Astatula

Third Annual Back the Blue Walk Scheduled for Saturday

TAVARES, Florida—Hundreds of people are expected to attend the third annual Lake County Backs the Blue Walk scheduled for 9 a.m. Saturday at Tavares’ Wooton Park.

In its third year, the walk began in 2019 to show support for law enforcement during a time when the “defund the police” movement was making its way across the country, event organizer Shannon Cook told Inside Lake. Representatives from several law enforcement agencies and numerous public officials are expected to be in attendance.

“The good ones needed to know they were appreciated,” Cook said.

Cook has always had respect for law enforcement officers and the job they do, she said. She grew up and was close friends with Lake County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Wayne Koester who was killed in the line of duty Feb. 9, 2005. Koester, who was 33 at the time, and two other deputies were ambushed while responding to a domestic violence call. All three deputies were shot, and Koester succumbed to his injuries; the other two deputies recovered. Jason Wheeler was shot and paralyzed during his capture and convicted in Koester’s death.

PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Cook was also close to Chris Daniels, who was serving as Lake County Sheriff when he was tragically killed in a charity bus race in 2006.

“Almost the entire time my son played baseball; Chris Daniels was his coach.” Cook said.

Cook told Inside Lake it is important the community show its support for all of the good officers and those who were lost in the line of duty. She is hoping for a large turnout Saturday, last year’s efforts were hampered by unusually cold weather and it was held Easter weekend.

Saturday’s walk is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at Wooton Park, 100 E. Ruby Street; donuts and coffee are being provided by Ralph Smith of Lake Tire & Auto before the event. Walkers will travel down Ruby Street to LCSO and then onto the Tavares Public Safety Complex before returning to Wooten Park for a hot dog lunch provided by Pamela O’Donnell and Vic Donahey of Vic’s Embers Catering.

Cook suggests participants use street parking in downtown Tavares, or park in the Tavares Parking Garage, 200 North Sinclair Avenue.

Free Sealing and Expungement Clinic Scheduled for Saturday

TAVARES, Florida—Lake County residents with minor criminal histories have a unique opportunity to quickly and efficiently expunge or seal their record Saturday if they qualify, at the first-ever Sealing and Expungement clinic offered here.

Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida is teaming up with the Lake County Bar Association and Lake Young Lawyers Division to offer this free 4-hour clinic scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the Lake County Courthouse, 550 West Main Street, Tavares. Lawyers and representatives from numerous government agencies will be on hand to help participants navigate through the process, which often can be difficult to do on their own or expensive to hire a private attorney, said Taylor Tremel, an attorney who will be available on-site Saturday, to help. Lake County Clerk of Court Gary Cooney is waiving certain fees and providing the space for the clinic, Tremel said.

Tremel, who has served as an assistant state attorney and a public defender, is now in private practice with the firm Bowen & Schroth in Eustis and is enthusiastic about being a part of this program. “We saw that there was a need, and I thought it was a worthwhile thing to take on” he told Inside Lake.

“This brings everybody together under one roof to help and answer questions. It’s not very often all these groups get together to do something like this,” Tremel said.

Many crimes are not eligible to be sealed or expunged, including violent offenses, Tremel said. If a person was adjudicated guilty for a crime, they are not eligible either.

Participants’ criminal case must have occurred in Lake County to partake in the event and are asked to pre-register at Clinic Screening (legalserver.org) and those who do, may qualify for assistance with the $75 Florida Department of Law Enforcement application fee. Tremel said participants should not overstate their income or overrepresent how much money they have in the bank.

Tremel is hoping for a large turnout Saturday, “It’s a really awesome event,” he said. “I think it’s something that can be done annually.”

Groveland Man Dies After Truck Overturns Near Astatula

ASTATULA, Florida—A Groveland man died Wednesday after the semi he was driving overturned around 10:20 a.m., according to Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Kim Montes.

The 58-year-old man was northbound on County Road 48 near Ranch Road when he lost control and overturned, Montes said. The man, who was wearing a seatbelt, was pronounced dead on the scene.

