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Tampa Bay briefs

By Times staff and wire reports

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 16, 2001


Parkway turns into toll road early Sunday

The Suncoast Parkway becomes a toll road at 6 a.m. Sunday, project officials said.

Motorists passing through the mainline toll plaza between State Road 54 and SR 52 will have to pay $1, project spokeswoman Joanne Hurley said. Anyone exiting at SR 54 will be charged 25 cents.

The remaining toll booth plazas on the 32-mile section of road, which opened Feb. 3, will be phased into operation over the next six weeks, Hurley said.

"Motorists will still be able to drive a long way on the Suncoast Parkway without encountering tolls," she said.

Eventually, when all booths are up and charging, it will cost drivers $2 to travel the 32 miles between SR 50 and Veterans Expressway in northern Hillsborough. It will cost another dollar to travel the northernmost 10 miles of the parkway, north of SR 50 to U.S. 98, when they are opened this summer.

The SR 54 exit ramp toll, as will be the case with all other exit ramp tolls, will be unmanned on the weekends and from 8:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. during the week, Hurley said. Drivers will need to have exact change of 25 cents.

Toll violations will be photographed and violators are subject to a fine of up to $100, Hurley said.

Bucs fight tax on parking land

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have asked a circuit judge to overturn decisions by Hillsborough Property Appraiser Rob Turner concerning 37 acres on Dale Mabry Highway used by the team for game day parking.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday, the Bucs claim Turner erred in denying a tax exemption to the property across from Raymond James Stadium and in assessing the acreage for tax year 2000 at $8.6-million.

The Bucs maintain that the property should be tax-exempt because it is owned by a government entity, the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, and licensed for use by the team under under a Sept. 24, 1998 agreement.

Turner stripped the property of its tax exemption using a 2nd District Court of Appeal ruling. That decision declared unconstitutional a law granting a tax exemption to the Sebring Raceway, which uses land leased from a public airport in Highlands County.

While the Bucs say the parking lot property generated just $106,150 in parking fees in 1999, Turner concluded that the highest and best use of the land made it worth $8.6-million.

The Bucs appealed Turner's decision to the county's Value Adjustment Board in November, but a special master sided with the property appraiser.

Unless the Bucs prevail in court, the team is stuck with a tax bill of about $215,000. The bill normally would be sent to the Aviation Authority, but a provision in the authority's agreement makes the Bucs responsible for any property taxes.

City approves water storage plan

When rain starts falling again, the city plans to pump a billion gallons of surplus drinking water into vast underground caverns for storage.

The aquifer beneath the Rome Avenue Park, between Rome and Armenia avenues, comprises an area of roughly a square mile, said David Tippin, director of the Tampa Water Department.

About 25 private wells may be affected by the plan, and to compensate the city will hook the well owners to the city water supply at no charge.

The City Council gave its support to the plan Thursday, though final approval isn't expected for several weeks.

State high court upholds killer's death sentence

TAMPA -- It was the most poignant moment of Lawrence Singleton's 1997 murder trial.

Mary Vincent, whom Singleton had raped in California in 1978 before hacking off her arms, was in court at the request of prosecutors seeking to persuade a jury to sentence Singleton to death.

Sitting in the witness stand in a cardigan sweater, Vincent was asked to identify the man who had cut her arms off two decades before. She raised the silver-hooked prostheses that replaced the arms and pointed at Singleton.

"He used a hatchet," she whispered. "He left me to die."

The moment was so powerful, Singleton's lawyers argued on appeal, it unduly prejudiced the jury and should be grounds for overturning his death sentence.

But the Florida Supreme Court disagreed. The state's high court on Thursday upheld the conviction and death sentence of Singleton, now 73, for stabbing Roxanne Hayes, a prostitute whom Singleton picked up on E Hillsborough Avenue Feb. 19, 1997.

Internet prostitution ring linked to people in Tampa

TAMPA -- Law enforcement officials have accused eight people of being involved in an Internet prostitution ring based in Tampa and North Carolina.

Investigators from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and North Carolina said John Robert Hubard, of Tampa, and Eric Caldwell of Pfafftown, N.C., were owners of Private Pets Escort Service.

Caldwell was arrested Monday afternoon in North Carolina and detectives said Hubard was on the run and believed to be in Tennessee. They face prostitution and racketeering charges.

