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Best of 2009

December 20, 2009

TAMPA — Because of the rain, Guelmis Yanes left for work 15 minutes early Friday. A construction job waited for him in Sarasota, which put the 27-year-old on the Sunshine Skyway before sunrise, listening to Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli.

Something caught his eye:

A red Mustang, empty, hazard lights flashing.

A lone woman, walking up the slant of the bridge.

The car must have broken down, Yanes thought. The woman looked about the same age as his mother. Maybe she needed a ride. He passed her and stopped, watching her silhouette in his rear-view mirror. He figured she was walking toward the bridge phone. Then, she was gone.

Had she jumped?

He thought about the day in October when he saw a burning car on the bridge. It had turned out to be a murder-suicide. Just this week, he saw troopers gather after a 30-year-old woman plunged to her death.

Yanes, who recounted these details in an interview Friday evening with the Times, left his car and felt the rain whip his face. He had driven this bridge so many times but had never stepped on it. He thought the wind might blow him away.

Then, he saw the woman’s hands hooked over the edge of the bridge’s retaining wall. Then, her legs, swinging over toward him. She had pulled herself back up.

She was 51 and not much taller than 5 feet. Her hair was short and blonde, and she smelled of cigarette smoke.

“Please,” Yanes yelled as he ran up to her, “don’t jump.”

The woman looked exhausted.

“I’ve got to do it,” he remembers her saying. “I’ve got to do it.”

“No,” he told her, “you don’t. This is not the answer to your problems.”

She responded, “You don’t know my problems.”

She had no job, no prospects. She said, “I cannot live on $275 a week.” He told her his father, a welder, was out of work, too. He asked if he could take her to a coffee shop, right then, and talk. He told her he didn’t mind getting to work late, and that he’d pay.

He remembers what she told him. “No no, please,” she said. “I’ve got to do this.”

She had crouched down with her back to the wall of the bridge, so Yanes thought she had changed her mind. He took out his cell phone and called 911. The operator couldn’t hear him, so he shouted. He lost sight of the woman for a second, and when he looked for her, she was gone.

Then, he saw the hands again. He ran. He peered over the edge, and there she was, struggling to climb back up. He reached over with his right hand and grabbed the wall with his left.

There they stood again. The woman dripped with sweat. He didn’t know what to say. Then, something popped into his head:

“Do you believe in God?”

The woman said yes.

“Do you believe he wants you to do this when he gave you the opportunity to live?”

She looked down, and asked if he thought she would go to hell. He asked, “Do you have any children?” Yes. “Grandchildren?” Yes. “Do you really think that this is fair to them?”

She stayed quiet. He tried to cry, thinking that might help. “I have a mother,” he told her. “I have a father. I have a grandmother. I don’t know what I would do if they did this.”

The woman didn’t say anything. She took a big breath.

“Okay,” he told her, “I’m going to call somebody to come and help us.”

His own phone hadn’t worked, so he walked to the bridge phone, which meant turning his back on her. He held that phone up to one ear and his cell up to another, trying to get through.

A third time, she climbed over the wall.

He screamed, “Don’t jump!”

This time, she looked more tired as she clung to the wall’s edge. “Help,” she pleaded. “Help.” He reached over again, one arm on her pants, one arm on the wall, fighting the wind. He looked at the dark water and worried she might pull him down. With strength he didn’t know he had, he pulled her up.

This time, he pinned her to the ground. Cars zoomed by. Yanes saw a Florida Highway Patrol trooper stop at the woman’s car and look over the wall. He was at least a football field away.

The patrolman didn’t seem to notice them at first.

In the minutes that followed, the woman would tell Yanes he was ruining everything. She would scratch him and threaten to take him down. He would not let go as he forced her down the bridge toward the trooper, all of her weight in his arms. A hospital would keep her for her own protection.

All day, he would think about her.

It began with one step, one command.

“Come on,” Yanes told her, “get up.”

