Eustis

Teenager Arrested for Bomb Threat at Eustis Wendy’s Last Month

EUSTIS, Florida—A prank phone call turned into a felony charge for a 14-year-old Tavares boy Tuesday when he was arrested for making a false bomb threat last month.

Inside Lake is not naming the boy due to his age and the nature of the charge.

Around 5:45 p.m. April 9, Eustis Police Department responded to Wendy’s, 2827 South Bay Street on a report of a bomb threat. Officers evacuated the building and parking lot and spoke with the manager who said he received a call on the restaurant’s main line around 5:30 p.m.; the caller asked, “Is this Wendy’s?” and when the manager responded, “yes” the caller reportedly said, “You better get out, It’s about to blow up,” according to a juvenile pickup order. The manager wrote down the phone number the threat was made from.

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad responded and conducted a sweep of the restaurant and parking lot and did not find any explosives, according to the pickup order.

On April 11, and EPD detective began investigating the case and linked the phone number back to the 14-year-old suspect. EPD interviewed the boy at Tavares Middle School, and he told detectives he made some prank phone calls with his stepbrother, including a call to Wendy’s. Police interviewed the boy’s stepbrother who also admitted making the call. It is unclear whether he is facing charges.

The boy was picked up Tuesday and turned over to the Department of Juvenile Justice.

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.

Former Firefighter Pleads No Contest in DUI Manslaughter Case, Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison

TAVARES, Florida—The former Eustis firefighter accused of killing a young woman while he was driving drunk has pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter.

According to Lake County Clerk of Court online records, Downs was sentenced to six years in prison and must serve at least four years, followed by four years on probation, $2,100 fine, community service, restitution, court costs and he will lose his driver license for the rest of his life.

Downs, who was the deputy chief of the volunteer Umatilla Fire Department, an engineer medic at Eustis Fire Department, and former local paramedic of the year was later terminated from both of his positions.

He was off-duty at the time of the three-vehicle crash on March 19, 2020 and was traveling eastbound in a 2016 Dodge Ram on State Road 44 near Huff Road when he failed to stop and struck the back of a 2017 Nissan Sentra, “propelling” it into the back of a stopped dump truck. The Nissan, being driven by Catherine Eaglin, of DeLand was stopped on State Road 44, facing east, behind a 2020 dump truck being driven by William Gomes, 33, of Orlando, shortly after 11:15 p.m., according to the crash report.

Eaglin, who turned 23 just six days before the crash, was pronounced dead on the scene, and was wearing a seatbelt. Downs, of Eustis, was airlifted to Central Florida Regional Medical Center and he was not wearing a seatbelt. Gomes was transported by Lake EMS to AdventHealth Waterman; he was wearing his seatbelt.

Catherine Eaglin was killed in a crash March 19, 2020, just six days after her 23rd birthday, after her car was struck by a drunk driver. Michael Downs, a former firefighter, pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter Monday and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Downs was charged with DUI manslaughter, three counts of DUI with property damage and one count of false information on a crash report for falsely claiming he was infected with COVID-19. Downs pleaded no contest to DUI manslaughter and the other four charges were dropped, according to court records.

A Florida Highway Patrol crash report states Downs’ BAC was .155, nearly twice Florida’s legal limit. It is unclear exactly what time the blood was drawn, but it was after Downs was transported by air to Central Florida Regional Medical Center in Sanford.

“FHP had to subpoena medical blood, as Cpl. [Eric] Almeyda was unable to obtain blood from Mr. Downs,” Montes said in an email in 2020. “With the challenge of not being able to obtain a blood sample that night, Cpl. Almeyda immediately subpoenaed the medical blood and completed the investigation before making an arrest.’

Downs also claimed he may have COVID-19. “When Cpl. Almeyda arrived at the hospital to interview and evaluate Mr. Downs, he was told by the nurses that Mr. Downs claimed he may have COVID-19,” Montes said in an email. “The hospital staff placed Cpl. Almeyda in full protective PPE to go in the room to talk with Mr. Downs.”

