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Of battles, near and far

Times Staff Writer
Published December 28, 2003

The war in Iraq that dominated the nation's news in 2003 also had a big impact at home. The people of Florida and the Tampa Bay area sent off soldiers, welcomed home heroes and mourned those who did not return. They watched the faraway war being run from U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. But even with the war always present, other events struck a chord, too. The battle over the fate of a brain-damaged woman attracted attention from around the world and sparked a passionate debate about life and death. The war on terrorism became a local story when a University of South Florida professor was charged with aiding a terrorist group. Pinellas County saw the biggest change to its school system in more than 30 years with a new choice system that officials hope will lead to voluntary school desegregation. A look at some of the notable news of 2003.

AL-ARIAN INDICTED: Federal authorities arrested University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian and three other men on

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[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]

terrorism charges in February. A 121-page indictment paints Al-Arian as the financial brain behind Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an organization responsible for numerous bombings and other terrorist attacks in the Middle East. Al-Arian, who was subsequently fired from USF, was denied bail and complained numerous times about conditions of his imprisonment at Coleman Correctional Facility in Sumter County. He dismissed his court-appointed attorneys and represented himself for several weeks before hiring high-profile Washington, D.C., lawyer William Moffit and Tampa lawyer Linda Moreno.

CONDO FIRE: A June 21 fire destroyed a 54-unit condominium building at Town Apartments North in unincorporated Pinellas. Firefighters had to struggle to get enough water because the nearest hydrant was about 800 feet away. The fire served to highlight a longstanding problem in the unincorporated Lealman community: a lack of hydrants. County officials squared off with St. Petersburg, which supplies drinking water to the area, over who should pay for the 160 hydrants the county said the area needed. The county agreed to pay for the first 44 by year's end. Negotiations continued over the remaining 116.

[Times photo: Lara Cerri]

TERRI SCHIAVO CASE: After doctors removed the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube Oct. 15, unprecedented action by the state Legislature, which passed "Terri's Law" on Oct. 21, allowed Gov. Jeb Bush to order the tube's reinsertion. The new state law triggered a legal challenge by Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael. He has battled his wife's parents in court since 1998 because he says his wife would not want to be kept alive by artificial means.

[Evidence videotape]

SCHOOL CHOICE: Pinellas launched its new choice system in August, marking the biggest change for the district in three decades. The system was designed to encourage students of different races to integrate voluntarily in schools, replacing the forced busing plan that had been in place since 1971. Choice dramatically changed the way parents apply for schools. It affected the real estate market by ending a long tradition of assigning a school to a neighborhood. It also altered the makeup of schools, required more money to implement and created major headaches for the district's bus system.

[Times photo: Cherie Diez]

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[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]

AREA SOLDIERS FIGHT IN IRAQ: Hundreds of soldiers from the Tampa Bay area left Florida to serve with the U.S. military in Iraq and elsewhere, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Many were part-time soldiers called up to active duty with the Florida National Guard, the Army Reserves, the Coast Guard Reserves and other forces. Full-time airmen and other military personnel stationed at U.S. Central Command and MacDill Air Force Base also went overseas.

GRAND PRIX RACE: The inaugural Grand Prix of St. Petersburg took place in mid-February along a 1.8-mile street circuit on the waterfront in St. Petersburg. The race, the city's third try at downtown auto racing, was a big gamble - not so much financially, but in terms of prestige for the city. When it was over, about half of the expected 100,000 people showed up. Still, most race and city officials were pleased. But by year's end, race organizers postponed the next St. Petersburg Grand Prix, and its future is uncertain.

IORIO ELECTED TAMPA MAYOR: Former elections supervisor Pam Iorio jumped into a crowded Tampa mayor's race at the last minute and won by a landslide. Iorio defeated business consultant Frank Sanchez and City Council members Bob Buckhorn and Charlie Miranda in the March city elections. She replaced Dick Greco.

DESAL FALTERS: In March, Tampa Bay Water officials toasted the launch of their new $110-million desalination plant, built next door to the Tampa Electric Co. power plant in Apollo Beach. But by November, Tampa Bay Water was tied up in a court battle with its builder, which had declared bankruptcy. Construction of the plant is done, but the membranes that screen the salt out to produce 25-million gallons of drinkable water have been clogging too fast. The contractor, Covanta Tampa Construction, missed a deadline to fix the problem, but blames the delay on Tampa Bay Water.

