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The week in review

By Compiled by Times staff writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 4, 2000


TWENTY YEARS FOR VALESSA: Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett sentenced Carrollwood's Valessa Robinson to 20 years in prison: 15 for the third-degree murder of her mother, real estate broker Vicki Robinson; and five more for stealing her mother's minivan. "It's the court's decision that you be sentenced as an adult, the adult that you actually are," Padgett said. "A young adult perhaps, but an adult nevertheless." Sentencing guidelines had called for a maximum of 18 years, but the judge went higher because of the cruelty of Mrs. Robinson's death. Valessa will get credit for the two years she has already spent in jail.

Under the law, she must serve 85 percent of her 20-year sentence -- or 17 years. Since she has already been in jail for nearly two years, that leaves 15 years to serve.

Even if her appeal fails and she serves a complete sentence, she is likely to be out of prison at age 32. Boyfriend and fellow defendant Adam Davis has been convicted and sentenced to death, while Jon Whispel agreed to a 25-year sentence in exchange for his testimony against the other two.

SENTENCE SHORTENED IN HUNTER'S GREEN DUI: A Lutz man convicted in a drunken driving case that left one girl dead and another crippled had his sentence reduced Tuesday by about eight years.

Harold Vann, 53, originally was sentenced to 241/2 years in prison after his conviction in 1998 for DUI-manslaughter and DUI with serious bodily injury.

The sentencing guidelines, however, were part of a set of 1995 laws recently ruled unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court. The ruling led to Vann's resentencing Tuesday by Hillsborough Circuit Judge J. Rogers Padgett, who gave him 16 years in prison, the high end of the 1994 guidelines.

In February 1997, Debbie Jackson was driving to her home in Hunter's Green. At the entrance, she turned at the traffic light into the path of Vann's pickup truck. Prosecutors said Vann, an auto body shop owner, ran a red light.

The Jacksons' 11-year-old daughter, Katie, died. Their daughter Elizabeth, then 6, was left in a vegetative state. Vann's blood-alcohol level was between 0.12 and 0.16 at the time of the wreck, according to the prosecution. The law presumes a person to be impaired at 0.08 or above.

A jury convicted Vann after an emotional trial. Vann's appeal was denied two months ago, which appeared to end the case.

Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court finalized a ruling that the Crime Control Act of 1995, which enhanced penalties for a wide range of felonies, violated the sacrosanct single-subject rule of the Florida Constitution, which says all laws must embrace just one subject.

Vann was allowed to petition for a sentence reduction because his crimes occurred between Oct. 1, 1995, and May 24, 1997, the window of time set by the court.

LOCK-IN AT NORTHDALE TACO BELL: A Taco Bell employee had a novel solution Tuesday when the lunch hour got crazy: She locked the doors. Customers couldn't get in or out for several minutes.

When someone called 911, sheriff's deputies and firefighters descended on the Mapledale Boulevard restaurant and found at least a dozen customers locked inside.

Deputies had to knock on the drive-through window to get an employee's attention. Only then were the doors unlocked.

"God forbid if a fire had started in there," said Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Bryan Pille. "How are people going to get out?"

One woman became frightened when the doors were locked, witnesses said. She yelled at workers to let her out, then made a call on her cellular telephone.

"I got to thinking, "Oh my gosh, what if they are being robbed?' " said Vanessa Dallman of Lutz, who finished her meal as firefighters and deputies entered.

The Sheriff's Office contacted Taco Bell's corporate headquarters to send a manager. The regular manager had called in sick.

Several customers said this was not the first time employees closed the restaurant because they were too busy.

RECORD SUMMER AT USF: The University of South Florida's summer enrollment is booming, thanks partly to a financial incentive from the state. For the first time, recipients of a Bright Futures scholarship can use their money during the summer. So far, more than 1,600 USF students are taking advantage of it, said financial aid director Leonard Gude.

USF started two of its three summer sessions May 15. Students then had a week to drop or add classes to their schedule. The next week, USF counted 19,895 enrolled students -- an increase of 474 students over last year. Officials also have noted a 5.7 percent increase in the number of credit hours.

"We were kind of surprised when we had the numbers we had," Gude said. He suspects that Bright Futures certainly was a contributing factor.

The scholarship, administered by the state Department of Education, rewards students who graduate from a Florida high school with at least a 3.0 grade point average and maintain the B average in college.

Recipients are given at least 75 percent of tuition costs. Continuing students enrolled in at least six credit hours qualify for the award this summer. Gude said he expected about 1,000 Bright Futures students. His guess was 600 students low, and USF still has another summer semester that starts next month.

A strong summer also leads administrators to expect an even stronger fall. USF expects to easily surpass its record for freshmen. USF has stopped admitting freshmen to its Tampa campus for the fall term. Instead, it is asking students to attend in St. Petersburg or wait until January for Tampa acceptance.

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