendant, David Gilmore, 57, of Eufaula, Alabama, was scheduled to plead but that will be reset. Bartkiewicz’s son Kyle, 25, and Reeves’ son Robinson, 21, were given three years of probation. All six had their Florida fishing licenses revoked and are banned for life from holding Florida fishing licenses.
They were arrested July 9, 2017, after Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers received a tip they were coming to Marathon to poach lobsters.
Jail time for man caught dumping illegally harvested lobsters
A Homestead man ruined his weekend plans for the foreseeable future.
Javier Morales, 42, was sentenced July 29 to 60 days in the Monroe County Detention Center after a six-person jury convicted him of interfering with a conservation officer. Monroe County Judge Sharon Hamilton sentenced Morales to serve his time on weekends.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers arrested Morales on September 4, 2016, in Little Angelfish Creek, near the Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo. He had been suspected of illegally harvesting lobster and when confronted at his boat, he dumped numerous lobsters into the water. Officers found “lobsters everywhere under the defendants’ vessel.”
In addition to the 60 days in jail, Morales was given six months of probation and, while on probation, could not be on or in Monroe County waters. He also must take an FWC marine-resources course and pay a $500 fine and various court fees.
Judge hands down jail for man caught with illegally harvested marine life
A Miami man found with a trove of illegally caught marine life pleaded out to several charges and was ordered to jail.
Monroe County Judge Sharon Hamilton sentenced Juan Aro, 46, to 45 days in the Monroe County Detention Center on July 31 after Aro pleaded no contest to spearing lobster, possession of lobster out of season, five counts of possession of undersized lobster, harvesting mangrove snapper over the bag limit, possession of undersized schoolmaster snapper, possession of undersized mangrove snapper and spearfishing in a no-spearfishing zone.
The afternoon of July 8, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Officer Jorge Larios Jr. received a tip via text about people spearfishing near the Tavernier Creek Bridge at mile marker 91 of U.S. 1. When he arrived, he found Aro snorkeling the water adjacent to shore while holding a spear gun. Inspection of Aro’s truck nearby resulted in the discovery of seven lobsters (six undersized), 13 mangrove snapper (nine undersized), two schoolmaster snapper (both undersize) and other fish.
Undersized lobster costly for Key West commercial fisherman
A Key West commercial fisherman headed to jail, can’t ply his trade for half a year and received numerous other penalties after pleading out December 4 to dozens of counts of possessing undersized lobster.
Mario Morales, 67, entered a straight-up plea to 41 counts of possessing undersized lobsters, plus one count each of interfering with a conservation officer, possession of wrung lobster tail on the water (considered a major violation) and having an improperly marked stone crab trap.
Monroe County Judge Peary Fowler adjudicated Morales guilty on all counts and sentenced him to 90 days in the Monroe County Detention Center; suspended his Saltwater Products License for six months; put him on probation for 12 months; fined him $1,000; ordered him to pay $273 in court costs, $50 for the cost of prosecution, $40 for the cost of investigation and $100 for his public defender; ordered him to pay $500 into the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Marine Resources Conservation Trust Fund; and imposed 50 hours of community service.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers arrested Morales November 11, 2017, in Lakes Passage (Gulf of Mexico waters) off Key West following a routine marine-resources inspection. He had 41 undersized and wrung lobster tails on his vessel.
Severe penalties for lobster violations
Two of three men arrested in 2018 for lobster violations in Upper Keys waters pleaded guilty and were given a host of penalties for their crimes.
Luis Vergel, 72, who has a history of marine-related violations in Monroe County, and Rafael Andino, 48, pleaded guilty December 10 before Monroe County Judge Sharon Hamilton to two counts of possessing undersized lobster and one count of possessing lobster during the closed season. The third man, Angel Betancourt, 48, previously pleaded no contest to the same charges. All are from Homestead.
Assistant state attorneys Jorge Jaile and Paul Vargo sought 100 days in the Monroe County Detention Center for all three men. Judge Hamilton declined.
Instead, she sentenced them to a year of probation, which gets converted to 40 days in jail if there are any violations; fined them $500; ordered them to pay $283 in court costs, $75 for the cost of prosecution and $50 a month in supervision fees. They are banned from Monroe County waters during their probation, must perform 24 hours of community service and must complete a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission marine-resources education course.
