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In other news…

November 6, 2012

So, this year has been dedicated to the biggest project I have ever done, under the close guidance of investigative guru Chris Davis. But I’ve gotten to work on some other pretty neat odds and ends, including some Republican National Convention coverage here in Tampa.

Freedom, freedom, freedom. After tea partiers packed an east Hillsborough megachurch to standing-room-only Sunday night, after they were told jeering, heckling and animal noises were encouraged, after they heard an emcee call Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a WINO — “wife in name only” — they heard from the people they were there to see: Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain…

The empty jail. To prepare for an expected 1,000 protester arrests during the Republican National Convention, the Hillsborough Sheriff’s Office paid $140,349 for software that would alert deputies if an inmate had been sitting in one place for too long. To treat the injured, they paid $240,000 for medical staff. They bought a new fence, food and electrical updates, and got a green light to spend $1.5 million in overtime pay. Then this week, on a dry-erase board in their flat-screen-filled command center, they began to tally the arrests. The grand total, by midday Thursday: Two.

Command Central. There are a handful of protester hubs scattered along the gritty fringes of downtown this week during the Republican National Convention. Only one sells quiche.

Who authorized this?! … But on any weeknight, what is the baseline of nightlife in downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg? The Times dispatched a team Wednesday to investigate… Before the night is over, the dancing woman will approach the Times reporter, grab his nipple, and squeeze.

Daily deadline profile. … In an age of bump-and-grind, Barsukov is a stand-in Prince Charming. He is handsome, not hot. He smells sweet and sweats with grace. And when it was time to take his first partner to the dance floor on Saturday, he led her by the hand.

Judicial drama exclusive. A Hillsborough judge said Thursday she will not hear any cases involving an assistant public defender she called “incompetent and untrustworthy” and accused of “sitting on her butt.”

Tinderbox  … So into this metal box they cram, the prosecution and the defense, the judges and the accused, bow-tied and seersuckered, neck-tattooed and ankle-monitored — up to a dozen at a time — sharing a rough 6 feet by 5 feet and oxygen, and the experience of momentary captivity.

Selling a crime scene. Tampa Palms Beauty! the ad said. Move-in ready. NOT a short-sale. Can close quickly. But the house at 16305 Royal Park Court, behind the gates of Ashington Reserve, had a sad history told only in crime stories: A year ago this month, two children died there. Police charged their mother, Julie Schenecker, with murder.


In God’s Name

November 6, 2012

They shaved him bald that first morning in 2008, put him in an orange jumpsuit and made him exercise past dark. •Through the night, as he slept on the floor, they forced him awake for more. • The sun had not yet risen over the Christian military home when Samson Lehman collapsed for the sixth time. Still, he said, they made him run. • The screaming, the endless exercise, it was all in the name of God, a necessary step at the Gateway Christian Military Academy on the path to righteousness. • So when Samson vomited, they threw him a rag. When his urine turned red, they said that was normal. • By Day 3, the 15-year-old was on the verge of death, his dehydrated organs shutting down. • Slumped against a wall, cold and immobile, Lehman recalls men who recited Scripture calling him a wimp. And he thought: Maybe, if I die here, someone will shut this place down. • Not in Florida.

Entire yearlong investigation into abuse at unlicensed religious children’s homes. 

Project impact

Death penalty trial

November 5, 2011

Day one: 

Cindy Roberts closed her eyes, breathed, chewed her gum with intent. In a Hillsborough courtroom, on the opening day of the trial she has awaited for more than two years, she was about to hear the last recorded words of her husband, Tampa police Cpl. Mike Roberts.

The sentence:

Humberto Delgado never asked for mercy, and he didn’t get it Friday.

His victim’s widow called him a cop killer and told him to choke on his own blood.

There was no prelude from the judge, except just six words:

“All of this on your hands.”

Delgado, 36, said nothing when he was condemned to death…


September 24, 2011

Recurring theme these past several weeks: Shared-byline 1A stories. A good way to make a story the best it can be, especially on deadline – and double especially if all hell is breaking loose – is to work together.

