Howey-in-the-Hills

Tavares Police and LCSO Join Forces for Operation Aware

Operation Aware will provide wristbands and a database for first responders and the special needs community.

TAVARES, Florida—Two law enforcement agencies have joined forces to provide a new tool to the community that will give first responders valuable information when responding to calls for service in the special needs community.

Nearly a year in the making, Tavares Police Department began its Operation Aware initiative in November 2021 and has since teamed up with the Lake County Sheriff’s Office to provide wristbands to members of the community that may require a different response from law enforcement.

“We are big on community policing,” TPD Public Information Officer Courtney Sullivan told Inside Lake last year. “There are always ways we can be better,” she said, “and there are always opportunities for the community to teach us how to better serve them.”

Operation Aware is a “total approach” to the issues facing the special needs community and will provide education, outreach and follow up,” Sullivan said.

Newly-appointed Tavares Police Chief Sarah Coursey worked with Sullivan to get this program up and running. “Operation Aware is near and dear to my heart; it gives us the opportunity to serve our community in a unique way when our response requires a different approach,” Coursey told Inside Lake.

The wristbands are available for community members who have intellectual and developmental disorders, including, but not limited to, autism, dementia. PTSD and Alzheimer’s, according to Sullivan. Loved ones and caregivers are encouraged to reach out to TPD or LCSO and register special needs individuals to get them a wristband and enter them into the database.  

The bright blue wristbands will immediately let law enforcement officers know they are interacting with an individual with special needs, and provide them with vital information including names, addresses, emergency contacts and medical conditions. Officers and dispatchers will have access to the information and individual addresses will be flagged so the officer is aware of any special circumstances before they arrive to the call. Officers will know if the individual is non-verbal, has a sensitivity to lights and sirens and any other pertinent information that would be helpful to officers. They will also help reunification by giving officers and deputies information immediately that can be shared with media outlets and on social media, Sullivan said.  

The wristbands will also be a tool for the public; they will have a number and a QR code that can be scanned and will inform the public to call 9-1-1. The wristband never needs to be charged.    To register, please visit https://tavares.org/1327/Operation-Aware or https://lcso.org/oa/

Lake County Sheriff’s Office Detective Fired Following Internal Investigation into 2 Off-Duty Traffic Stops

TAVARES, Florida—A Lake County Sheriff’s Office detective was fired earlier this month following an internal affairs investigation into two separate traffic stops by Eustis Police Department.

Kejuan Monroe was a backseat passenger in a vehicle pulled over for speeding on Bay Street on Feb. 26, according to the internal affairs report. When the EPD officer activated her emergency lights, the car, being driven by a friend of Monroe’s failed to immediately stop and continued for nearly half of a mile before finally pulling over.

When the EPD officer approached the car, Monroe stuck his LCSO identification card out of the window, “I’m with SIU (Special Investigations Unit) with the SO (Sheriff’s Office,)” and told the officer nothing illegal was in the car and the driver did not have any warrants. “Nothing illegal in the car, nothing like that,” Monroe said. There were two more passengers in the car and one has a criminal record, including trafficking in MDMA, according to the report.

The driver refused the EPD officer’s request to search and an EPD K9 corporal arrived. All of the occupants exited the vehicle, except Monroe, “There’s no need for that,” Monroe told an EPD sergeant. The sergeant stated Monroe was interfering and Monroe stepped out of the vehicle and began openly discussing his undercover work at LCSO in front of the vehicle’s occupants and he identified a Eustis undercover officer, the report states.

After the K9 was deployed, it alerted on the vehicle. Later, in an interview with LCSO, the EPD K9 corporal said Monroe began acting “strangely” when he deployed his dog and Monroe began engaging the corporal “as if to distract him from the search,” the report states.

Upon searching the vehicle, officers found a digital scale with cocaine residue, multiple open containers of alcohol, ammunition and a firearm concealed under a blanket on the floorboard, near Monroe’s feet. All the occupants in the car were given open container citations, and Monroe failed to inform EPD officers the gun was in the car.

“Detective Monroe had ample time throughout the traffic stop to notify officers about the concealed firearm at his feet, but failed to do so,” the investigator noted in the report.

An EPD sergeant called an LCSO sergeant to the scene and she talked to each occupant about Monroe’s involvement and each one gave a different story. Monroe first said he only knew the driver of the vehicle but later admitted he knew all the occupants, including a passenger who has a criminal history, according to the report.