At the hospital, no routine field sobriety exercises were possible, nor was it possible for traffic homicide investigator Almeyda to get close enough to Downs to determine whether he had physical signs of impairment — such as bloodshot eyes or the odor of alcohol on his breath. “We couldn’t do anything because he was claiming COVID-19,” Montes told this reporter in 2020.

Downs allegedly made the claim just 10 days after Gov. Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency in Florida due to COVID-19.

He was taken into custody Monday at the Lake County Courthouse after entering his plea and is being held at the Lake County Jail until he is transferred to state prison.

Sorrento Woman Killed in Eustis Motorcycle Crash

EUSTIS, Florida—A weekend that saw many motorcycles on the roads, especially in Eustis and Leesburg ended tragically Sunday afternoon with the death of a 28-year-old Sorrento woman.

Rebekah Jo Towner was the passenger on 2006 Harley Davidson being ridden by 64-year-old Edgar Wesley Tello, of Umatilla, northbound on Grove Street, when he struck a construction sign near Pendleton Avenue, a Eustis Police spokesperson told Inside Lake—the only media on the scene.

The impact threw Tello and Towner from the motorcycle and she slid with the motorcycle more than 100 feet, coming to rest at a fence in front of a home. Towner was pronounced dead on the scene, EPD said.

A witness who asked not to be named, heard and witnessed the 4:40 p.m. crash, “I heard a squeal, like it hit the curb and then there were two booms,” he said. “He was going faster than 30 (mile pers hour.”)

A Eustis Police traffic homicide investigator is seen investigating a fatal motorcycle crash near a mangled sign Sunday afternoon. A Sorrento woman was killed.
PHOTO: Inside Lake

The speed limit in that area is 30 miles per hour and there is an electronic speed monitor reminding motorists of their speed and to slow down.

Tello was airlifted to a local hospital and is in serious condition. The crash closed two blocks of North Grove Street for several hours and traffic was diverted to North Eustis Street. It is unclear if either one was wearing a helmet, police said.

The crash comes at the conclusion of two popular events that were held over the weekend, Eustis Music Fest and Leesburg Bikefest. It is unknown where the pair were coming from and the crash remains under investigation.

Eustis Woman Busted with Funny Money, Meth, Laptops and Printers; Secret Service Notified

EUSTIS, Florida—A traffic stop for a missing tag landed a Eustis woman in jail Tuesday night after Eustis Police found 50 counterfeit bills, several smoking devices, printers, laptops and methamphetamine in her car, according to an arrest affidavit.

Kimberley Renee Rappoccio, 40, was pulled over near her home in Eustis around 9: 30 p.m. because the car she was driving did not have a tag. Rappoccio told EPD she had bought the car two months prior and was returning home from trying to sell the car. She was able to provide a title signed by the seller, according to the affidavit.

EPD asked to search the vehicle and called a K9 officer to the scene when Rappoccio said no. K9 Mya performed an open-air sniff of the car and alerted near the passenger side of the vehicle. While searching, police found two smoking devices with residue in a sock in addition to an “abundance of counterfeit currency in denominations of $1, $5, $10, $20 and $100,” the arresting officer stated in the affidavit. Police also found paper used for counterfeiting, three printers, two laptops and a tablet. A black box containing methamphetamine and additional smoking devices were also found.

PHOTO: Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Rappoccio claimed she did not know what was in the car and the only things she took ownership of were her purse, phone and the tablet. EPD seized the counterfeit money, printers, laptops, tablet and phone for a pending search warrant and notified the Secret Service. The Secret Service asked EPD to record all the serial numbers on the fake bills and keep them apprised of the investigation.

Rappoccio was arrested for possession methamphetamine, possession of counterfeit bills, possession of drug paraphernalia and failure to register a motor vehicle. She was transported to the Lake County Jail, where she was released on $5,500 bond.

Eustis Police Officer Resigns Following “Egregious Policy Violation”

EUSTIS, Florida—A Eustis Police officer has resigned following an internal investigation that resulted in a five-day suspension, for what EPD Chief Craig Capri called an “egregious policy violation.”