They were arrested July 24, 2018, near Whale Harbor Channel in Islamorada, when Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers found them with 16 lobsters, two undersized. Vergel is no stranger to the FWC, having had numerous Monroe County marine violations over the years.
Jail for man who abused protected bird, sparked national outrage
A Maryland man who abused a state and federally protected pelican in Key West Harbor, then bragged about it on Facebook through a video and other postings, was found guilty of four charges April 23 in Monroe County Court.
Monroe County Court Judge Mark Wilson found William Hardesty, 31, of Riva, Maryland, guilty of two counts of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and two counts of animal cruelty. Judge Wilson sentenced him to 90 days in the Monroe County Detention Center, fined him $1,000 and placed him on a year of probation.
The video was posted to Hardesty’s Facebook page the first week of March and apparently created March 5. It shows him at a Key West sea wall dangling food to the pelican. It then shows him jumping into the water onto the pelican and grabbing it and holding onto it. He let go only when the pelican bit him in the face.
The Facebook post of the video, met with widespread criticism, was followed by Hardesty posting he might want to eat a pelican and that he was thinking of getting a pelican tattoo. He was arrested March 15 in Maryland after widespread web exposure and returned to the Keys to face the charges.
Osprey killer gets his punishment
A man who shot a protected bird in Key West pleaded out to killing the osprey.
Josiah Fetzer, 23, of Valley City, Ohio, pleaded no contest December 11 to cruelty to animals and violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, under which ospreys are protected from harm. Monroe County Judge Mark Wilson sentenced him to six months of probation, fined him $1,000 and ordered him to perform 80 hours of community service at a nonprofit animal-welfare organization.
Fetzer shot the bird on August 21, 2018, with a pellet gun where he had been working, at the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Ingham Maritime Museum & National Historic Landmark, docked at the Truman Waterfront in Key West. He told police he was trying to scare the bird off the deck of the museum.
Illegal contractor who ripped off seniors gets 3 years
A Marathon man was sentenced to Florida State Prison for bilking two Middle Keys senior citizens out of thousands of dollars under the guise of home repairs in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Irma. He collected the money but didn’t do the repairs.
On October 24, Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker sentenced Tison Kennedy, 33, to 36 months in custody followed by 24 months of community control after he pleaded no contest to two counts of engaging in contracting without a license during a declared State of Emergency and three counts of grand theft from a person 65 or older. His sentence includes restitution to the victims and having no contact with them.
Judge Becker called Kennedy’s crimes “egregious, inexcusable” and said “this case is extremely troubling.” The victims are senior citizens, ages 69 and 84, with limited incomes and it was in the aftermath of the September 10, 2017, Category 4 hurricane, which destroyed or damaged thousands of houses in the Keys and left people struggling to rebuild. Then-Governor Rick Scott had declared a statewide State of Emergency on September 4, 2017, and it remained in effect when Kennedy’s offenses occurred.
Couple lands in jail for contracting fraud
A Keys couple was arrested for alleged illegal contracting and grand theft in several cases.
Mark Morales, 54, and Julie Lynne Moore, 58, were arrested on February 6, 2019, at the Monroe County Detention Center on Stock Island, where they were held since their previous arrests earlier in the year in similar cases. The latest charges against each are contracting without a license, organized scheme to defraud, communications fraud and grand theft.
“Mark Morales and Julie Moore fraudulently held themselves out as licensed contractors over the span of months in a systemic, ongoing course of conduct to defraud residents of Monroe County, Florida, with the intent to obtain property from them,” State Attorney’s Office Investigator Frank Zamora wrote in his latest arrest affidavit.
The latest case stems from Summerland Key, where they allegedly ripped off a woman for more than $10,000 in roof repairs Morales didn’t perform. Morales is not a state-certified contractor.
Key Largo man charged in Upper Keys case
A Key Largo man was charged with illegal contracting after allegedly accepting $4,000 from a Tavernier woman for plumbing work even though he isn’t a licensed plumber.
Daniel Zumer, 61, was served with an arrest warrant and booked into jail on May 14 based on an affidavit prepared by State Attorney’s Office Investigator Roy Bogue. Zumer reportedly started performing the plumbing work but abandoned the job in the middle of it.
The probable-cause affidavit says the victim contracted with Zumer on February 17, 2018, to install lateral pipes from her Key Heights Drive house to connect to the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District sewer system. She said Zumer removed some pavers from the ground and dug a hole, exposing the septic tank, then never returned to install the pipes.