A VISIT TO RUSSIA: Mayor Rick Baker led a delegation to St. Petersburg, Russia, in honor of that city's 300th anniversary in May. He signed a sister city agreement with Gov. Vladimir Yakovlev, leader of the region of 4.7-million people, encouraging the two cities to participate in cultural, economic and tourism exchange.

DEPUTY KILLED: Pasco County Sheriff's Office Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, 57 years old and 10 days from retirement, was parked on duty outside a Lacoochee nightclub early June 1 when a sniper fired 13 rounds from an assault rifle. Harrison was killed. Two days later, Alfredie Steele Jr., 20, of Lacoochee, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

PRIEST PLEADS GUILTY: Former Catholic priest Robert Schaeufele pleaded guilty in June to criminal charges that he sexually abused two 11-year-old boys more than 20 years ago while he was a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pinellas Park. In a plea deal, Schaeufele got a 30-year sentence. His plea came about a month after a jury acquitted him of abusing another boy.

TOUGHMAN DEATH: On June 14, Stacy Young, 30, a Bradenton mother of two, was knocked out by a woman 10 years younger and with much better skills during a Toughman amateur boxing bout in Sarasota. Young died of her injuries two days later at Bayfront Medical Center. In the following weeks, Toughman came under intense scrutiny as legislators and activists tried to find ways to close the loopholes that allow unregulated boxing in the state.

JUDGE REPRIMANDED: Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Charles Cope got a public reprimand from the Florida Supreme Court in August after a Judicial Qualifications Commission panel found him guilty of public intoxication and improper intimate contact. Cope had acknowledged getting intoxicated while at a judicial conference in 2001 in Carmel, Calif., and making sexual advances toward a woman.

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[Times photo: Cherie Diez]

A LIFE ON THE RUN: Steven Aitken, the serial bank robbery suspect who at times seemed to be daring authorities to catch him, was on the run for seven months. He usually stole a car, drove straight to the bank and later abandoned the vehicle. Investigators caught up with him in September in Daytona Beach. Living on the beach, he bought people drinks, carried wads of cash and grilled steaks by the pool for people he met. Aitken is accused of robbing seven banks in Pinellas County in 2003.

SUICIDE CONCERT: St. Petersburg grabbed international headlines when a local rock band threatened to show a live suicide during a concert. City Council members passed an emergency ordinance to block the event and asked a circuit judge to intercede. After a week of hoopla, plans for the Oct. 4 concert by heavy metal group Hell on Earth fizzled. The event, which was to be broadcast live on the Internet, never occurred.

AIRPORT TO STAY: The biggest story in St. Petersburg involved a two-runway airport, a proposed waterfront park and a decidedly lopsided election. In November, city residents voted overwhelmingly to preserve Albert Whitted Municipal Airport, emphatically answering a question that had been brewing for decades.

WEEKI WACHEE: The tiny city of Weeki Wachee and its fading roadside attraction exploded into an international cause celebre in late summer when the home of the mermaids - once a vacation destination - was threatened with closure. City and attraction officials, mostly one and the same, took over the theme park, which needed more repairs than were immediately affordable.

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]

LABRAKES INDICTED: Steve LaBrake, the former Tampa housing boss, and his wife, Lynne McCarter LaBrake, were accused in a federal indictment of taking bribes and gratuities to get their two-story home built and, in turn, steering millions in U.S. Housing and Urban Development contracts to the nonprofit Tampa-Hillsborough Action Plan and Ryan Construction Co., which built the house. Steve LaBrake and Mrs. LaBrake, who had been his fast-rising assistant, face conspiracy, bribery and wire fraud charges. Three former business associates who helped make the dream home a reality face similar federal charges.

A DOUBLE LIFE: The March death of beloved South Tampa socialite Jean Ann Cone uncorked a whopping secret about one the local glitterati's most golden families. A Times report found that road construction kingpin Doug "Diesel" Cone had been living a double life for decades: as husband to Jean Ann and, under an alias, as the "husband" of a longtime mistress he kept on a hidden north Hillsborough estate. Tampa police took another look at 75-year-old Jean Ann Cone's death and confirmed their initial conclusion: accidental car-exhaust inhalation.