Hubard designed the Web site that advertised women for a rate of $300 per hour, said Chief Deputy James Coats of the Pinellas Sheriff's Office. The women arrested were Michelle Germaine of Largo, Samantha Noland of Tampa, Spring Cook of Tampa, Michele Allen of Tampa and Amber Griffith of Tampa.

Teresa Jones of Palm Harbor, described as a third owner of the business, was arrested on prostitution and racketeering charges.

Rock-throwing youth faces more charges

One of the Manatee County teenagers arrested in connection with the rock-throwing death of a motorist two years ago is in trouble again.

Noe Ramirez Jr., 18, of Ellenton, was arrested Thursday on a charge of performing a lewd and lascivious act on a minor.

Two years ago, he was charged with tossing rocks the night motorist Julie Laible was fatally struck with a chunk of concrete dropped from an Interstate 75 overpass.

He was in the Manatee County jail awaiting a bail hearing today.

Fugitive in California child abuse case arrested

ST. PETERSBURG -- A fugitive wanted on 21 counts of sexually abusing children in California was arrested in St. Petersburg, apparently after an anonymous tipster noticed his photo on the Internet site of the America's Most Wanted television show, authorities said.

Pasquale Nigro, 56, was accused of molesting his two juvenile stepdaughters in California over the course of eight years, authorities said. He never showed up for his trial.

A tipster called the Crimestoppers Hotline and told authorities that Nigro was living under the alias "Tony Rico" in the Bay Park Arms Hotel at 326 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg and had been working as a cook at the nearby Tangelo's Grill at 226 First Ave. N, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

On Wednesday, Pinellas sheriff's detectives went to the hotel. "Rico" admitted to being Pasquale Nigro and surrendered without incident, sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita said.

Woman charged after abused animals are found

PLANT CITY -- Officials found three dead animals Thursday and 40 others that had been neglected at a Plant City home.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said an anonymous tip to Hillsborough Animal Services led authorities to 1906 Spencer St., a home owned by 60-year-old Alice M. Miller.

Officials found two cats and a chicken dead inside the home. Inside and outside the house, which sits on about 10 acres of orange groves, officials found myriad other animals they said had not been fed or cared for. Most were on leashes or in cages, Carter said.

In all, Animal Services seized six dogs, three puppies, a turtle, two birds and about 30 cats. Miller, who does not live in the home, was charged with two felony counts of animal cruelty. She was held in jail Thursday night.

Master of cocaine smuggling boat given life

TAMPA -- The master of a speed boat caught ferrying two tons of cocaine off the coast of Ecuador has been sentenced to life in prison for his role in the smuggling venture.

Pedro Luis Christopher Tinoco was convicted of federal drug charges by a Tampa jury in November. His arrest was part of a series of cocaine seizures in the eastern Pacific Ocean last year.

Tinoco was the master of a boat intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in June. Two tons of cocaine were thrown overboard, but recovered.

U.S. District Judge James Moody sentenced Tinoco Monday. Three other crew members with Tinoco on the boat will be sentenced Feb. 23.

2-year-old boy's killer avoids death penalty

LARGO -- By the time Walter Morris walked into 2-year-old Dustin Gee's world, the toddler's life was already a living torment.

His mother, Kimberly Gee, admitted savagely beating him. She intentionally dumped him out of his stroller onto the ground. She burned the boy with cigarettes.

Then Morris moved into their home and battered him even harder, finally killing a boy who had known little joy.

On Thursday, a Pinellas judge spared Morris' life.

Senior Circuit Judge Robert Beach rejected a jury's recommendation that Morris be executed for the 1997 beating death of Dustin and sentenced the 29-year-old to life in prison without parole.

Morris, who appeared to shake his head in disagreement as the judge recounted his deed, was emotionless as the sentence was imposed.

"The beating of Dustin resulting in his death by the defendant was inexcusable but was not planned or done with premeditation (and) came about as a result of his inability to control his temper," Beach said in sentencing him.

In deciding on life over death, Beach also noted that Dustin's mother had set a pattern of abuse long before Morris arrived on the scene.

"In this environment it was inevitable that severe injury to, or the death of, Dustin would be the ultimate result," Beach said.

No relatives of Morris or Dustin showed up for the sentencing. Gee is in jail awaiting trial on a manslaughter charge. She is accused of failing to stop the beating that led to her son's death.

She faces up to 30 years in prison.

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