3 elected officials suspended, charged
SOUTH BAY — Three elected officials in a small city located at the southern end of Lake Okeechobee have been suspended from office after being charged with Sunshine Law violations.

The Palm Beach Post reports that Gov. Rick Scott suspended South Bay Mayor Shirley Walker-Turner, vice mayor Linda Johnson and commissioner John Wilson earlier this month.

Prosecutors say the officials made a behind-the-scenes deal to pay city manager Corey Alston $25,139 for 498 hours in unused vacation pay. Alton has been charged with grand theft and placed on administrative leave.

Also, Longtime city attorney Thomas Montgomery abruptly resigned after commissioners accused him of not providing sufficient legal advice on how to avoid Sunshine Law violations.

Two commissioners remain in office.



SeaWorld files to go public with $100 million IPO
NEW YORK — Looks like Shamu may soon be making a splash in the stock market.

The company famous for water shows featuring killer whales, dolphins and other animals at SeaWorld said Thursday that it is planning to go public. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. has filed for an initial public offering of stock aimed at raising $100 million. That number is likely to change as the company’s bankers gauge interest from investors.

From its origins as a Busch Gardens animal park at Anheuser-Busch’s Tampa Budweiser brewery, the company has grown to span 11 theme parks housing 67,000 animals. Besides the three SeaWorld parks, the company owns two Busch Gardens parks and Sesame Place, an amusement park based on the children’s TV show Sesame Street.

The company warns that its business is dependent on customers’ willingness to spend on leisure and entertainment — which may be a tough proposition in a still-weak U.S. economy. Still, SeaWorld’s revenue has risen in the three years that it’s been owned by private equity firm

Blackstone Group LP. The company has looked for ways to stay competitive in the current market, branching out this year with a Saturday morning television show, “Sea Rescue,” on the ABC network to attract young viewers.

Blackstone is expected to sell some of its stock in the IPO but keep a majority stake, SeaWorld said in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. SeaWorld plans to use money raised in the IPO to pay down debt and make a payment to the New York-based firm.

Blackstone bought SeaWorld, formerly Busch Entertainment Corp., from beer brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev in 2009 for $2.3 billion. The Belgian company was shedding assets to help pay for its $52 billion takeover of St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch in 2008.



Alachua County may put officers in elementary schools
GAINESVILLE — Alachua County’s law enforcement may temporarily patrol public elementary schools all day long once classes resume on Jan. 3.
The Gainesville Sun reports that the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office and the School Board are considering a proposal that would place armed deputies at the 12 elementary schools that lie outside Gainesville city limits for the duration of the school day.

If the proposal goes through, off-duty deputies would be assigned to patrol the schools from 7:30 a.m. until 30 minutes after dismissal at the expense of the sheriff’s office.

Currently, school resource officers are provided to middle and high schools.

Officials are searching for ways to permanently fund school resource officers in elementary schools.



Mom urges people not to shoot guns off on New Year’s Eve
TAMPA — The mother of a boy who was hit by a stray bullet from celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Day 2012 is speaking out in hopes of preventing similar injuries.

Sandy Duran of Ruskin created a campaign called Bullet Free Sky after her 13-year-old son Diego was hit in the head by a bullet while standing in his front yard. She’s holding a news conference Thursday to urge people not to celebrate with gunshots.

Diego has undergone several surgeries to remove the bullet from his face, two brain aneurysms and a procedure to seal off leaking spinal fluid.
The non-profit effort was started to raise awareness about the dangers of celebratory gunfire. Sandy Duran created a website and produced a public service announcement to get the message out.



Floridians worry about falling off fiscal cliff
GAINESVILLE — A new University of Florida survey shows a growing pessimism among the state’s residents worried about the potential effects of Congress failing to deal with the fiscal cliff.

Confidence that personal finances will be sound at this time next year dropped two points in the monthly survey while confidence in the U.S. economy over the coming year fell six points in the survey of 400 Florida residents by UF researchers.

Overall, Florida’s consumer confidence remained unchanged in December, albeit down slightly from a post-recession peak in September.

Improving home sales and rising home values, declining gas prices and a resilient stock market offered the good news in the report along with trends that state revenues may be higher than estimated for the first time in several years.