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

***

TAMPA — For the first time in history, it allowed a human to tap a backspace key and make a mistake go away.

Called “Selectric II,” it was conceived when Richard Nixon was president, when IBM made typewriters and when a hand-typed card catalog tracked every book at Tampa’s downtown library.

Librarians got machines for the public, giving each a room of its own with walls the shade of an avocado. The workhorses spit out labels for spines of books and stamped Dewey decimals on paper cards. They typed resumes, got people jobs.

But sometime around the election of Ronald Reagan, IBM teamed up with a 32-person company called Microsoft and started selling “personal computers” for $1,565 apiece.

In 1982, Time named the computer Man of the Year.

After that, computers got lighter, cheaper. Libraries stocked up, monitors aglow.

No one watched as vandals slipped into the avocado rooms and did wretched things to typewriters. Soon they were kept behind locked doors.

Four public typewriters became three. Then, two. One.

Then sometime last week, the typewriter hammered over the same spot again. And again. Its ribbon refused to advance. Even the backspace key could do nothing to help.

Librarians rushed to find a second typewriter, one they’d kept hidden in case this one broke. But it, too, refused to comply.

If people asked — and not many did — librarians sent them half an hour away to Ruskin, where the last working county library typewriter remains. They called a repairman who gets maybe five jobs a month and takes payment only in paper checks. For $60 plus parts, it will be good as new.

Until then, the downtown library’s last typewriter sits alone behind a locked door, shrouded with a paper sign, which in big, bold letters reads:

OUT OF

ORDER.

Typed on a computer.

***

Cuba’s lost generation, January 2009

The year is 1940. Fidel Castro is just a boy.

In five years, he will enroll in the University of Havana, where Marxist-Leninist philosophy will spark his interest.

In 13 years, he will launch his first attack against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

In 19 years, he will march into Havana, victorious.

That event — in January 1959 — will change the island nation forever. Over the next 50 years, many who don’t agree with Castro’s regime will flee in defections and mass exoduses of families: on airplanes, smugglers’ boats and tiny makeshift rafts, sailing across the Florida Straits. Many will die.

But on this day in 1940, it’s time to celebrate.

Aurora Santiesteban has been born in the town of Holguin. As tradition dictates, her father buries a jug of rum mixed with wine and fruit.

The next-door neighbor helps, and then takes his 1-year-old son, Pedro, to the hospital with a tiny ring for Aurora.

The Cuban fathers hope their children will one day marry.

They will.

Twenty years later, the jug will be dug up again and another toast made when Aurora and Pedro give birth to a baby boy.

Just months later Pedro will land in jail for conspiring to overthrow Castro. Aurora will flee Cuba with their baby. And Pedro Jr. won’t see his dad again until he is 17.

This is both the story of one family and of an entire generation…

* * *

Takeout doesn’t mean chairs, dude, January 2009 (deadline)

TAMPA — Dude …

Remember Friday night, when you went across the street to the Pita Pit after all-you-can-drink happy hour at MacDinton’s?

You ordered food. Then, you grabbed a chair. You dragged it right out the door — across Howard Avenue! Employees canvassed SoHo when they realized what you did, but the chair was nowhere to be found.

Dude. Where’d you go? Who are you? And, more importantly, why would you want that chair? It’s got a metal frame and wood seat. Your beanbag chairs have got to be more comfortable.

Now the Pita Pit is down to only nine chairs. “They’re not, like, cheap chairs,” owner Andrew Turek, 26, says. “We have to get them … shipped from Idaho.”

Idaho, dude.

The pita folks saw you on their security video. They put it on YouTube. They don’t know your name but say you’re a regular.

I’m the idiot, says a note on the video, pointing to you. (Nice sideburns, by the way.)

I only have 2 friends and 1 of them should turn me in. (It’s offering a free pita to anyone who does.) Call (813) 254-PITA (7482).

I’m not allowed in Pita Pit anymore 😦

Unless you bring the chair back, Turek says.

