Mascotte

State Attorney Creates Animal Cruelty Task Force

OCALA, Florida—In an effort to streamline delivering justice to those who hurt animals, State Attorney Bill Gladson has created an Animal Cruelty Task Force for the Fifth Judicial Circuit that includes Lake, Citrus, Hernando, Marion and Sumter counties, his office said in a press release last week.

The task force includes the Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC,) county animal services, and local law enforcement agencies and the goal is for law enforcement, animal services and animal protection organizations to work together to investigate and prosecute animal cruelty crimes throughout the circuit, according to the press release.

State Attorney Bill Gladson PHOTO: Florida Bar

“My office is committed to aggressively prosecuting animal cruelty cases, and I am grateful for the team which shares our commitment,” Gladson stated. “The reach of these crimes goes beyond harm to innocent animals; these criminals pose a risk to the entire community.”

Animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, nearly 70 percent have criminal records.

Windchills in the 20s and 30s Expected this Weekend, Cold Weather Shelters Activated

LAKE COUNTY, Florida—For the second time in less than a month, Lake County is scheduled to open two cold weather shelter locations in anticipation of this weekend’s near-freezing temperatures.

Both locations open Friday; Trinity Assembly of God, 200 Urick Street, Fruitland Park will open at 5:30 p.m. and remain open through 7 a.m. each day, Friday through Sunday, and LifePointe Church, 3551 East Orange Avenue will be open 5 p.m. through 8 a.m. each day through Sunday, according to Lake County Emergency Management.

A warming shelter will also be open from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Salvation Army, 2605 South Street, Leesburg,  

Lake Xpress will provide free transportation to cold weather shelters for those who need assistance traveling to a shelter. Schedules are available on Lake Xpress’ website. Residents who do not have access to a Lake Xpress fixed route must call 352-742-2612 to arrange transportation.

Friday night, cold temperatures and breezy winds will bring windchills in the upper 20s to lower 30s. A Wind Chill Advisory has been issued for east Central Florida, according to the U.S. National Weather Service, Melbourne.

“Arctic Blast” Arrives Just in Time for Christmas, Cold Weather Shelters to be Activated

LAKE COUNTY, Florida—In anticipation of this weekend’s chilly weather, Lake County will open two cold weather shelter locations Friday afternoon.

Both locations will open at 5:30 p.m. Friday; Trinity Assembly of God, 200 Urick Street, Fruitland Park will stay open 24 hours a day through Tuesday, and LifePointe Church, 3551 East Orange Avenue will be open 5:30 p.m. through 8 a.m. each day until Tuesday, according to Lake County Emergency Management.

A warming shelter will also be open from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday through Tuesday at the Salvation Army, 2605 South Street, Leesburg,  

Lake Xpress will provide free transportation to cold weather shelters for those who need assistance traveling to a shelter Saturday and Sunday. Schedules are available on Lake Xpress’ website.

Residents who do not have access to a Lake Xpress fixed route must call 352-742-2612 by 1 p.m. Friday to arrange transportation. Clermont Police Department will check for those in need at Florida Citrus Tower, 141 South U.S. Highway 27, Clermont between 4:30 p.m. and 4:45 p.m. Friday; if no one is on site, a bus will not be dispatched, according to officials.

According to the U.S. National Weather Service Melbourne, temperatures are expected to be at or below freezing with the wind chill in the 20s in Lake County. Officials are urging residents to make sure pets have a warm place to stay with plenty of food and water, cover exposed pipes, and cover or in bring in sensitive plants.

GRAPHIC: U.S. National Weather Service Melbourne

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/

Mascotte Parents Urged to be Extra Vigilant After Unidentified Man Tries to Lure 2 Small Children to His Car Thursday Morning

MASCOTTE, Florida—Mascotte Police Department is investigating a suspicious incident that involved two small children Thursday morning, according to a social media post by the City of Mascotte.

Around 7:30 a.m. Thursday an older Hispanic man with balding or short hair and stubble on his face, approached two children ages 8 and 10 near the area of Ridgemoor Drive and American Legion Road. The man is alleged to have asked the children in Spanish to come to his vehicle, believed to be a silver 2021 Toyota Corolla. The children refused and the suspect circled back around and told them to get in his car again. The children ran home, and the Corolla left the area in an unknown direction, according to the Facebook post.

MPD canvassed the immediate area with negative results but did obtain a video of the suspected vehicle. The car is described as a silver 2021 Toyota Corolla with “extremely dark” tinted windows. MPD notified surrounding schools and bulletin with a photo of the suspect’s car was sent to local law enforcement agencies.

MPD will be conducting extra patrols each morning and afternoon and urged parents to be extra vigilant and report any suspicious activities to MPD.  

See Something, Say Something. Student Comes Forward after Seeing Gun on School Bus

MASCOTTE, Florida—A Lake Hills Academy student was arrested Thursday after another student came forward to the school’s administration about a gun on a school bus, according to Lake County Sheriff’s Office Lt. John Herrell.

Deputies had reason to believe the gun was left on the bus and went to the bus parking lot of Golf Links Avenue in Eustis and found the gun wrapped in a sweatshirt on a seat. The gun was not loaded.

LCSO retrieved video surveillance from the bus, and Trace James Richardson, 16, was seen on video removing his sweatshirt and leaving the Glock handgun on the seat.

Due to the video evidence and witness statements, Richardson was arrested for possessing a firearm on school property and turned over to the Department of Juvenile Justice. His booking photo was not available at press time.

Lake Hills Academy, 513 Albrook Street, Mascotte, is an alternative school, Herrell said.

Mascotte Woman Accused of Public Assistance Fraud

MASCOTTE, Florida—A woman picked up on a warrant for public assistance fraud, earned nearly $60,000 in 22 months, but claimed she only made $300 per week, according to a criminal complaint.

Rebecca Linda Rojas, 35, of Mascotte, is accused of stealing more than $4,100 in food stamp benefits and nearly $170 in Medicaid benefits between May 2019 and December 2020, according to the complaint filed by an investigator with the Florida Department of Financial Services.

Rojas was taken into custody by Mascotte Police Department May 28 and transported to the Lake County Jail, where she was released on $2,000 bond.

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.”

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