An investigator interviewed Monroe, who said he was out with friends drinking at two different restaurants in Tavares. The friends left when one of them fell ill and Monroe said he did not have a ride home, so he asked his friend he had known since childhood to take him home. “I did have a couple drinks. I will say my judgment was skewed and I should have went home when my homeboy went home,” he told the investigator.

Monroe claimed he did not know what was in the vehicle and the driver began driving slowly when they were lit up by EPD and the passengers were “panicking,” and the firearm “came out of nowhere” and they “tucked it” beside Monroe. Monroe said he panicked and did not know what to do and immediately put his sheriff’s office identification out the window because he knew EPD would find the gun. When the investigator asked why he did not inform the EPD officers about the gun, he said, “Honestly, I wish I could tell you. I was so flabbergasted and so (expletive) off at the fact somebody I trusted would put me in that situation knowing what I do. I was more shocked than anything.” Monroe indicated he was very upset with himself for not alerting the officers to the weapon.

On March 2, Monroe was placed on administrative suspension with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. On March 8, Monroe was pulled over again by Eustis Police Department. Monroe was driving his LCSO unmarked vehicle when he was pulled over for speeding and “unprofessional towards Eustis officers.” His vehicle was taken from him as a result of that traffic stop.

On March 28, Monroe tendered an apology letter to an LCSO captain and took responsibility for his actions and stated the “two occasions were not indicative of my professional and personal character, and I sincerely apologize for that. Please do not give up on me.”

Nearly a month later, on April 25, Monroe was informed the allegations of three policy violations, performing any acts bringing office into disrepute; conduct unbecoming of an officer; and association with known criminals, were sustained. Monroe was fired on May 5.

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.”

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.

Second Pedestrian Killed In Leesburg Thursday

LEESBURG, Florida—Another pedestrian was killed Thursday in Leesburg, unrelated to the crash that killed a man early Thursday morning, according to Leesburg Police Capt. Joe Iozzi.  

Jarret Roque, 40, of Howey-in-the-Hills, was observed by an independent witness standing in the center travel lane of U.S. Highway 441 just north of County Road 44A, around 11:50 p.m. Thursday, Iozzi said in a press release. Awilda Hernandez, 61, of Eustis, was southbound on U.S. Highway 441 in a 2021 Jeep SUV, when she collided with Roque.

Roque suffered life-threatening injuries and was transported by Lake EMS to UF Health-Leesburg, where he was pronounced dead. The crash closed U.S. Highway 441 southbound for about three hours.

“The crash remains under investigation, by the Leesburg Police Department Traffic Unit, however it appears the pedestrian was “at-fault” at this time,” Iozzi said. 

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. 

Pregnant Woman Suffers Two Violent Attacks By Boyfriend In Howey — Crawls To Get Away

The following story was previously published on Lake Legal News.

HOWEY-IN-THE-HILLS, Florida — A pregnant woman who had to crawl through a patch of woods to get away from her violent boyfriend told Howey-in-the Hills Police the man said he was going to “punch her in the stomach to get rid of her problem,” last week.

The woman told police Steven Wallie Matthews, 36, came home on Oct. 4 between 11 p.m. and midnight and woke her up, screaming and yelling in her face; she said she believed he was angry about her pregnancy, according to an arrest affidavit. Matthews head-butted the victim in the face, giving her a bloody nose. The victim fled the violent scene and went to the police department, but no one was at the office and she did not have her phone because Matthews had taken it, the affidavit states.

She returned home and found Matthews was not there and she went to sleep. On Oct. 5, Matthews woke her again by yelling and screaming. The victim grabbed her clothes and went into another room to change and Matthews is alleged to have chased her down, slammed her against a door several times and slapped her in the face. She found her phone and tried to leave, but Matthews chased her again and said, “he was going to punch her in the stomach to get rid of her problem,” the affidavit states. Matthews then took her phone again.

The victim crawled through a patch of woods to get away from Matthews and a neighbor called the police department’s non-emergency number and no one answered. She then went to a convenience store on Palm Avenue and called for help.

Photo Credit: Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Police arrived and found the victim with visible injuries and dried blood on her clothes and face, the arresting officer noted in the affidavit. Police contacted Matthews and placed him under arrest for aggravated battery on a pregnant female and deprivation of 9-1-1.

Matthews’ bond was revoked on a possession of methamphetamine charge from August 2020. He is being held at the Lake County Jail on no bond.

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