The crash remains under investigation.  

Friends and Colleagues Remember Judge T. Michael Johnson

TAVARES, Florida— “A friend for the ages, for a lot of people.”

That is how retired Public Defender Howard “Skip” Babb describes his longtime best friend and former coworker T. Michael Johnson, who passed away Monday after suffering a heart attack.

Well known and well-respected, Johnson, who served as a circuit judge was appointed to the bench in 1995 by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, and served until his retirement in 2011, and was a senior judge at the time of his passing. He presided over many trials in Lake County, including the first murder trial this reporter covered at the beginning of her professional career in 2005. He also presided over the trials of Donte Hall and Dante Hall, identical twins accused of robbery and murder in Eustis in 2006, a case that made national headlines.

Before he was appointed judge, Johnson worked at the Fifth Circuit Public Defender’s Office for 14 years under Babb in numerous roles, including chief assistant. During his time as a public defender, he represented Richard Henyard, who was convicted and later executed for the murders of two young sisters. Henyard was also convicted in the rape and attempted murder of the girls’ mother.

Babb said Johnson was born and raised in Sumter County and began his professional career at Sumter Correctional Institution.

“I was lucky to get him,“ Babb told Inside Lake. You are who you hire, and he was a good hire.”

Mike Graves, Phil Kairalla, T. Michael Johnson, Skip Babb and Mike Lupton tailgating at a Florida State University football game.

“Judge Johnson was a highly regarded, talented and effective defense attorney, who transferred his skills seamlessly to the judiciary. As a judge, he strove to be fair and was always practical in helping the parties come to a resolution. His sense of humor was legendary,” said James Hope, a former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney, who has practiced law in Lake County for 35 years.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Michelle Morley, and she currently serves as a circuit judge in Sumter County. Kelly Bagwell, who is a paralegal for Hatfield and Stack in Tavares, credits Johnson and Morley for her decision to become a paralegal. She originally planned to be a nurse and after working for Morley, she changed her career path.

Judge. T. Michael Johnson marrying Kelly and Sterling Bagwell.

“They were so influential in my life,” she told Inside Lake. “He was just amazing.”

Johnson holds another special place in Bagwell’s life—he married her and her husband Sterling, 19 years ago. He recently told her they were the only couple he married that were still together.

Numerous posts and comments could be found about Johnson on social media Monday and Tuesday. “He touched a lot of people,” Babb said. “It’s a sad day.

Scheduled Holiday Closings And Modified Garbage Pickup

LAKE COUNTY, Florida—Many local government offices are scheduled to close this week in observance of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Lake County Government offices will be closed Thursday and Friday and county garbage pickup regularly scheduled for Thursday will be Friday and regularly scheduled pickup for Friday will be Saturday. This includes Altoona, Astor, Ferndale, Grand Island, Okahumpka, Paisley, Sorrento and Yalaha. For more information, visit  https://lakecountyfl.gov/trash-recycling.

Most city government and town halls will be closed Thursday and Friday; this includes Clermont, Eustis, Fruitland Park, Groveland, Howey-In-The-Hills, Leesburg, Mascotte, Mount Dora, Tavares and Umatilla. Astatula, Lady Lake and Minneola are scheduled to close just on Thursday. Aligning with the county garbage pickup modified schedule; garbage pickup for Thursday will be Friday and pickup for Friday will be Saturday for most cities, except Lady Lake, Leesburg and Tavares.

Lady Lake’s and Leesburg’s garbage pickup will resume Monday and Tavares will resume Tuesday. 

Man Tells Troopers He Tampered With Evidence Because He Didn’t Want To Disappoint His Dad

ASTATULA, Florida—A man wanted for a hit-and-run caught two extra charges Monday when Florida Highway Patrol troopers attempted to question him about the crime, according to an arrest affidavit.

On Monday, a trooper was investigating a hit-and-run crash that occurred on Nov. 9 after receiving an anonymous tip including the tag number of the vehicle that fled the scene. The trooper went to the registered owner’s address in Clermont and he said although the van is registered to him, his son, Christopher Keith MacMillan, drives it and he had not seen him since the day of the crash and was not aware of the crash.  