Then, it’s all good.

* * *

The Super Bowl from two perspectives, February 2009 (deadline)

TAMPA — All fans are not created equal — not at Raymond James Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday.

In this world, some sip good liquor in seats close enough to smell the players’ sweat. And others, perched seven stories above the field, only smell, well, other people’s sweat.

On this most important game of the season, when one’s worth is at least partially defined by the location of his seat among 72,500 others, there are clear winners.

And there are perchers.

Will this hypothesis prove true? Does the view from your seat really dictate the quality of your experience? We watched the game from both angles to decide…

* * *

Gasparilla neighbors chronicle the lewd and nasty, February 2009 (deadline)

… Jones and his Hyde Park neighbors carried cameras on Saturday, to document what happens when Gasparilla mayhem spills into residential streets.

He’s looking for fights. Looking for indecent exposure. Looking for — that guy, right there, urinating on a wall.

Jones pulls his camera phone out of his shirt pocket and aims.

“You’re taking a picture?” the man’s friend asks.

“Yeah,” Jones says.

“What the f— is wrong with you?”

* * *

Big butt shots can be fatal, February 2009

TAMPA — Online forums have a way of bringing together people with unique interests. Like knitting, for instance. Or cosmetic butt injections.

* * *

‘Providence’, March 2009 (anchored on deadline)

TAMPA — As Coast Guard rescuers closed in on Nick Schuyler, hunched over the propeller of a capsized boat, he didn’t scream. He didn’t gesture.

He just looked and waited.

Only he could tell what became of his three friends now lost in a cold, violent sea. Only he knew how they spent their final moments together.

More details of his story began to trickle out of his hospital room Wednesday, triggering different emotional reactions among the families of the lost men.

One father refuses to believe his son gave up, removed his life vest and drifted away. He is spearheading a private search and rescue mission that continues today.

Another learned from Schuyler that his son was held until he died. That father could finally grieve, he said.

Though the sole survivor has uttered his story to only a trusted few, everyone is hanging onto his words

* * *

The catch, March 2009 (deadline, exclusives)

Day one. Tiffany’s perspective:

TAMPA — Just minutes earlier, Tiffany Loflin had been fast asleep. Now, trapped in the smoke-filled room of her burning apartment, the 23-year-old watched her toddler dangling out the window.

Her friend A.J. Grace, 20, held the 16-month-old and calculated the two-story drop. Her brother Ryan Loflin, 25, stood below with his arms extended.

The young mother’s heart pounded fast.

Oh my God, she thought. Please, just catch her…


Day two. Ryan’s perspective:

TAMPA — Ryan Loflin’s heart is still pounding. He still hears the dying screams of the woman next door, still sees the toddler’s face as she swung like a pendulum, dangling over his head and outside a second-story window. On the ground, Loflin braced himself, hands outstretched. The man holding the little girl had lost his grip, but grabbed her by the leg. And there she was, 16-month-old niece Tiyana Samuel, staring at him. She was smiling…

* * *

Baby tossed onto I-275, May 2009 (anchored on deadline)

TAMPA — If she had gone to court Monday, maybe the domestic violence charge she had filed would have stuck.

If he had shown up, the judge might have noticed he was a fugitive in a felony battery case and put him in custody.

Maybe then, Richard McTear Jr. would never have gone to the home of former girlfriend Jasmine Bedwell.

Maybe her 3-month-old son, Emanuel Wesley Murray, would still be alive

* * *

In a dog flight to save puppies, August 2009

TAMPA — Thick, dark clouds surround the Tampa Executive Airport on this rainy Wednesday afternoon. Three hours ago, the National Weather Service issued a severe thunderstorm warning.

But by 1 p.m., Jeff Bennett is revving up the propeller of his single-engine plane. Three rescued dogs from Missouri await him in Georgia, and they can’t stay overnight

* * *

Tampa Police officer shot dead, August 2009 (deadline)

Profile of accused killer

TAMPA — Before he was charged with the murder of a Tampa police officer, Humberto Delgado Jr.’s only brush with the law was a speeding ticket.

