FLEMING ISLAND – Here’s hoping you had a Merry Christmas and will have a Happy New Year! As we close out of 2018 and brace ourselves for 2019, Clay Today takes a look back at the Top 10 stories of the year. Join us as we countdown, some of the significant events that touched our community these past 12 months.
Walk out at King Day breakfast
ORANGE PARK – On Jan. 15, at the 2018 MLK Day-N-Clay celebration, elected officials walked in protest after master of ceremonies Rev. Bill Randall referred to former U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown as an MLK, “Men Like King.”
Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, was sentenced to five years in prison for 18 counts of fraud and tax violations.
After a group photo of all the candidates and elected officials, Brown spoke to the group despite not being on the official schedule. She strayed from any specific mention of her conviction, and instead focused on doing “the best I could,” and said the dash between your birth date and death date represent what we accomplish in life. However, Brown then introduced her attorney who spoke about her case and the potential for an appeal due after a juror was removed by the judge for an outside influence from the “holy spirit.”
“Dr. King would’ve never stood by silent,” the lawyer said.
This prompted a handful of Clay County officials to walk out, including Sheriff Darryl Daniels, who held a news conference to rebut the day’s events.
Daniels as the Sheriff of Clay County, it made him feel awkward to be photographed with a convicted felon.
“In this setting where we’re celebrating or speaking to the life work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Daniels said. “It may not have been the most appropriate setting to bring someone with some cloudiness associated with her name into that setting.”
In closing, Randall said he would’ve sentenced Brown to a life of serving the people of her former district through fundraising and volunteerism.
Council on Aging fires director, changes course
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On Oct. 16, after months, if not years of financial losses, the Clay County Council on Aging fired Al Rizer as its executive director and began setting a course to alleviate its financial losses on its transportation services.
Rizer helmed the organization for about two years, and previously served as executive director from 2008-2013. Rizer said the council suffered from a drop in revenue and ridership.
He also said staffing was issue. Chief Financial Officer Megan Villavicencio resigned the same day before the council’s meeting which aimed to hash out a revenue shortfall the agency is facing in its operation of Clay Transit.
“I felt like I have given a very good effort to this organization in the years that I’ve been here. That’s the decision of the board and I wish them the best. It’s a bad situation, but it is what it is,” Rizer said. “Revenues dropped off, the agency has been losing money for three years now and we just weren’t able to turn it around.”
Council President John Bowles said a change in leadership was needed in the organization with the serious accounting problems.
“It’s simply a business decision. It has nothing to do with personalities, because we all know each other and worked together for years,” Bowles said. “We hate that it comes down to this.”
Clay County Auditor Mike Price estimated the council’s transportation monthly losses at $15,000, in addition to about $160,00 in 2016 losses and $200,000 in losses last year. Bowles said senior services would not be affected by the transportation services’ deficit as the council considered cuts.
In January, transportation services will be taken over by another provider and programs will continue at each of the senior service centers in Clay County.
Orange Park turns down CCUA’s $20 million
ORANGE PARK – Residents no longer need to worry about Clay County Utility Authority taking over the town’s water utility systems after a vote by Town Council.
During the Sept. 18 regular meeting, Town Council voted 5-0 to end further discussion with CCUA and a $20 million offer presented last spring to buy the town’s water and sewer system. Prior to the council’s regular meeting, council members and CCUA board members met in a town hall-style forum in council chambers to openly present the proposal.
“We’re not a whole lot different than you,” Morris said. “I’d like to think of us as friends and neighbors. We share the same commitment to high levels of customer service and that’s who we are and what we do and why we’re here, and I’m hoping we can have a high-level conceptual interest to see if you all can reach a consensus and give us direction on the next steps.”
The 3-page offer letter from CCUA Executive Director Tom Morris to Town Manager Sarah Campbell dated June 18 also details a $400,000 annual payment CCUA would make to the town.
In weeks leading up to the town hall, Campbell said it would be up to the residents to decide whether water and sewer is a function residents consider a necessary service.
“I don’t think we’ve ever gone down the list of water services and what that means to the town. What is the community's reaction to this offer and how important is the provision of water and sewer service to the town by the town for citizens? These are questions we’re looking to get answered before we move forward with anything,” Campbell said.
A room of over 50 constituents heard Morris explain the benefits the acquisition would provide, as well as CCUA’s reasoning behind the offer.
Crazy election year
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On Nov. 6, 61 percent of Clay County voters cast ballots in the 2018 General Election ending an election cycle that involved two lawsuits and an incumbent losing a seat on the School Board.