The trooper used social media to find an associate of MacMillan, 31, and her address, and he, along with two other troopers went to the woman’s home in Astatula. When they arrived, they spotted the van suspected of being in the hit-and-run partially covered with a tarp and without a tag.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Troopers spoke to the woman and asked where MacMillan was, and she offered to go inside and bring him out. While waiting, the trooper saw that the front of the van had several parts removed from it, including the headlights, bumper, grill and right fender. “It was obvious that someone was attempting to fix the vehicle involved in the accident and tamper with evidence,” he noted in the affidavit.

After waiting several minutes for the woman to return, FHP knocked on her door and she stated she could not find MacMillan. She told the troopers she was worried about her children and said they could search the home after she got them out. FHP called Astatula Police Department (APD) for assistance and about 25 minutes later, the woman finally exited the home with her children and troopers entered.

They gave several verbal demands for MacMillan to come out or a K-9 would be deployed. APD deployed its K-9 and the dog located MacMillan in a bedroom under a bed. MacMillan refused to come out until the dog started moving towards him and scratched his face. MacMillan then agreed to come out and he was taken into custody. Troopers found a loaded handgun under the bed, but McMillan denied knowing it was there and said it must have fallen from a magnet on the wall during the commotion. A magnet was attached to the wall, the trooper noted. An AR 15 style rifle with a round in the chamber was found on the bed.

MacMillan was questioned about the crash and he said he was trying to fix the vehicle so his dad would not find out. He made jokes about cleaning the trooper’s car and said he was not trying to evade legal trouble, but he was trying to fix it, so he did not disappoint his dad. He also said he knew it was wrong to leave the crash, but it was too late to go back.

MacMillan was arrested for tampering with evidence, resisting an officer and leaving the scene of a crash. He was released Tuesday on $8,000 bond. 

Weeks Of Threats To Shoot Up An Astatula House

The following story was published under a different headline in another publication.

ASTATULA, Florida — A Leesburg man who threatened to shoot up his victim’s house for several weeks followed through on his threat Thursday night — the same the day victim attended his daughter’s funeral.

According to an arrest affidavit, Groveland Police were investigating the theft of a 2007 Toyota Scion and Bobby Lynn Russell, 25, was named a suspect. About 10 minutes later, the Lake County Communications Center received a report of a drive-by shooting in Astatula and again, Russell was named a suspect.

The victim told a deputy Russell had been harassing his son for weeks and threatening to shoot up the victim’s home. While visiting with family after his daughter’s funeral the victim heard five to six gunshots outside. The victim stepped outside and a witness told him a black vehicle drove by and a man she believed to be Russell started shooting, the affidavit states.

A deputy did not find any bullet holes in the home, but did find a .380 Hornday shell casing in the road in front of the home. No one was injured.

Believing the Scion was involved in the shooting, various law enforcement officers began searching the area for the Scion when it was spotted shortly before midnight Friday on State Road 19, south of Howey-in-the-Hills. The Scion was traveling northbound when a deputy got behind it and followed it down Dewey Robbins Road and watched it conduct a U-turn in a driveway. The Scion continued northbound through Howey-in-the-Hills and fled when deputies activated their emergency lights.

The Scion sped down State Road 19, almost hitting a deputy and several Tavares Police officers “while driving extremely recklessly,’ the affidavit states. As the Scion approached County Road 561, it made an abrupt turn into a gas station, drove through the parking lot, attempted to get back onto County Road 561 and crashed into a wooded area. Russell exited the Scion with his hands up and was taken into custody. Deputies searched the car and found a stolen Taurus .380 handgun that was loaded and chambered. It was loaded with .380 Hornday self defense rounds — the same ammunition found at the scene of the drive-by shooting.

Russell is charged with shooting a missile at an unoccupied dwelling, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, no driver license, fleeing and eluding with wanton disregard and grand theft of a firearm. He is being held at the Lake County Jail on $96,000 bond.

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