Airport work ends with two arrests
Two Stock Island residents faced charges for allegedly working together so their company would get contracting work paid by Monroe County government that was authorized by one of them, then a county employee.
Carlos Montero Delgado, 47, was taken into custody July 29 on a charge of unlicensed contracting. His live-in girlfriend, Yanisleidis Arzola Rodriguez, 36, was arrested July 26, charged with being a principal to unauthorized contracting. State Attorney’s Office Investigator Frank Zamora investigated the cases and issued the probable-cause affidavits that led to their arrests.
At the time of the alleged crimes, Rodriguez was Key West International Airport finance analyst for the county and had authorization to approve expenses less than $5,000. Since late March of 2019, she allegedly gave Montero, her business partner in a construction company, three airport projects, each less than $5,000. Combined, they totaled $13,750. Monroe County fired Rodriguez the day she was arrested.
Jail for illegal contractor
A Miami man pleaded out to several criminal charges related to illegal building contracting in Monroe County and was sentenced to six months in jail.
Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones handed down the sentence September 12 to Ulises Wiltz, 50. He was also ordered to serve 60 months of probation and pay restitution to his victims.
Wiltz portrayed himself as a state-licensed contractor when he wasn’t and entered into formal contracts in 2017 with residents during which he collected a portion of the money to be paid. In three of the four cases against him, he failed to start the work. In one case, he started the work but did not finish it.
Wiltz pleaded no contest to four counts of using a suspended contracting certificate during a governor-declared State of Emergency and two counts of grand theft by a contractor. Then-governor Rick Scott had declared a statewide State of Emergency on September 4, 2017, six days before the devastating Category 4 Hurricane Irma struck the Keys.
Galway Bay owner pleads to 12 felonies
The owner of a Marathon mobile-home park pleaded out to 12 felonies to satisfy 32 theft- and fraud-related charges against him stemming from property transactions at the park.
Yerachmiel “Ralph” Mutchnik, 74, pleaded no contest April 25 before Acting Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker. There were five counts of grand theft for pocketing money that should have been paid in state taxes, two counts of filing unlawful documents related to title paperwork for trailers, two counts of uttering a forged instrument for signing false documents, and three counts of organized scheme to defraud.
As part of the negotiated plea, Mutchnik, who lives in Miami-Dade County, is not allowed on the premises of his park, Galway Bay Mobile Home Park at mile marker 47.5 of U.S. 1, for five years and will be on probation for five years. He also must pay $16,170 to the Monroe County Tax Collector’s Office to satisfy sales taxes not paid on transactions at the park.
Mutchnik was arrested three times in 2018 – on January 11, January 29 and March 7 – on warrants approved with affidavits prepared by State Attorney’s Office Investigator Abraham Vallejo. Among other things, Mutchnik was charged with forging signatures of mobile-home owners in the park on bills of sale and the titles of their trailers when ownership was transferred. He also was charged with underreporting the sales price of trailers to avoid paying higher state taxes on the sales.
Hurricane Irma fraud
A Key Largo man was charged with grand theft for allegedly bilking a federal agency out of disaster-relief money following Hurricane Irma.
Alfredo M. Latour Jr., 54, was booked into the Monroe County Detention Center on June 5 on a charge of grand theft of $300 to less than $5,000 based on a warrant prepared by State Attorney’s Office Investigator Abraham Vallejo. Latour is accused of receiving $4,864 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency under false pretenses.
Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys on September 10, 2017, as a Category 4 storm, causing widespread damage. Four days later, Latour put in a claim to FEMA for assistance and received $3,364 for rental help, $1,000 for home repairs and $500 for “critical-needs” assistance. He wrote in his application his primary residence was a mobile home in the Calusa Campground Resort and Marina at mile marker 101.5 of U.S. 1, but that turned out not to be the case. His application listed a Miami mailing address. Latour applied for more rental assistance in October 2017 and more home-repair assistance in March 2018. FEMA turned down both because agency staff believed the Key Largo address wasn’t his primary residence, as is required for such assistance.
Man charged with filing for homestead exemption under false pretenses
A Miami Lakes man allegedly filed for a Monroe County homestead exemption fraudulently, claiming a homestead exemption on a Florida Keys property even though his primary residence is in Miami-Dade County.