Clay County Court Judge Kristina Mobley filed suit to ask a judge to decertify her opponent Lucy Hoover of Middleburg.
The lawsuit, which also included Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless, claimed Hoover did not follow the rules and did not properly turn in all of her required documents by the proper closing time required to qualify for office. In the lower court, a circuit court judge sided with Mobley, which led Hoover to appeal the case.
However, in the runup to the election, the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear Hoover’s appeal of the First District Court of Appeal ruling that affirmed the lower court’s ruling.
Incumbent District 5 School Board member Ashley Gilhousen filed suit against her runoff opponent, Lynn Chafee, on grounds she did not live in the district the day she qualified to run for office.
In a meeting with the judge assigned to the case, the two parties agreed to hold off on hearing the case in court and instead waited to see what happened at the polls on Nov. 6.
Gilhousen defeated Chafee by a vote of 49,505 votes to Chafee’s 33,632 votes.
In the Aug. 28 primary, first-term incumbent Betsy Condon was defeated by former board member Tina Bullock in the District 3 Clay County School Board race by a vote of 20,250 to 17,512.
VA Clinic coming to Clay County
DOCTORS INLET – After convening a group of Clay County veterans and other interested parties on Feb. 9, U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho(R-3) of Gainesville announced Aug. 1 that a Veterans Administration health clinic will be built and opened on College Drive in the Doctors Inlet area.
Once it’s open, the clinic is projected to attract approximately 4,500 new Veterans and serve more than 11,000 Veteran enrollees in the following years. The lease calls for an initial contract for a 10-year lease. Construction timeline and activation schedules will be determined in post award design meetings Yoho will hold, said a press release.
In 2016, 2017 and again in February of 2018, Yoho hosted community stakeholders, leaders, and local veterans in the county to make potential bidders aware of the multiple proposals available for this project. Despite the first two rounds of VA RFP’s going unanswered, Yoho continued to garner support of the project.
In the February meeting, Yoho’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kat Cammack said this year marked the third set of proposals sought within two years to establish a VA clinic in Clay County. The previous two rounds failed because the VA did not receive any proposals. In the last two rounds, the proposals were initiated by Yoho but generally delegated to Clay County.
“In the past, we took the information [for the proposal process] and sent it directly to the county,” Cammack said. “This time we’ve taken a really strong position on helping to get the word out.”
The clinic is expected to be completed in 2020.
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Valentine’s Day 2018 shooting deaths of 17 people and 17 others injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland sent ripples throughout Florida that resulted in new laws and state funding to place bolstered security and school resource officers in each Florida public school.
On Feb. 22, two separate threats of Clay County school shootings were posted on social media and ended in the arrests of two female students on Feb. 23. A 13-year-old and a 15-year-old student were both charged with making the false report of the use of firearms in a violent manner, disrupting or interfering with school administration or functions and making written threats to kill or do bodily injury to others.
Forty percent of the 2,452 students at Oakleaf High did not attend school on Feb. 22 and attendance had not returned to normal last Friday either. A second post was made the same day, alleging that the same cousin was just “waiting for everyone to be back.” The police report also mentions a text message sent to multiple people on Feb. 22, but the contents of this message were redacted from the Toledo police report.
On Feb. 22, School Superintendent Addison Davis said every threat will be punished to the extent of the district’s code of conduct.
“As a community member, as an educator, as a parent, no student, no teacher, no staff member should experience this tragic act as it is unacceptable for anyone to penetrate the sanctity of a school,” Davis said. “It is essential that I assure that each school workplace be a respectful and safe work environment for all – all students – where students can learn, where teachers can teach and employees can support the robust learning conditions that lead to our emotional and social growth for all of our students.”
On June 7, Davis signed funding accords with the Clay County and the Sheriff’s Office to fund and provide School Resource Officers in Clay County.
Missing woman found murdered
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – On Jan. 19, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office ended a month-long investigation by charging a Keystone Heights man with murder and sexual battery.
Joe Arthur Turner, 28, of Keystone Heights faces one count each of murder and sexual battery in the death of Jordan Cooper, a woman with intellectual disabilities who went missing around Thanksgiving 2017 and was later found in the attic of her parents’ home on Dec. 11.
Officials booked Turner on the new charges while he was already being held in the Clay County Jail for burglary and grand theft charges unrelated to Cooper.