Police find kidnapped Pensacola man’s body
PENSACOLA — Police say a man who was kidnapped from his apartment on Christmas Eve has been found dead in a wooded area less than a mile from his Pensacola apartment.

The body of Torrance “Top Cat” Hackworth was found Wednesday following an anonymous tip to police.

The Pensacola News Journal reports four or five men forced their way into Hackworth’s girlfriend’s apartment on Monday. Hackworth was beaten, bound, gagged and thrown into the trunk of a car that was later found submerged in Pensacola Bay.

Police say the crime was drug-related. They’re investigating a Christmas Day home invasion that happened about a block from where Hackworth was kidnapped. Three or four men entered an apartment and shot one man shot in the foot, the other in the stomach.



Cops: Thief cuts power, robs business
LAKE CITY — Authorities say a man shut off the electricity to the Internet Cafe in Lake City before robbing it early on Christmas Eve.
The Gainesville Sun reports that when the power went out just after midnight Monday, an employee went outside to check the breaker. That’s when the suspect entered the building and went to the office.

Columbia County Sheriff’s deputies say another employee tried to stop the robber, but he got away with an undetermined amount of cash.
Deputies say no one was injured. They are searching for the suspect, who left in a white pickup truck.



Woman burglary suspect tries to swim to freedom
WEEKI WACHEE — Sheriff’s deputies in Hernando County say a string of burglaries may have ended when a suspect was captured while trying to swim to freedom.

Deputies say they caught 21-year-old Chelsea Lane late last week after a homeowner saw her trying to break in and gave chase. Lane jumped into a canal off the Weeki Wachee River and tried to backstroke to the other side. Authorities were waiting on the other side to take her to jail.

The Tampa Bay Times reports Lane is accused in a string of six burglaries in Hernando County and is a suspect in several other burglaries in nearby Pasco County on Dec. 20. Lane admitted to a number of burglaries, saying she targeted jewelry.
Lane remains in the Hernando County Jail.



Mail stolen from Tampa-area neighborhoods
RIVERVIEW — Tampa Bay area deputies are searching for the Grinch who stole hundreds of pieces of mail from boxes in a suburban Hillsborough County neighborhood.

The letters, holiday cards and flyers were removed from the mailboxes either late Monday or early Christmas morning at three Riverview-area subdivisions and elsewhere. Some of the mail was opened.

Much of it was dumped on area streets and lawns.

In one case, mail from one home was stuffed into a neighbor’s mailbox. In other cases, mail from one subdivision was dumped on the ground in a different subdivision.

Investigators aren’t sure if a thief or thieves kept anything or what their motive might be. They have not yet ruled out the possibility that it was a mean holiday prank.



Deputy charged with punching inmate
LAND O’LAKES — Authorities say a Tampa Bay area jail deputy will be fired after he allegedly punched an inmate in the jail medical ward.
The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reports that 45-year-old Philip Bruce Walters grabbed the inmate by the neck and punched him in the head on Christmas night. It’s unclear what prompted to alleged attack. Witnesses said the inmate was not aggressive.

The Tampa Bay Times reports the inmate grabbed Walter’s two-way radio during the brawl and called for help. Deputies said the inmate had a bruise on his forehead and scrapes on his neck.

Walters first denied the beating, then said the inmate was aggressive.

He was charged with battery and booked into the same jail where he worked.

The sheriff’s office said he was being fired Wednesday.



Pregnant woman killed in crash
BRADENTON — The Florida Highway Patrol says a pregnant woman died in a motorcycle crash near Bradenton.

FHP says 18-year-old Shaneice Porter was approaching an intersection late Wednesday when her motorcycle struck a curb and she lost control of the vehicle. Porter was thrown from the motorcycle and struck a stop sign. The motorcycle continued rolling along the road before overturning.
According to troopers, Porter was eight months pregnant.

Porter and her unborn child died a short time later at Blake Medical Center.



Aunt backs car over 1-year-old boy
CLEWISTON — The Florida Highway Patrol says a 1-year-old boy was critically injured when his aunt backed her vehicle over him in Clewiston.
Troopers say the accident happened just before 4 p.m. on Christmas Day as 22-year-old Necie Love was backing out of a space at Harlem Tenants Apartments.

FHP says Marice Love ran toward the vehicle and was run over by the front tire.

The child was taken to Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers.

An investigation is under way.