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RISE AND DEMISE OF THE BUCS: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave their fans much to cheer and jeer about in 2003. The team culminated last season in January, winning its first Super Bowl over the Oakland Raiders, 48-21. The team then stumbled through most of this season, failing to win consecutive games until December and missing the playoffs. It deactivated Keyshawn Johnson and lost general manager Rich McKay to the Atlanta Falcons.

[Times photo: James Borchuck]

JUVENILE INMATE DIES IN FIGHT: Danny Matthews, a 17-year-old inmate at Pinellas County's Juvenile Detention Center, died when a fellow youth punched him May 31. Further investigations turned up mistakes by the Department of Juvenile Justice, which runs the center. A trainee detention worker acknowledged he accidentally unlocked the doors that allowed the two youths to get out of their cells and confront each other. Prosecutors decided not to charge the 16-year-old who struck Matthews.

ROLLING GUNBATTLE: In April, St. Petersburg was rocked by an evening of driveby shootings that ended with the death of Cynthia Bethune, 41, an innocent bystander who got caught in the crossfire between two rival groups fighting over money and drugs. The suspects led police on a chase through the city. By the time the four men were arrested, Bethune had been shot to death, a woman had been shot in the leg and a police officer chasing the suspects had been grazed on the head by a bullet.

PENNY FOR PASCO: The county's biggest political battle brewed over the proposed "Penny for Pasco," a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax hike that would add up to $437-million over a decade. Voters will decide March 9 whether to approve the tax increase to pay for new schools, road improvements, environmental land buys and other projects.

SUSAN SARANDON CANCELED: United Way of Tampa Bay caused an uproar in March after it canceled an appearance by actor Susan Sarandon over her opposition to the Iraq war. United Way officials said they had received three-dozen complaints from donors and others about the Academy Award winner's position and felt the event had become "divisive" when its purpose was to promote volunteerism and bring the community together. At least one United Way board member quit the board over the incident.

FLOODING IN CITRUS COUNTY: Heavy summer rains caused flooding in low-lying areas in northwest Citrus and along U.S. 19 in Homosassa and Crystal River. The heavy rain led local and state officials to close a portion of the Withlacoochee River, which was more than a foot above flood level, for a month.

COLLEGE CRUNCH: About 35,000 students expecting to enroll in Florida's community colleges in the fall were shut out because the schools could not afford to offer them classes. It was the most serious enrollment crisis to hit the community college system in decades. Earlier in the year, the state sliced $11-million from their annual budgets and gave them no money for enrollment growth.

EMBATTLED PRINCIPAL RESIGNS: Dick Baker resigned as principal of Community Christian School in Largo on Aug. 11 after news reports detailed his repeated trips to Disney World with a small group of schoolgirls. Largo police officers investigated Baker and found no evidence of any crimes, but their report quoted girls saying Baker took them to Disney World as many as 81 times over the years, held bathing-suit changing contests and took pictures of them in swimsuits and matching dresses.

STUDENTS RETAINED BY FCAT: Thousands of third-graders statewide were denied a promotion to fourth grade based on their FCAT reading scores under a tough new state retention law. School districts scrambled to set up summer reading camps for intense reading instruction for many of the 43,000 third-graders who failed the reading test in March.

PROBLEMS AT FAMU: Florida A&M University is facing the biggest financial crisis in its history. The books of the historically black university are off by $1.8-million. Students get financial aid months late. A former employee is accused of questionable spending while others face theft charges. Sloppy business practices might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It got so bad that state officials in November took the rare and drastic step of cutting off pay to 19 top administrators until they turned over crucial financial records that were six weeks late. State auditors are looking at the school's books while FAMU is paying a company to help determine which business practices need to be improved and is searching for a new financial chief.

UNIVERSITY PRESIDENTS: Two public universities picked former politicians to be their leaders this year, continuing a state trend. In January, Florida Atlantic University named then-Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan its new president. In May, former Jacksonville Mayor John Delaney was tapped at the University of North Florida. But the University of Florida, the state's largest university, bucked the trend in October and hired Bernie Machen, president of the University of Utah.

