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Scandal and suicide on St. Pete City Council

As police investigate allegations of sexual abuse, St. Petersburg City Council Chairman John Bryan kills himself.

By ABHI RAGHUNATHAN, AARON SHAROCKMAN and CHRIS TISCH
Published September 8, 2007


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The death of John Bryan
Friday morning in family court, St. Petersburg Council Chairman John Bryan agreed to stay away from his teenage daughters. Early in the afternoon, he resigned from the Council. And at roughly 5:45 p.m., he was found dead at a home he owned in Citrus County, slumped in a golf cart in the garage with a riding mower running. Read the story


ST. PETERSBURG - City Council Chairman John Bryan walked into City Hall just after 1 p.m. Friday and handed in his resignation letter.

Less than five hours later, he was slumped over in a golf cart in the garage of his Floral City house, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was 56.

Bryan's suicide came after news spread Friday that authorities were investigating allegations that he had sexually abused three girls, including two of his adopted daughters, ages 12 and 15. Ron Stuart, a spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, said the third alleged victim was a nanny for Bryan years ago and no longer lives in the area.

For city officials, the allegations were as jarring as they were sickening. Bryan was a hometown business hero, a pillar of the community, a powerful voice on the City Council and a fierce ally of Mayor Rick Baker.

St. Petersburg Times reporter Dan DeWitt went to Bryan's home in Citrus County on Friday afternoon seeking an interview about the allegations. DeWitt drove about 100 yards up a gravelly driveway and walked toward Bryan's lakefront home about 5:45 p.m. He heard a motor running in the garage, a tan block building about 20 feet from the house, and smelled exhaust fumes.

He looked through a small window into the garage and saw a man resembling Bryan slumped over in a white golf cart. A red riding mower was running, and the room was filled with smoke. Two four-wheelers in the garage had also run out of gas, Citrus County officials later said.

DeWitt called 911 and tried to open the garage door, which was locked. Five minutes later, paramedics arrived and broke into the garage. A paramedic told DeWitt that Bryan was dead.

"I was stunned," DeWitt said.

In an enclosed space, carbon monoxide can quickly render people unconscious and kill them in minutes, officials said.

St. Petersburg police declined to comment on news of Bryan's suicide, or on their investigation. Bryan left a note, but DeWitt said Citrus County deputies would not let him see it.

- - -

Around midmorning Friday, Bryan attended a shelter hearing in front of Circuit Judge Raymond Gross at the criminal court complex in Largo. Such hearings determine who has custody of children while authorities investigate abuse allegations.

The hearing was brief, according to court spokesman Stuart. St. Petersburg police had opened a criminal investigation into Bryan.

Authorities were investigating allegations that Bryan had sexually abused two of his adopted daughters, Stuart said. The Times is withholding their names because of the nature of the allegations.

In addition, authorities were investigating whether Bryan had sexually abused his former nanny, whom he had also adopted. The former nanny is now 38.

Stuart said Bryan admitted to a sexual relationship with the nanny, but said it was consensual and occurred after the nanny turned 18. "He claims she was of age," Stuart said Friday afternoon.

Judge Gross ordered Bryan to have no contact with the children, Stuart said. Gross allowed the children to remain at home with their mother, Alicia Bryan.

"Mr. Bryan agreed to this," Stuart said.

- - -

News of the allegations spread quickly after the court hearing.

Between 1 and 2 p.m., Bryan walked into the City Hall office of City Attorney John Wolfe. He handed over his letter of resignation from the City Council. It was dated Aug. 20, and it said the resignation was effective starting Sept. 7. The "7" appeared to be written in, though the rest of the letter was typed.

Wolfe said Bryan asked him if the letter was sufficient, then he left.

"It is imperative for me to preserve what is of utmost importance to me, my family," Bryan wrote.

"I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to the citizens of this great community for their confidence in me to represent them."

About an hour after Bryan resigned, city officials announced plans to hold a news conference in City Hall to discuss a criminal investigation into a City Council member.

At 3:45 p.m., Mayor Rick Baker and acting City Council Chairman James Bennett, who had been vice chairman before Bryan's resignation, gave brief statements.

"As you are aware, we have received news today concerning the resignation of City Council Chair John Bryan," Baker said. "I am saddened by the news."

Late Friday evening, after learning of Bryan's death, Baker added: "My thoughts and prayers are with the Bryan family tonight."

At the news conference, police Chief Chuck Harmon said the department was conducting a criminal investigation but he could not provide details.

Harmon did say that the investigation was not related to Bryan's role as a City Council member. The chief declined to respond to questions.

News organizations began reporting the news about the allegations faced by Bryan as soon as the news conference ended.

DeWitt then drove to Citrus, where he found Bryan dead in the garage at 9285 E Gobbler Drive in Floral City.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office said Bryan's wife was notified of his death at 8:15 p.m. Friday. His body was removed for autopsy to the medical examiner's office in Leesburg.

- - -

A former developer of single-family homes, Bryan retired in 1999 and focused on what he called his first priority, his family.

Bryan had a total of five children, two from a previous marriage along with the three he adopted.

Bryan was first elected to the City Council in 2001, after running unsuccessfully in 1998. He won re-election four years later with 56 percent of the vote.

A staunch Republican and former finance chairman for U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, Bryan helped push Baker's agenda through the City Council.

From the dais, Bryan was both gruff and blunt. He would correct residents who misspoke, and he did not take criticism quietly. More than once, he threatened to remove council visitors who clapped or spoke out of turn at meetings.

During his two terms, Bryan pushed for upgrades to city pools and recreation facilities. He was instrumental in the creation of a city skate park and brought a climbing rock to Straub Park downtown.

Bryan was active in the local foster care system. He was co-chairman of the Stakeholder's Group, a local board that provides direction to the foster care system. He also served on a Pinellas-Pasco board of the Sarasota YMCA, which oversees foster care services in the two counties.

Bryan resigned from both boards in late July, citing a busy schedule and other personal reasons.

In his resignation letter from the City Council, Bryan spoke fondly of his public service.

"I will forever preserve the memories of serving the city of St. Petersburg," he wrote. "It has been the greatest honor of my life."

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at araghunathan@sptimes.com Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com Chris Tisch can be reached at tisch@sptimes.com or 727 892-2359.

[Last modified September 8, 2007, 00:59:37]


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