Yusmel Bocalandro, 39, was booked into the Monroe County Detention Center on December 2 based on an arrest affidavit prepared by State Attorney’s Office Investigator Roy Bogue. He’s accused of “knowingly and willfully” giving false information in an effort to receive the exemption, which can save homeowners money on their local tax bills.
Bocalandro initiated the application process on November 4 with a phone call to the Property Appraiser’s Office asking what he needed to do to receive an exemption for his newly acquired property at mile marker 65.8 on Long Key. For tax purposes, Florida law allows a $25,000 exemption to be applied to the first $50,000 of one’s assessed property value if the property is one’s permanent residence and one owned the property on January 1 of the tax year. The exemption applies to all taxes, including School District taxes. Bocalandro and his wife own a Miami Lakes house and his wife was receiving a homestead exemption on that house, making a Keys exemption not possible.
Two charged with vacation-rental sales-tax fraud
An Upper Keys couple was arrested for felony theft for allegedly failing to remit taxes on a vacation-rental condominium they rent out in Key Largo.
Nicholas Bennett, 52, was booked into the Plantation Key jail on December 18, charged with theft of sales tax more than $300, less than $20,000; and a misdemeanor count of failing to obtain a certificate of registration. His wife Dessiree Bennett, 54, was arrested on the same charges December 11. State Attorney’s Office Investigator Chris Weber investigated the case with the Monroe County Tax Collector’s Office and prepared the arrest affidavit for both Bennetts.
Monroe County requires owners of rentals of six months or less to open a tourist development tax account with the Tax Collector’s Office. Owners of such rentals must remit a 5 percent tax on those rentals to the Tax Collector’s Office. The Bennetts are accused of not abiding by that law.
FEMA fraud lands man in trouble
A Key West man learned that time can’t insulate oneself from consequences for crimes.
On December 17, Monroe County Judge Mark Wilson placed Francesco Drago, 51, of Key West on 18 months of probation after Drago pleaded no contest to grand theft for ripping off the Federal Emergency Management Agency in emergency aid following the devastating Hurricane Irma. Drago was also ordered to pay FEMA restitution of $3,864, which he did up front; and $423 in court costs, a $100 fine, $140 to the State Attorney’s Office for the cost of prosecution and investigation and $50 monthly to the state Department of Corrections for his cost of supervision.
Drago was arrested on November 27, 2018, more than a year after the hurricane. State Attorney’s Office Investigator Frank Zamora brought the case working with FEMA and agents Brian Calvary and Joseph Casciotta with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General.
The Category 4 Irma struck on September 10, 2017, destroying or damaging thousands of Florida Keys homes, and FEMA began accepting applications for monetary help for temporary housing, emergency home repairs, and uninsured and underinsured personal property losses. Not everyone who applied and received assistance was eligible to do so. Among them was Drago. He falsely claimed he lived in a mobile home on Park Avenue in Key West when Irma struck, a claim that resulted in him receiving $3,864 in FEMA assistance
Five years for repeat offender
A Key West man who had previously been to prison four separate times was sentenced to 60 months in Florida State Prison for breaking into an apartment in August 2018.
Travaris Thompson, 34, was sentenced December 21 by Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones after he pleaded no contest to burglary of a dwelling, grand theft and criminal mischief.
On August 10, 2018, a resident of William Street in Key West called the Key West Police Department to report her apartment had been burglarized. When police arrived, they found the front window broken and front door open. The apartment was “ransacked.” Police were able to lift palm prints from the broken window and they matched Thompson’s. Additionally, a delivery driver who had dropped off a package at the victim’s apartment the day of the burglary saw the suspect in the apartment and later identified Thompson in a photo lineup as the person he saw in the apartment and who signed for the package.
Thompson has previously served time in prison for sale of cocaine, burglary, grand theft, grand theft of a motor vehicle and being a felon in possession of a weapon or ammunition.
Burglar sent to prison for nearly five years
A Key West man was sentenced to nearly five years in Florida State Prison after pleading no contest to burglary of a dwelling and admitting to violating probation in a previous grand-theft case.
Hunter Williams, 32 also pleaded no contest to possession of cocaine. On March 7, Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced Williams to 56.4 months in prison to satisfy all the charges.
In the burglary case, Key West police officers arrested Williams on May 31, 2018, after police had been called to a Fleming Street home in response to a burglary alarm and report the day before. On May 30, 2018, the property manager told police it appeared someone was in the house. They searched it but didn’t find anyone. However, video shot by a security camera showed someone in the house and a photo of the suspect was distributed to officers to be on the lookout. Williams was later confirmed as the burglar.
