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/

Third Generation Tavares Native Sarah Coursey Becomes City’s First Female Police Chief

TAVARES, Florida— Sworn in to a standing ovation at Tavares City Hall, Sarah Coursey made history Wednesday as she became the city’s first female police chief.

 Coursey, a 13-year veteran of Tavares Police Department, was surrounded by friends and family as her 8-year-old daughter (almost 9!) Kaelyn pinned her Wednesday afternoon at the Tavares City Council meeting.

Kaelyn was beaming with pride as she pinned her mom and when she spoke to Inside Lake.

“I feel really proud of my mom. It’s a big part of my life and hers. I can’t believe she’s chief!”

A large crowd came to support Coursey, including local politicians, police chiefs and members of Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell’s command staff.  

Tavares Police Chief Sarah Coursey speaks to a large crowd after being sworn in as the city’s first female police chief. PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Taking the reins from Stoney Lubins, who retired late last month after 30 years at the department, and 21 years as chief, Coursey plans to “ramp up” community involvement and continue to build upon the successes Lubins accomplished, she told Inside Lake earlier this week.

“Tavares is an amazing department filled with hard-working, dedicated, passionate officers and the agency will become accredited in October,” Coursey said.

Her plans as chief include continued transparency and continued education for officers so they can better serve the agency. She plans to work in partnership with the community and throughout the city to meet common goals. “I will always ensure the officers know I have their back- they are what makes Tavares Police Department so special.”

Coursey has served in many roles during her years at TPD, including patrol, detective, public information officer and was a member of Lubins’ command staff before she was appointed chief.

“I have had great mentors throughout my career, many of which provided building blocks, upon which I made my own,“ Coursey said.  

She used those building blocks, along with her love of people, to start what is closest to her heart, the Tavares Police Charity.  “It’s a way that we can give back to the community we serve.  People usually see us when we are responding to a call for service, the charity gives us the ability to lend a helping hand beyond that.”

Coursey was born and raised in Tavares—third generation— and attended Tavares Elementary, Tavares Middle and Tavares High schools. She also attended Lake-Sumter State College and last year earned her master’s degree in Criminal Justice with an emphasis on law enforcement from Columbia College. She has taken dozens of training classes as a law enforcement officer and just recently completely a chief’s training in Tallahassee.

Tavares Police Chief Sarah Coursey is a third-generation Tavares native. Coursey’s mom shared some classic photos with Inside Lake. PHOTOS: Courtesy of the Coursey family

Coursey’s parents, Jody and Mandy, owned a construction company in Tavares since 1970 and, along with her sister, Rebecca, have always supported Coursey in everything she does, she said.

“They were supportive of me, both personally and professionally throughout my life and without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. They helped me so much when I was a single mother, working and going to school- I’ve been fortunate to have had them in my corner. My sister Rebecca, has been my best friend since we were kids and is my biggest cheerleader in life.”

Coursey is engaged to be married next year and recently built a house with her fiancé. “Jason and his girls came into my life four years ago and they all mean the world to me, they are loving and supportive in every way.  Our blended family just works.”

Coursey was a single mom for several years and has often remarked how her daughter Kaelyn changed her outlook on life. It was very important to Coursey for her daughter to be the one to pin her and take part in the ceremonial beginning to her next chapter.

“My daughter Kaelyn has truly changed me for the better- I look at the world through a different lens because of her. Knowing that she is watching, I make choices in life and decisions with her in mind…I always want to be the positive example she strives to be and the constant in her life that she is proud of,” Coursey said.

Coursey is looking forward to leading the agency “I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else, I have seen the city grow and change so much over my lifetime and now I’ve been given the distinct honor to lead the city that raised me.”  

Violent End to August as LCSO Investigates 5 Homicides in 6 Days

LAKE COUNTY, Florida— It was a bloody and violent end to August in Lake County, as the sheriff’s office continues to investigate five homicides that occurred in just six days from one end of the county to the other. Numerous sources have told Inside Lake there was yet another homicide in unincorporated Fruitland Park Saturday, but LCSO did not respond to an email or a text all day Sunday to confirm.

Altoona, Aug. 25

Around 9 p.m. Aug. 25, Shane Eugene Clements, 41, of Altoona, and David Thomas Mikell, 34, of Umatilla were found dead at a home at 45918 Pennsylvania Road in Altoona. The two men were shot, and deputies were looking for two persons of interest, Roger Myles Gilbert, 35, and Samantha Butler, age unknown, both of Alabama.