VOUCHER PROGRAMS: Education Commissioner Jim Horne spent much of the year cleaning up and promising to reform the state's cutting-edge, controversial school voucher programs. Funding was cut off to a Tampa private school co-founded by a professor accused of having terrorist ties. Some students got voucher payments from more than one program at a time. And law enforcement officers investigated an Ocala man who allegedly took in voucher funds but didn't use it for scholarships for poor children, as intended.

NEW LEADERSHIP: The University of South Florida St. Petersburg tapped Karen White, a world-class violinist, as its vice president and campus executive officer. White took the reins of the 4,000-student campus as it embarked on an aggressive campaign for autonomy and separate accreditation.

CLASS SIZE MANDATE: Lawmakers and school officials responded to the new class size reduction mandate with two strategies: They struggled to comply and worked to get the mandate repealed. About half of the state's 67 school districts met the first-year requirements. The others face penalties. Meanwhile, lawmakers have filed bills asking voters to repeal the constitutional amendment passed in November 2002.

GRADE INFLATION: A Times analysis in the summer of 2003 FCAT grades found that the grading system now appears to be plagued by grade inflation. To the confusion of parents who rely on the school's grade to determine its quality, an A school can mean different things. It can be a school where many students get high marks on standardized tests, or it can be a school where the scores are improving but are still relatively low. The Times analysis found that nearly half of all Florida schools, 1,229, are now A schools. That total is higher than the combined number of B and C schools.


[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
PRESIDENT BUSH IN FLORIDA: Since announcing his re-election campaign in June, President Bush held six fundraisers in Florida, raising more than $7.2-million. But the president still heads into the election year potentially vulnerable. The state remains starkly divided, a St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald poll found in December. Bush led by just 6 percentage points when voters were asked whether they expected to vote for him or the eventual Democratic nominee. Above, the crowd at MacDill Air Force Base tries to capture Bush's visit in March.

BOB GRAHAM: Florida's senior senator dominated the state's political news, first flirting with a presidential run, then running, then faltering, then dropping out, and finally announcing his retirement from the Senate. His candidacy locked up many of the deep pockets among Florida fundraisers, and his departure from the race in October had the other presidential candidates scrambling to pick up his Florida supporters.

[Times photo: Jamie Francis]

EVERGLADES CLEANUP: At the urging of sugar lobbyists, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature extended by a decade the deadline for cleaning up pollution in the Everglades. Meanwhile, the federal judge who had overseen the cleanup for 15 years lambasted the delay, both in court and in interviews. Attorneys for the sugar companies complained and Judge William Hoeveler was removed from the case. However, the judge who took over let stand Hoeveler's decision to appoint a special master to keep a watchful eye on whether the state is doing what it promised.

SMOKING BAN: In July, the state's indoor workplace smoking ban took effect. With a few exceptions, the ban made it illegal to light up in most businesses, including restaurants, bowling alleys and bars that sell a certain amount of food. Smokers fumed. Nonsmokers breathed a sigh of relief. Restaurant owners added or expanded outdoor seating. Bar owners reduced or eliminated food menus.

MEDICALLY NEEDY: With cash tight, lawmakers decided to cut, as of May 1, the state's Medically Needy program. That program pays for drugs and hospital stays for people who have a catastrophic illness, have exhausted their own insurance but do not qualify for regular Medicaid. Some lawmakers said later they didn't realize how sick some of the people were. The Legislature then passed a bill that kept the program running.

GULF DUMPING: Faced with a potential disaster in Tampa Bay, the state Department of Environmental Protection persuaded federal officials to allow the unprecedented dumping of millions of gallons of treated waste from an abandoned fertilizer plant into the Gulf of Mexico. Heavy rains in December 2002 left the phosphogypsum stacks at the old Piney Point plant so full of acidic wastewater that they threatened to spill into the bay, devastating marine life for miles around. So far there have been no apparent ill effects from the dumping.

A NEW WATER PLAN: After closed-door meetings, some of Florida's most influential business leaders said they wanted a new way to divvy up the state's water supply. The Florida Council of 100 proposed appointing a state water commission that could redirect Florida's most precious resource from water-rich and slow-growing North Florida to thirsty, booming Central and South Florida. The plan was roundly panned in public hearings statewide.