Murder!  When deputies caught up to Jeremiah Fogle on Sunday, after two pastors were shot in church, the accused gunman told them what to do: “If you go to my house, you will find a full confession and my wife.” They found 56-year-old Theresa Fogle, dead. And they found a confession, but not the one they expected. It was written in her voice, a catalog of sexual infidelities with a list of partners at least 25 long. Polk County deputies said Monday her husband may have forced her to write it. Jeremiah Fogle told the deputies he loved her. But he had loved others before. The 57-year-old former deacon with a velvet voice had married at least six women before he made Theresa his wife. And he had killed one…

Mayhem!  They found ingredients to build pipe bombs. They found schematics for Freedom High School. They found a manifesto, a plot to kill even more people than the 13 massacred in 1999 at Columbine High. Police this week thwarted a “catastrophic event the likes of which Tampa has not seen,” Chief Jane Castor said at a news conference midday Wednesday. An hour earlier, skinny, shaggy-haired Jared Cano had appeared in juvenile court, accused of it all…

Crazy punctuation! He considers himself a “sovereign citizen,” above the laws of government and, apparently, the rules of grammar. He punctuates his name Jacob-Franz: Dyck. He is a disgraced former dentist who went to prison for stealing silver and gold. He has sued the banks, a governor, the United States of America. Yet Dyck’s name appears on hundreds of real estate records throughout Florida, written into the deeds of homeowners desperate to try anything to avoid foreclosure — including paying him to put their properties in “pure trusts.” Dyck says such trusts can’t be taken or taxed because they fall under “common law,” out of the reach of government. One problem: That’s not true…

Flying Cubans! They loaded airport luggage carts with thousands of pounds of America, zipped up in duffel bags and stacked on more duffel bags and shrink-wrapped for protection from pilfering. The Thursday flight to Cuba would span only 344 miles, but its 67 passengers were packed for a voyage to another planet. Because, in many ways, that’s where they were headed — an island severed from free commerce for half a century, where basic necessities are scarce, the black market reigns and the only way to experience certain comforts is to get them imported by relatives in the States. And so, those relatives packed: Clothes, medicine, diapers, toilet paper. Christmas decorations. A candelabra. A 47-inch LCD TV…

Wilderness rescue by cute schoolchildren!  Francis Netto set out Wednesday with books, snacks and a cell phone and walked into Wilderness Park for the 15-mile hike he makes several times a month. Along the way, he greeted a group of kids on a field trip, and they had a chat about fishing before parting ways. “Bye!” they told him. Neither the hiker nor the kids could have predicted the circumstances under which they’d meet again. Netto kept walking. By official account, he stopped to eat, opened a book and took his sinus medicine. Then, he did something a hiker should never do when he has only a snack and a book and antihistamine: Amid 16,000 acres of cypress swamp, hardwood floodplain forest and pine flatwoods — amid the alligators and the mosquitoes and the snakes — Netto fell asleep…

Best of the Bay

September 24, 2011

A big thanks to Creative Loafing for awarding me “Best New Long-Form Narrator” in its 2011 Best of the Bay issue. And a bigger thanks to the bosses who have long supported and improved my writing, especially my editor (and an award-winning feature writer herself) Patty Ryan. Here it is:


Alexandra Zayas,
St. Petersburg Times

In an era when media often cater to the shortest possible attention span, the Timescontinues to support long-form narrative by writers like Lane DeGregory, Michael Kruse and Ben Montgomery; their prose only occasionally makes its way into the paper, but it always makes a maximum impact. This year you can add the 28-year-old Zayas to the list of reporters skilled in writing “creative non-fiction” — in her case, chronicling the human stories that unfold within the Hillsborough County court system. In 2011 she was moved off the regular courts beat, but she’s still utilized for breaking judicial cases (Kevin White, Jared Cano).

A man. A woman. A life sentence. Hope.

July 29, 2011

TAMPA — Debbie Holloman was 16 when she fell for a blue-eyed boy who looked like Vanilla Ice.

By 18, John Curtis Ivey had been to prison and back. He drank a lot, had no place to call home. She went to Brandon High. He wasn’t in school at all. Her family didn’t like the boyfriend she called Curtis, but she saw something special.

Once, he carried her through a field full of stickers.

Once, they watched a baby, and Curtis cleaned up the mess.

But the law notices only bad deeds. And Curtis was a thief.

On Feb. 21, 1992, Debbie saw him get sentenced to life in prison. It was her 18th birthday. She was pregnant.

Their son is now 19.

Debbie is 37. Curtis is 40 and still locked up. They’ve spent years trying to find a way to be together.

They’ve never been this close…

Update: what happened in court

Schenecker discovery

July 26, 2011

(collaboration with John Barry)

By 10:20 a.m., Julie Schenecker sat handcuffed in a holding cell, the belt of her housecoat now gone, kept out of her reach. She was offered water, cookies and a coffee with cream and sugar.

A crime scene technician came in and photographed her. At her home, other pictures were being taken, of belongings scattered among evidence — smiling family portraits, the Scheneckers’ 19-year-old wedding invitation, a book titled, Excuses Begone! How to Change Lifelong, Self-Defeating Thinking Habits.

Soon, photographers would capture the first iconic image of an accused murderer, stripped of all that said suburban housewife, now an inmate, shaking in the arms of police.

Into evidence bags went her robe, slippers, and pajamas. She had nothing else to wear.

On came the white bio-suit.