Austin Williams, a four-year veteran of the department, resigned earlier this month after an internal investigation showed he violated the department’s pursuit policy, by pursuing a vehicle for a minor traffic violation and reaching speeds of up to 113 miles per hour. The vehicle he was pursuing crashed outside EPD’s jurisdiction, according to the internal affairs report.

“Once we were made aware of the egregious policy violation, we investigated and took corrective action,” Capri told Inside Lake. “Our agency is very transparent, and we have zero tolerance for (violations of this nature.)”

Around 10:45 p.m. March 13, Williams attempted to pull over a vehicle that failed to stop before the stop bar at a stop sign at West Stevens Avenue and South Bay Street. The white Ford sedan made a quick turn into a nearby gas station and quickly exited the parking lot when Williams activated his emergency lights on his unmarked patrol car.

The car accelerated and Williams activated his sirens and the car fled; Williams pursued the vehicle on Bay Street, speeding as fast as 93 miles per hour, according to the report. Williams turned off his lights and sirens around Bay Street and Chesley Avenue and notified Eustis dispatch the vehicle was going to run the light at Bay Street and Ardice Avenue and he was Code 4 (terminating the stop)—but he did not terminate the pursuit.

Williams continued to pursue the vehicle south on Bay Street (State Road 19) and ran a solid red light at RaceTrac gas station at 36 miles per hour, traveling at 80 miles per hour by the time he reached Long John Silvers, 2880 South Bay Street. When he came to the next light at Bay Street and the southbound ramp to U.S. Highway 441, he was traveling at 108 miles per hour. A vehicle pulled out in front of Williams, causing him to change lanes and decrease his speed to just under 100 miles per hour. His body camera captured him saying an expletive as the vehicle pulls out.

As Williams left Eustis city limits, he was traveling 108 miles per hour; he turned onto to Bay Road at 78 miles per hour and ran the stop sign at Bay Road and Dodson Cutoff, near the now-defunct Roll-Air skating rink.

Austin Williams

He then requested dispatch notify Mount Dora Police Department the vehicle was entering its jurisdiction at about 80 miles per hour and Williams continued to follow the car outside the City of Eustis, without any further communication of his location, the report states.

Williams then approached Old U.S. Highway 441 and applied his brakes but ran the red light at the intersection and states, “I’m losing my (expletive) brakes, I’m gonna lose my (expletive) job if I don’t stop.”  

Later, in an interview, Williams said he made that statement because he then realized he had violated EPD’s pursuit policy and admitted he had put other uninvolved parties in harm’s way.

Williams continued down Bay Road until it dead-ends at Lakeshore Drive and made a left turn, he then manually turned his body camera off. His dash camera was on and captured him increasing his speed from 12 miles per hour to 76 miles per hour until he spotted the vehicle crashed, upside down and on fire in front of a home, located in Lake County Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction. Williams exited his unmarked patrol car, drew his gun, and began giving the driver continuous verbal commands to show his hands and exit the vehicle. EPD Dispatch asked Williams’ location, and he responded, “38 Eustis (Williams ID) I don’t know my cross, I’m on Lakeshore Drive in Mount Dora, the car is on fire and on its roof.”

Williams attempted to open the passenger door was only able to partially open it and he continued to give the driver loud verbal commands. The driver replied, “Help me,” in a soft, gentle voice, the report states. Williams yelled “Get out of the car,” and the driver stated, “I can’t move.”

Williams continued to give verbal commands to the driver and again pointed his weapon at the driver and made no further efforts to assist the driver while continuing to give him verbal commands, according to the report.

A second EPD officer arrived on scene and Williams holsters his weapon and tells the second officer to grab a fire extinguisher. Williams then pulled the driver from the car and the driver denied committing the original traffic violation. Multiple agencies arrived and began assisting and the driver was transported to the hospital for medical treatment. From the time Williams called in the traffic stop to the time of the crash was only 3 minutes 33 seconds, according to the report.

An EPD road patrol sergeant arrived soon after and Williams reportedly said, “I was not 10-31, I know that’s the first question you’re gonna ask;” 10-31 is code for “in pursuit.” Williams was later questioned during the investigation and said he did not believe he was pursuing the vehicle, he believed he was trying to “locate the vehicle.”