Like the officer, Delgado had worn a police badge and served in the U.S. Army. He, too, was a father — two boys, one girl.

But Delgado’s family says he was depressed and bipolar, on and off medication, a wanderer, in and out of communication with them. At 34, he was an insomniac…

A name for the ages

… The line stretched out the door of the Blount & Curry Funeral Home in Carrollwood Monday night and wrapped around the building.

Officers, their spouses and kids stood alongside members of the public who got to know Roberts only in the stories told after his death. Hundreds waited.

On monitors above their heads, his life played out in a slide show. There he was, in a little league uniform, as a hockey goalie, in scuba gear.

He sat with his wife on the beach, went nose-to-snout with a dog, walked into a Bucs game with his son, both in jerseys, hand in hand.

He wore a badge.

Further ahead, the badge rested in a glass case with other honors — a patch for the U.S. Air Force, one for the Army. His dog tags.

The line continued into the chapel. White-gloved Tampa police honor guards flanked the casket, Roberts’ beloved K-9 dogs at their feet.

Guests who knelt saw a baby’s pillow just above Roberts’ head. It said, My Daddy.

The scene was somber — maybe too somber for a man known to make people laugh. Roberts’ sense of humor found its way through the speakers.

Boom boom boom …

Bass pumped through an electronic dance beat.

Boom boom boom …

The Black Eyed Peas’ summer hip-hop jam Boom Boom Pow filled the chapel.

People smiled.

* * *

“Miss Rest? This is Jack …”, September 2009

TAMPA — She slept while Hurricane Katrina devastated the only city she had ever known. As she had for seven decades, she slept alone.

Mina Rest never married, never had children. She was an only child, her parents long gone. But a Yorkie named Penny took the place of family. The spunky little creature claimed all the woman’s love.

Four years ago in August, Mina awoke on the second story of a flooded New Orleans apartment building, with no air conditioning in the heat of summer, no television window to the hell outside. Just Penny...

* * *

An infant murdered; a boy on trial, 2009

Exclusive interview with the grandmother: … “Ima, I’m so scared,” she recalls him saying on the phone before his arrest.

“I didn’t mean to hurt the baby…”

Exclusive access to the boy after the trial: MARIETTA, Ga. — The 12-year-old Tampa boy sat in the Cobb County Juvenile Courthouse Friday morning, still an accused baby murderer. A few hours later, he chomped on potato chips and Skittles and asked to go to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Golden Corral. He told his family he had plans for his future.

“I want to be a judge,” he said. “I want to go to Harvard.”

This announcement came after one made by Judge A. Gregory Poole: The boy was not guilty of murder and child cruelty in the July death of his 5-week-old cousin, Millan Young. He was guilty of a lesser offense, two counts of battery, which could carry a two-year sentence, served either in a detention center, a group home, or as probation while living with family. The sentence will come with counseling.

The judge will decide it on Jan. 6.

Had the boy been convicted of murder, he would have faced nine years in detention.

As they prepared to leave the courthouse, the boy’s grandmother wrapped him in a tight hug and told him, “See how God delivered you?”

He responded, “Yes, ma’am.” …

* * *

Sunshine Skyway tragedy, October 2009 (exclusive)

LAKELAND

This past Monday, Robert Laird shot his former wife, Sheryl, dead in her home, put her in the trunk of her car and drove some 60 miles to the tallest part of the Sunshine Skyway bridge. He stopped in the breakdown lane on the southbound span. He got out of the car, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire.

He stood on the side of the road. Flames blocked the lanes and cars stopped. He put a coffee mug down, climbed to the top of the short concrete wall, stretched out his arms, and finally left her alone.

Inside the burning trunk was the mother of his 7-year-old daughter.

A woman who was consistently thoughtful and willfully optimistic in spite of years of domestic torment. She was losing weight and moving on, and had found a new love.