Four years for break-in where kids were inside
A Key West man was sent to prison for four years after pleading no contest to burglary of an occupied dwelling and other charges.
Cha Jones, 25, also pleaded no contest to battery and giving a false name to a police officer, and two counts of violating probation in two previous cases. Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones handed down the sentence on March 7.
The burglary happened September 21, 2018, on Fleming Street. That night, the homeowner called Key West police and told them he was a few blocks away from his house when his daughter called to say there was someone there who was hiding under a bed in a bedroom. The daughter and a friend with her, both 13 years old, were hiding in another bedroom with the door locked.
The father ran home and gave chase but couldn’t catch Jones, who had just left through the front door and jumped the backyard fence into another property, a hotel. The father told hotel staff to call police, which they did. He then went back to his house to check on the kids and found Jones in his driveway trying to get away on the man’s bicycle. There was a brief struggle and the homeowner was able to restrain Jones but Jones broke free. But as he tried to run away, police arrived. The found him on the porch and detained him.
Prison for post-Irma burglar
A Key West man was sentenced to state prison for burglarizing a store three days after Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys.
Deondra Medley, 46, was given 13 months by Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones. Medley pleaded no contest on March 7 to burglary of a structure during a declared State of Emergency and felony petit theft. His prison sentence will be followed by 42 months of probation, during which time he must stay out of Monroe County.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott declared a State of Emergency on September 4, 2017, six days before Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm. Medley was arrested that September 28.
On September 13, 2017, Key West police were called to a CVS store on Duval Street about a burglary in progress. Because of the hurricane, the store had no electricity and was closed. Two witnesses described the suspect, who had fled, to police. The burglar had gotten into the store by removing a board covering a window, then breaking the window with a brick. The next day, one of the witnesses to the burglary called police after seeing Medley on Duval Street. Police arrived and the witness confirmed Medley was the person he saw at the CVS.
20 years for Lower Keys crime spree
A Big Coppitt Key man received 20 years in prison after entering a plea to 25 felony offenses, mostly auto burglary- and theft-related stemming from a January 2018 crime spree in the Lower Keys, and five misdemeanors.
Adrian Jesus Diaz, 21, pleaded no contest on April 3 to seven counts of burglary of a conveyance, six counts of grand theft, three counts of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, two counts of burglary while armed with a firearm, two counts of grand theft of a firearm and one count each of grand theft auto, fleeing and eluding (high speed or reckless), possession of cocaine, possessing marijuana over 20 grams and introducing contraband (marijuana) into a penal institution.
Diaz previously served a year in state prison for burglary, grand theft auto, grand theft, criminal mischief, fleeing and eluding, and operating a chop shop, all of which happened in Monroe County in 2015 and 2016.
In the latest cases, most of the auto burglaries and thefts happened in the Bay Point, Rockland Key and Big Coppitt Key areas and were reported to police on January 15, 2018. Items stolen included two .38-caliber Smith and Wesson handguns.Diaz was apprehended because one of the victim’s home surveillance systems captured footage of the car used in the auto burglary at his house, and he saw Diaz driving the car on his street the next day and called police, who apprehended him.
Other cases of note
Keys judge strikes order forcing domestic violence victim to produce dating past
A Monroe County judge overruled a lower court’s order that a victim of domestic violence release to her alleged abuser’s defense her 10-year dating history and contact information from past relationships.
In doing so on December 6, Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Timothy Koenig ruled that County Court Judge Peary Fowler’s May 28, 2019, order would cause “irreparable harm” to the victim and to the process as a whole, referencing the victim’s right to privacy and the public’s confidence in the process of the judicial system generally.
“The court grants the petition” filed by the State Attorney’s Office on June 19, 2019, to quash Judge Fowler’s order, Judge Koenig said in a hearing after reviewing the appeal and hearing arguments from Assistant State Attorney CristySpottswood and Hal Schuhmacher, defense attorney for Bradley McBride.
“Judge Koenig got it exactly right today,” Spottswood said after the hearing. “The State Attorney’s Office strives to protect all victims of domestic abuse from further victimization during pre-trial proceedings, and that mission was furthered today.”
Car theft and multiple-auto crash lands woman three years
A Florida Keys judge sentenced a woman to three years in Florida State Prison for stealing a vehicle from the Lower Keys, and then causing a crash involving multiple vehicles.
Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced Jessica Vanhorn, 32, of Ruskin, Fla., on September 12 after Vanhorn pleaded no contest to grand theft of a motor vehicle, a 2006 Ford Expedition, from Summerland Key. Prison will be followed by 24 months of probation.
In a separate case involving an auto crash in Key West involving six vehicles and the stolen motor vehicle, Vanhorn also pleaded no contest to driving under the influence causing damage to property or person, reckless driving causing damage to property or person, fleeing and eluding police, leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage and driving with a suspended or revoked driver’s license. She was put on drug-offender probation for 60 months, to be served following prison.
The theft and crash happened December 28, 2018. Monroe County Sheriff’s Office deputies learned about the crash while they were interviewing the owner of the stolen SV.
Wine aficionado is cut off
A Miami man was sentenced to 20 months in Florida State Prison after pleading no contest to stealing bottles of wine and other items from three Publix supermarkets in the Florida Keys.
Roberto Larias-DeLeon, 59, pleaded to stealing the wine from the grocery stores in Marathon and Islamorada, and food from the Key Largo Publix, on the same day, October 27, 2018. He pleaded to two counts of felony grand theft and one count of felony petit theft and was sentenced March 12 by Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Luis Garcia. He was apprehended at the Key Largo Publix after store managers alerted each other to the suspect.
All of the stolen wine was found in Larias-DeLeon’s van. He reportedly told a deputy: “What do you want me to tell you? I make a living stealing stuff and then selling it.”
Judge hands tire-slasher state time
A Key West man who went on a tire-slashing spree in Old Town was sent to Florida State Prison for two years.
Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones handed down the sentence to Ronald Wadford, 75, on April 4. Wadford had pleaded no contest to 11 felony counts of criminal mischief in May 2014 and was placed on 60 months of probation. But Wadford violated several terms of probation, so Judge Jones revoked his probation.
Wadford’s tire-slashing case stems from November 8, 2013. That day, Key West police received numerous reports from people about their auto tires being slashed in the area of Whitehead Street and Truman Avenue. Overall, 11 victims had a combined 14 tires slashed overnight. The combined monetary damage was estimated at about $2,500.
Video of the suspect was obtained and police identified him as Wadford. Four days later, police found him at the Key West library on Fleming Street. Wadford has a lengthy Monroe County arrest history and has served two previous stints in Florida State Prison, one for aggravated assault and one on a cocaine charge.
Fight, damage to bar supply lead to prison term
A Summerland Key man returned to Florida State Prison after pleading out to several criminal charges.
On August 8, Monroe County Circuit Court Judge Mark Jones sentenced Nicholas Merkey, 31, to 30 months in prison after Merkey pleaded no contest to felony battery, fleeing or attempting to elude law enforcement, leaving the scene of an accident involving property damage, and resisting an officer without violence. He also admitted to violating probation in another case.
Deputies were called to the Looe Key Tiki Bar on Ramrod Key about 9:20 p.m. on February 18 about a fight in progress. When they arrived, they were told the person who started it, Merkey, had left in a Ford F-150, but not before wrecking a supply shed with bottles of alcohol. Deputies found him a short distance away at a convenience store. He had “markings consistent with being in a physical altercation, such as bumps and bruises on his head, a bloody lower lip, blood on his hands and shirt, and his shirt was torn,” a deputy wrote in a report. After investigation, he was arrested.
A Key Largo man who illegally deposited tree limbs and branches along U.S. 1 in the immediate months following Hurricane Irma was convicted of felony dumping.
In a trial by court December 4, Acting Circuit Court Judge Ruth Becker convicted Brian Walker, 56, of the third-degree felony, saying Walker wasn’t credible and “the evidence … is overwhelming.”
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Jose Hernandez arrested Walker on December 2, 2017, at mile marker 58 of U.S. 1 after the Sheriff’s Office received a call from someone saying he drove by what appeared to be illegal dumping occurring. The Category 4 Hurricane Irma struck the Keys on September 10, 2017, and Monroe County banned dumping of hurricane debris for collection along U.S. 1 at the end of that November.
When Hernandez arrived at the scene of the dumping, he found Walker in the driver’s seat of a Ford F-250 with a black trailer attached parked just off U.S. 1. Directly behind the trailer was the pile of tree limbs and branches. Tire tracks beginning under the debris pile led directly to the back of the open-air trailer.