STATE PLANES: Multiple special sessions this year shortened the time lawmakers had to spend in their districts or vacation homes. To cut down on travel time, Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd hit on a handy solution: They took the state plane home. Despite a law forbidding the use of the expensive state plane for commuting purposes, King and Byrd took it home dozens of times this year at a cost of thousands of dollars to taxpayers. Their response: Everybody does it.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE: It took four special legislative sessions for lawmakers to pass a bill limiting patients' rights to sue their doctors for medical malpractice. The House wanted a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages; the Senate wanted no cap. The compromise: a $2.5-million cap, possible only under a "perfect storm" scenario when multiple errors by doctors and hospitals occur. The bill was intended to lower skyrocketing liability insurance premiums that were forcing doctors to close their doors.

HILL EXECUTED: Paul Hill, a former Presbyterian minister, became the first person in the country executed for killing an abortion doctor. Hill, 49, admitted using a shotgun to kill Dr. John Bayard Britton, 69, and his escort, retired Air Force Lt. Col James Barrett, 74, on July 24, 1994, but claimed it was justifiable homicide. He represented himself at his trial, and did not seek appeals.

OBITUARIES

Dr. William Sackett, 73, retired chairman of the marine science department at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, died Nov. 30 in South Pasadena.

Mattie S. Atwater, 68, matriarch of the family that owns Atwater's Cafeteria, died Nov. 24 in St. Petersburg.

Dr. Alexander V. Berkis, 87, who braved squalls and waves to swim across Tampa Bay in July 1979, died Nov. 3 in St. Petersburg.

Charles W. Mackey, 87, retired president of the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts, died Nov. 2.

Perkins T. Shelton, 91, a pioneer in the civil rights movement, died Oct. 20 in St. Petersburg.

William C. Cramer, 81, a former member of Congress who led a Republican revolution in Florida politics, died Oct. 18 in South Pasadena.

Tony Garcia Jr., 81, "the optimist of all optimists" as the executive director of the Tampa USO for 35 years, died Oct. 13 in Tampa.

Martha Gibbons, 80, described as an indispensable part of the political success story of her husband, former U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons, died Oct. 1 in Tampa.

Hugh Lee Culbreath Jr., 82, former chairman of TECO Energy, parent company of Tampa Electric Co., and one of the area's most influential business leaders for nearly three decades, died Sept. 25 in Tampa.

Edward A. "Ed" Turville, 88, a leader at the U.S. Tennis Association who became an architect of the Republican Party's rise to dominance in Pinellas County, died Aug. 13 in St. Petersburg.

Pansy E. Bryan, 97, who ran one of the biggest dairy farms in Pinellas County, played a key role in the development of central and northern Pinellas and started two churches, died Aug. 3 in Tarpon Springs.

Chesterfield H. Smith, 85, a chief architect of Florida's Constitution, died July 16 in Coral Gables.

Dr. David W. Cahill, 51, chairman of neurosurgery at the University of South Florida, died July 2, when the plane he was piloting crashed in Memphis, Tenn.

Dr. Israel "Ike" Tribble, 62, a champion of African-American history and scholarship who led the Florida Education Fund and the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, died June 21.

Dr. Robert A. Good, 81, who made medical history in 1968 by performing the first successful bone marrow transplant, died June 13 in St. Petersburg.

Lawrence D. "Larry" Wasser, 56, the son of Holocaust survivors who became the executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, died June 2 in Tampa.

The Rev. Mayjor Walker, 53, a prominent civil rights activist in Dade City who later made his mark in politics in St. Petersburg and as a Tampa pastor, died May 12 in South Pasadena.

Doyle Carlton Jr., 80, a former rancher, community leader and state senator who once ran for governor, died May 10 in Wauchula.

Robert W. Merkle Jr., 58, the hard-charging former Pinellas County prosecutor and U.S. attorney who ran for the U.S. Senate, died May 5 in Clearwater.

Marvin Davies, 69, a longtime civil rights figure who supported striking St. Petersburg garbage workers and pushed for more black teachers, died April 25.

Robert W. "Bob" Saunders, 81, a leading civil rights activist in Florida for nearly a half-century, died March 18 in Tampa.

Bob Gilder, 72, a civil rights activist for four decades who built bridges between white and black people on both sides of Tampa Bay, died Feb. 28 in Tampa.

Ted Peters, 91, whose landmark open-air restaurant in South Pasadena fed smoked-fish aficionados for generations, died Feb. 17 in St. Petersburg.

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