A woman who was murdered by her former husband, her friends believe, because she was happy and he was not

* * *

Lawsuits lead to spectacle at Without Walls Church, October 2009 (deadline)

TAMPA — Television cameras descended on Without Walls International Church on Thursday for back-to-back news conferences about a racial discrimination lawsuit filed against the head pastor’s son.

Outside at noon: the accuser, Joshua Brian Randolph, a 24-year-old computer repair technician from Georgia who said Brandon White sent him e-mails calling him a “n—–” five times.

Inside at 1:30 p.m.: Barry Cohen, the church attorney, who described what he called proof that the suit was a “racial con job.”

There were standing ovations.

There were shouts of praise.

There were threats of more lawsuits.

There was no indication this would end any time soon…

* * *

Bitten by two snakes at once, October 2009

TAMPA — From his hospital bed Tuesday, John Agan told the world that two snakes bit him at the same time. Experts doubted him. Agan had more to say.

Snakes had bitten him nine times in 10 years, he said.

And local law enforcement reports turn up his name in a trail of calamities: The 46-year-old truck driver was behind the wheel when someone turned in front of him, crashed and died. He was robbed at gunpoint and stuffed into the trunk of a taxi. He’s been stabbed.

Listen to him talk, and you’ll hear about a hornet attack, old football injuries, his blocked urethra and that time in Little League when he didn’t wear a cup. Guess what happened next.

“I got a nickname of Bright Eyes,” Agan said. “They said my eyes would have lit up the city.”

Is John Agan the unluckiest man on the planet? Or … 

* * *

Wedding reception turns into parking lot brawl, November 2009 (deadline)

TAMPA — Mary Wright, 74, was thrilled Sunday night to see her grandson marry his longtime sweetheart in a beautiful, white wedding at the waterfront Rusty Pelican Restaurant.

Thrilled, that is, until she found herself with a stranger’s hands around her neck

* * *

Police: Marine beat Greek priest he mistook for terrorist, November 2009 (anchored on deadline)

TAMPA — Marine reservist Jasen Bruce was getting clothes out of the trunk of his car Monday evening when a bearded man in a robe approached him.

That man, a Greek Orthodox priest named Father Alexios Marakis, speaks little English and was lost, police said. He wanted directions.

What the priest got instead, police say, was a tire iron to the head…

***

Instrument of peace, November 2009

TAMPA — Sharon Stoll steps down the hallway of the LifePath Hospice house with a portable harp pressed against her chest. She’s petite, 5 feet tall. Her eyes are blue, and her hair is so blond it’s almost white. But no one has ever told her she looks like an angel. • All around are the sounds of hospice: the muffled televisions, the chatter of nurses, the occasional loud cough. She walks up to a nurse’s station and asks if anyone might benefit from hearing her play. The woman in Room 6, she is told, but don’t expect a response. • “She still hears,” Stoll says…

***

The balloon artist, November 2009

Jonathan Fudge sleeps among balloons, thousands and thousands of them, grouped by color, lined up in rows, stuffed into boxes and stacked by his bed. When their time comes, they’ll fill his apron in slots assigned to each type — opaque and clear, powder soft and squeaky, yellow and marigold.

They’ll hang out like long, skinny snakes until he needs one. He’ll dip in, pick it out, blow it up. He’ll twist it into a monkey, or a motorcycle, or a monkey riding a motorcycle flinging poo. And he’ll give it away.

Sometimes, he’ll charge a few bucks. Sometimes, he’ll charge a few thousand. Sometimes, he’ll have to split the cash with other balloon twisters who help him out.

Like the time he built a life-sized balloon statue of Ernest Hemingway, in a Key West scene, surrounded by eight palm trees, a macaw and a six-toed cat.

Or that time he built a 12-foot-high replica of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, complete with windows, a tail and periscopes shooting out the top — using just those strings of latex, the occasional pump, a little help from his friends.

And the air in his lungs

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