EPD found that Williams did violate policy and he was given a five-day suspension without pay. Williams served the suspension and resigned the following day.

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.”

Gift Card Scam Ends in Handcuffs for Employee

EUSTIS, Florida—An employee of an office supply store is facing fraud and grand theft charges after he was caught scamming the store with a gift card scheme, according to an arrest affidavit.

Matthew Tyler Nolen, 18, of Mount Dora, was confronted by the manager of Office Depot, 17081 U.S. Highway 441, after his drawer consistently came up short and the manager reviewed surveillance video. The video showed Nolen ring up Visa gift cards under his associate number and then select cash, the affidavit states.

Nolen performed four separate transactions over a week, totaling more than $1,000 that were captured on video and when confronted on Monday, Nolen admitted to the thefts and admitted he had taken around $50 in drinks he did not pay for, the affidavit states. Nolen began working at the store in January.

After writing a statement and being read his Miranda warning, Nolen refused to speak with EPD and was arrested for grand theft and scheming to defraud. He was transported to the Lake County Jail, where he was released on $2,000 bond.

Eustis Man “Surprises” Sister with Stolen Trailer Tracked from Polk County, Arrested for Grand Theft

TAVARES, Florida—A man who “surprised” his sister with a stolen trailer was arrested Monday after the Polk County victim pinpointed the trailer in Tavares using a tracking device.

Tavares Police responded to a construction site near Camp Street and Mansfield Road and found the trailer attached to a Ford truck. The officer ran the trailer’s license plate and confirmed it was stolen out of Polk County, then he ran the license plate of the truck it was attached to and found the registered owner was on site, according to an arrest affidavit.

When TPD spoke to the truck’s owner, she said her brother, Kenneth Ray Hutchinson, 44, had borrowed her truck Sunday to go to Lakeland and returned Monday morning with the truck and the trailer. She said she had previously told her brother she wanted a trailer and he “surprised” her with the trailer that day. When she asked him where he got it, he told her “from a friend,” the affidavit states.

Hutchinson, of Eustis, was arrested for grand theft and transported to the Lake County Jail, where he was released on $2,000 bond.

Man Found with Viagra, Other Drugs Tucked Inside His Pants

EUSTIS, Florida—A Leesburg man lost his swag Monday night when a deputy busted him hard—with ammunition and drugs, including more than two dozen Viagra pills tucked in next to his scrotum.

A Lake County Sheriff’s Office Street Crimes deputy spotted Rodney Lamar “Hollywood Swag” Woods driving a green Ford Mustang with dark tinted windows late Monday night on State Road 19 near Pine Meadows Golf Course Road. The deputy performed a traffic stop for the suspected illegal tint and asked Woods for consent to search the car, which he denied, according to an affidavit.

A K9 deputy arrived, and the dog alerted on the vehicle, and the street crimes deputy began to search the car. He found a small amount of methamphetamine on the floorboard, and a box of 12-gauge shotgun shells inside the trunk. Woods exclaimed, “Those are birdshot!” as the deputy placed them on the hood of his patrol car. A digital scale with drug residue was also found in a backpack.

PHOTO: Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Woods, a 34-time convicted felon, was taken into custody and searched. “I then located a baggy tucked next to his scrotum with what appeared to be multiple baggies containing different powders, pills and crystal rock substances,” the deputy stated in the affidavit.

The deputy found 27 sildenafil citrate pills, commonly known as Viagra; 21 morphine pills with different strengths, one unknown pill, nearly 10 grams of methamphetamine, one gram of cocaine and a gram of an unknown powder all tucked in next to Woods’ scrotum.

Woods was arrested for possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, possession of a legend drug with intent to sell, possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, possession methamphetamine with intent to sell, two counts of possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. The arresting deputy requested Woods be held on no bond due to charges Inside Lake reported on in February.

In that case, Woods is accused of attacking a man with a baseball bat in December and causing multiple broken ribs and broken bones in his right arm, requiring surgery. Woods was picked up on a warrant in February and released on $50,000 bond the same day

 Woods has been charged with more than 50 felonies and has been convicted of 34 of them; some are still open cases. He has been convicted of nearly two dozen misdemeanors.

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