Meth, torture and the Thornton sentence

Besides the Lunsford case, three other stories of the courts and law enforcement made frequent headlines.

Published January 1, 2006

The emergence of methamphetamine as a major drug problem. The startling revelation that five children were tortured by their adoptive parents. The controversial sentencing of a young Sumter County man to 30 years in prison.

Aside from the slaying of Jessica Lunsford these were the top stories on Citrus County's courts and law enforcement beats during 2005.

A year ago, methamphetamine, or meth, didn't seem a crisis in Citrus. The drug, a jumbled cocktail of household cleaning products, fertilizer and other chemicals, has long been a problem in other parts of the country, particularly in rural farming areas.

Over the year, arrests for possession and manufacture of meth started to appear in the court dockets. By November, Sheriff Jeff Dawsy announced the county was "at war" with the drug.

From October 2003 to September 2004, authorities seized two meth labs in Citrus. From October 2004 to September 2005, they seized 16.

To combat the problem, the Sheriff's Office formed the Meth Task Force, a combination of deputies and officials trained in dealing with hazardous materials.

Local officials also examined other agencies' responses to the drug in hopes of curbing use in the county as quickly as possible.

As law enforcement worked to develop long-term solutions, the public's attention turned to the arrest of John and Linda Dollar, a couple accused of torturing five of their eight adopted children.

The Pine Ridge couple were accused of shocking the children with a cattle prod, stunting their growth by starving them and pulling out their toenails with pliers. The abuses came to light after one of the Dollars, a 16-year-old boy, was taken to Seven Rivers Regional Medical Center with a head injury.

It wasn't so much the injury that caught doctors' attention. It was the boy's size. He weighed just 59 pounds.

The children were removed from the Dollars' home, and the couple then disappeared. After a nationwide hunt, authorities found them in Utah. The criminal case against the couple attracted national attention.

In September, both Dollars agreed to a 15-year prison sentence. Prosecutors said they offered the deal to spare the children the pain of testifying.

Two days after the Dollars' case wrapped up, a new case started attracting attention in Citrus and beyond.

William Thornton IV, an 18-year-old Sumter County man, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a fatal car accident.

On Dec. 28, 2004, Sara Jo Williams, 23, and her boyfriend, Brandon L. Mushlit, 25, were killed when Thornton pulled out in front of them on State Road 44 and Bauer Road. Thornton, then 17, didn't have a driver's license and authorities say he was traveling too fast.

He was arrested in May, and prosecutors announced he would be tried as an adult. In August, he pleaded no contest to charges of vehicular homicide and was set to be sentenced in September.

The controversy flared at the sentencing, when Circuit Judge Ric Howard sentenced Thornton to the maximum allowed under the law, rather than the considerably lower sentences recommended by the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice.

Thornton's newly appointed attorney, Assistant Public Defender Dale Merrill, accused the judge, who is white, of racial bias against Thornton, who is black. Prosecutors defended the judge, who declined to comment on the sentence.

Merrill's boss, Public Defender Howard "Skip" Babb Jr. called the case "one of the top injustices" he'd seen. His office appealed the sentence, asked that Howard step down from the case, and asked that Howard allow Thornton to withdraw his plea.

The judge stayed on the case, and the 5th District Court of Appeal has ruled that he still has jurisdiction. The case remained in the headlines when activists in Tampa joined editorial writers in decrying the sentence as far too harsh, pointing to high-profile cases in fatal accidents that resulted in much lighter sentences.

Unlike the case of the Dollars, the Thornton case had yet to be resolved as 2006 began.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com