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Odd and otter: Stories stayed strange in 2001

A man's appetite, congregating sharks and attacks by animals put the county on the map - for better or for worse.

By CARY DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 28, 2001

What comes out of Pasco County?

Years ago, it was oranges. Development put the squeeze on that. Then, as the good folks in Hillsborough and Pinellas know well, it was water. Overdevelopment is taking care of that, too.

Not to worry, though. Pasco is in no danger of losing its title as a leading supplier of something humankind will always crave:

Wacky stories.

It might not be a source of pride to those who call Pasco home, but at least it's something. And we didn't disappoint in 2001.

Take Bob Middleton. One day in April, Middleton took his family and his large appetite to the China Dragon all-you-can-eat buffet in Holiday. The kitchen staff was no match for Middleton, who scarfed up so many plateloads of snow crab legs that restaurant management added $10 to his family's bill. When Middleton refused to pay the surcharge, a sheriff's deputy asked him to leave.

Middleton came to the St. Petersburg Times to plead his case. The newspaper didn't just print a story. The Times put Middleton across the top of 1A, the front page.

Soon, Middleton was an international story. Radio stations and their personalities couldn't get enough. Then it was on to Japan, where he competed on a television eating show, the name of which translates to Food Battle Club. He lost because he broke the game's sacred rule. This being a family newspaper, let's just say he lost it.

In August, a big school of sharks decided to park it for a few days off Anclote Key. They could have picked Hernando Beach, or John's Pass. But somehow, you knew it would be Pasco. Maybe it's something about the water here.

Actually, there is nothing unusual about a school of migrating sharks in Florida. But two things turned this into yet another international news story. First, it was the "Summer of the Shark." Two people died in shark attacks along the Atlantic Coast this summer. And in Pensacola, a bull shark attacked 8-year-old Jessie Arbogast, biting off the boy's right arm and tearing a chunk from his thigh.

Second, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office issued a "media alert," ringing the dinner bell for news-starved journalists. Television news helicopters couldn't get here fast enough. It was a producer's dream: Get a camera on the sharks and keep the tape rolling. People will watch for hours. Think L.A. car chases. Think O.J.

Big-time producers at the networks in New York didn't get their jobs because they ignore important news. So the networks came, too. Television stations from Japan and Canada also got in on the excitement.

You just know there was a producer, or editor, somewhere, hoping the sharks would get hungry for something other than fish. Two days later, the sharks were gone, along with the news crews.

In many respects, Pasco is like every other place: We've got weird people. We've got normal people who do weird things.

Our sheriff, Bob White, decided to make jail inmates on work crews wear black-and-white striped outfits. Everybody, it seems, was laughing at these Hamburglar look-alikes. Everybody, that is, except the inmates. Said one: "It makes us look like convicts."

A pack of seven young Pasco residents, just before carrying out an elaborate burglary scheme, huddled together football-style and prayed. "Hey, God, get us through this," said one. "We know you don't like this, but get us through."

A group of retirees in New Port Richey apparently didn't appreciate the city selling off the land from underneath their shuffleboard courts. When the eviction notice came, the retirees, some in their 80s, stripped a city-owned building of air-conditioning units, a hot water heater, window treatments, cabinets and the like. Then the police department got involved, the retirees were brought in for questioning, and the loot was returned.

Then there's Harry Tackett. When he went through the metal detector at the New Port Richey courthouse, he handed the bailiff a pack of cigarettes. Oops. He forgot about the marijuana joint inside. The bailiff flipped open the cigarette box and pulled out the contraband. Tackett's wife, who was with him, suggested he must have picked up somebody else's smokes by mistake. "That must be it," Tackett said, just before he was handcuffed and taken to jail.

Even our animals do strange things.

In May, an otter scooted up on the shore of a Port Richey lake and took away a family's pet. As the family watched in horror, the otter locked its teeth around Mike, a gentle American Eskimo, and pulled the dog under the water. The dog's body was found the next day.

Pasco had a gator attack this year. Not all that weird, you say? Consider the setting: a nudist camp. In June, Dagmar Dow, her husband and two teenage sons were swimming in the buff at the Lake Como nudist resort in Land O'Lakes. Suddenly, Mrs. Dow disappeared beneath the surface. Her left ankle was caught in the mouth of a 9-foot alligator. Her husband, Ray Dow, darted underwater and grabbed his wife. After a struggle, the reptile released Mrs. Dow, whose ankle was nearly severed. She spent three weeks at Tampa General Hospital and has had six surgeries to repair the ankle.

Naturally, the wire services picked up the story. Somewhere, maybe on a farm in Nebraska, you can just imagine this dinner conversation:

"Honey, you won't believe this . . . "

"Where did it happen?"

"Florida. Some place called Pasco County."

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