“Evidence obtained during that investigation subsequently linked Joe Arthur Turner to Jordan Cooper’s murder, sexual assault and the burglary of her residence,” police said. “Preserving case integrity was no easy task, but we were awaiting on evidence confirmation from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.”
CCSO officials said they are thankful for everyone who assisted in the Cooper investigation.
“Federal, state and local law enforcement, along with the entire community, worked tirelessly during this troublesome time,” the release states. “Case integrity is of paramount importance, especially considering the case closure does not stop here, but rather once the judicial process has been completed.”
Cooper’s body was positively identified by the Duval County Medical Examiner’s Office. Sheriff Darryl Daniels said Dec. 9 that foul play was suspected in Cooper’s death.
Drug dealer murder case turned over to feds
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On May 23, U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Barksdale held an arraignment for Trumaine Devone Muller, 33, of Jacksonville, for the murder of 18-year-old Ariel Brundige of Orange Park.
Muller pleaded not guilty to all four counts in the May 10 indictment. He is currently in federal custody while he awaits a planned January trial in federal court. Muller was originally arraigned by the state courts, but a further investigation found the case was more appropriate for federal court due to the nature of the offenses.
In recent weeks, Muller’s attorneys have tried to suppress prevent federal prosecutors from using records of his cell phone messages and texts involving the drug transaction that killed Brundige.
On May 23, 2017, Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels announced that Muller had been arrested and charged with Brundige’s death because he sold the drugs that killed her. She died of an overdose of fentanyl on November 10, 2016 in Orange Park. Brundige’s friends – Tyler Hamilton, 26, and Christopher Williams, 32, purchased the drugs from Muller.
Hamilton, who was Brundige’s boyfriend, and Williams were also indicted for manslaughter related to her death. Hamilton was with her during the overdose and called 911 to report the overdose, attempting to save her life.
According to the CCSO, all current and future drug overdose cases will be investigated as homicides.
Community mourns for Deputy Ben Zirbel
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – In an Aug. 22 press conference, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office said 40-year-old Ben Zirbel, a motorcycle deputy, died 3 days after he was involved in an accident while on duty.
“It is very unfortunate that I have a guy who’s traveling down the street enforcing traffic laws and fell victim to those laws that he was sworn to enforce,” said Sheriff Darryl Daniels.
Zirbel was southbound on Blanding Boulevard when a truck pulling a trailer darted in front on his motorcycle around 10:55 a.m. on Aug. 18. Zirbel crashed into the trailer and was thrown from the motorcycle at the intersection of Camp Francis Johnson Road.
“Ben died doing what he enjoyed doing, being on that motorcycle. He enjoyed being a law enforcement officer, he enjoyed working for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office and he enjoyed what he was doing,” Daniels said.
Zirbel’s wife, Anna, thanked the community for the outpouring of support their family has received since the accident.
“My son, my family and I want to thank everyone in this community for their love and their support over the past few days. It has meant so much to us,” she said.
She spoke about Ben’s passion for helping others and why this was the reason that he joined law enforcement. She also said that, even in death, he will continue to help others as he did in life because he was a registered organ donor.
Grand jury indicts 4 for 2016 first-degree murder
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – On March 1, a Clay County Grand Jury indicted four people for the 2016 murder of Kolton Thomas Shearer, 18, of Middleburg.
Ozell McNabb Jr., 24; Taurean Andretti Johnson, 30; Jordan Tyler Coleman, 22; and Alexandra Grace Schreffler, 23, all of Green Cove Springs, face one count each of first-degree pre-meditated murder and armed robbery for the July 10, 2016 killing. McNabb and Johnson both face one count each of possession of a weapon or ammo by a convicted felon.
Shearer was fatally shot in the abdomen while inside a home at 1956 County Road 16A during a reported robbery about 2 a.m. Police said another man, David Cody Levo, was shot in the thigh and recovered after surgery at Orange Park Medical Center.
Schreffler and Coleman lived at the residence, according to arrest reports.
While investigating the case, detectives said McNabb, Coleman, Johnson and Schreffler, were with Shearer and two other people at the home on County Road 16A near Idlewild Avenue around 2 a.m. The reason for the meeting was not known, but investigators said they believe robbery was the motive for the incident. They said someone in the group of four started shooting, killed Shearer and struck Levo in the leg.
Shearer, a Middleburg High graduate, was on summer break from South Georgia State College where he was attending on a baseball scholarship. His family mourned his death calling him “an all-American boy who loved the outdoors, fishing, the beach and his family.”