Death stuns viewers, colleagues

A WFLA weatherman is found dead in an apparent suicide.

Published April 6, 2007

LITHIA - One of their own had died, and news anchor Stacie Schaible tried not to weep.

The staff at WFLA-Ch. 8 had been stunned, just hours before going on the air, that their friend and colleague, John Winter, had taken his own life. It was Schaible's job to tell the viewers the man they'd come to know through morning weather chatter for 13 years was dead.

She struggled to keep her voice steady, glanced at the camera, then the monitor to try to remain composed, and her voice broke as highlights of his work flashed on the screen. "John, we're going to miss you," she said.

On Thursday, Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies found Mr. Winter dead at his home in an apparent suicide. He was 39.

Sheriff's deputies received an anonymous call about 3:30 p.m. that led them to the FishHawk Ranch home where Mr. Winter and his wife, Karen, lived, sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.

When they arrived at 5922 Tealwater Place, deputies met Winter's best friend and colleague, Robert Fontaine, who said he had been speaking on the phone with Mr. Winter earlier in the day.

Fontaine told the deputies he'd became alarmed when Mr. Winter stopped answering his home and cell phones. When deputies forced entry into the house, they heard a single gunshot, Carter said. They found Mr. Winter in the garage.

Paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene, Carter said. She added that he left a note but could not discuss its contents.

At WFLA, the news of Mr. Winter's death came as the station prepared for the evening news broadcast. The afternoon passed in a blur of shock and grief, station president and general manager Michael Pumo said later.

"We're devastated," he said.

Mr. Winter grew up in Pinellas County, a graduate of Seminole High School. In 2005 he told the Times that he became interested in weather as a kid playing with a weather-station science kit.

Later, at the University of Kansas, he chased twisters with his friends through that state's "tornado alley."

After a stint at a station in Texas, Mr. Winter returned to Tampa Bay and became WFLA's morning-show weatherman. He relished the job.

"I'm not afraid to mention when I'm wrong," he said. "I have made fun of myself. But I will gloat sometimes, too, when I'm right."

At one point he cut short a vacation in the Bahamas when it looked like a hurricane might hit Tampa.

"I don't think it would look too good if I'm on vacation," he said. "I'm a weatherman, and that's my job."

Mr. Winter's audience responded Thursday with an outpouring of sympathy on the station's Web site. By 10 p.m. there were more than 200 pages of entries in an Internet guest book.

For instance:

- My name is Caleb and I'm 8 years old. John Winter was my best friend. He said 'Hi' to me on the news, and came to my school and let me go in his helicopter. I will miss him for a very long time. Caleb Haake Lake Placid, FL

- I along with many of you will truly miss John. I would often be late to work so I could hear him crack one of his jokes to make my day brighter. My prayers are with the channel 8 family along with his family and friends. Chris Bell (Lakeland, FL)

Recently, he had temporarily left the morning show to fill in for a co-worker on the evening broadcast.

Mr. Winter's colleague, Gayle Guyardo, said she had been counting down the days until he returned to the morning shift.

The two had worked together for 13 years, and were as close as family, she said. Guyardo said she won't be going in to work tomorrow.

"I can't go in," she said. "I can't sit across from that chair. "I can't look at that studio."

She only hopes her friend is at peace.

"He decided to push 'rewind' and 'play' on life," she said. "He gave up on this one."

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at (813) 661-2442 or srosenbaum@sptimes.com Times staff writers Catherine Shoichet and Michael Mohammed and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.