The following day Gilbert and Butler fled from Ormond Beach Police and crashed in a KFC parking lot. Butler was found dead in the wrecked white Volvo and Gilbert fled on foot. OBPD does not believe Butler died from injuries sustained in the crash but has not released a manner or cause of death.

Gilbert was apprehended in a nearby Dollar Tree and is being held in the Volusia County Jail on a variety of charges, including possessing the stolen gun that was found in his waistband.  

Gilbert remains a person of interest in the deaths of Mikell and Clements but has not been charged. LCSO has not revealed a motive for the slayings.

Roger Gilbert and Samantha Butler were named as persons of interest in the killings of David Mikell and Shane Clements in Altoona Aug. 25. Gilbert was arrested in Volusia County in a separate incident and Butler was found dead in the crash the couple crashed while fleeing police. PHOTO: Samantha Butler/Facebook

Unincorporated Clermont, Aug. 31

A man was arrested Wednesday after a young woman reported he raped her repeatedly and killed his own stepson at 244 Jewelfish Lane in the Thousand Trails RV Resort in unincorporated Clermont. The woman told LCSO she heard screaming and found Justin Jones, 41, on top of his stepson, Ty Finister, 17, striking him.

She screamed for Jones to stop, and he slammed her to the ground, duct-taped her ankles, wrists, mouth and eyes and raped her repeatedly. Eventually she was able to escape and call for help. LCSO responded and found Finister dead, along with his mother, Sandra Gaudino, 38. The rape victim’s relationship to both murder victims and Jones is not being released because she is the victim of a sex crime.

Jones was apprehended walking southbound near a Publix, 4351 U.S. Highway 27, Clermont. Earlier this week LCSO released body cam showing Jones being taken into custody.

He was arrested for two counts of domestic first-degree murder, domestic false imprisonment and domestic sexual battery. Jones, of Michigan, confessed to the crimes and told detectives he beat both murder victims with a mallet and raped the young woman.

Jones is being held in the Lake County Jail on no bond.

Lake County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrest Justin Jones of Michigan, who confessed to killing his wife and stepson and raping another woman. VIDEO: Lake County Sheriff’s Office

Unincorporated Leesburg, Aug. 31

A man reported missing Wednesday was found dead in Marion County and a man known as “Maniac” is responsible, according to LCSO.

Casey Dean’s body was found near the home of a friend of Matthew “Maniac” Luke Allen, 26, and a woman Allen met on the dating app “Plenty of Fish,” told LCSO Allen shot him and disposed of his body, according to an arrest affidavit.

She told deputies Allen was standing across from Dean Sunday afternoon yelling about a gun on a coffee table that was believed to be inoperable. She said she heard Allen yell, “Why would you pull a gun on people that doesn’t work?” followed by a gunshot. Dean succumbed to his neck wound on a couch and Allen and another man are alleged to have rolled Dean’s body up in a rug and put him in the back of a Dodge Ram. Allen then forced the unidentified woman to help him dispose of the body. Two children also witnessed the killing.

The pair stayed at an undisclosed location and the woman, who feared Allen was going to kill her, convinced him to let her go home Wednesday to retrieve clothes. Allen, who allegedly planned on fleeing the state Thursday, allowed to woman to leave in a borrowed car. She dumped the car at a Marion County convenience store and escaped by calling a friend to come get her.

When she arrived home, she cooperated with LCSO and gave them information on the killing and where Allen dumped the body.

Allen was picked up in Marion County on outstanding Sumter County warrants and arrested for manslaughter, kidnapping. tampering with evidence, unlawful transportation of human remains, grand theft auto and child neglect. He is being held in the Marion County Jail on no bond.

Matthew “Maniac” Allen is accused of shooting Casey Dean in the neck and dumping his body in Marion County. PHOTO: Marion County Sheriff’s Office

Missing Nearly 16 Years, Trenton Duckett’s Family Celebrates His 18th Birthday Without Him

LEESBURG, Florida—Nearly 16 years ago, Leesburg and Lake County were thrust into the national spotlight when a mom going through a divorce and custody battle reported her tiny toddler missing. Over the next two weeks those close to the boy would go through a whirlwind of emotions as police found sonogram pictures in a dumpster, accused the boy’s father of taking him and investigated the mother’s suicide.

Wednesday, Josh Duckett should be eating cake and watching his oldest son Trenton transition into adulthood on his 18th birthday on this typical, warm August evening, but instead he is still waiting for answers years after his son went missing.

Sixteen years ago, Josh was a young father of a 2-year-old boy going through a nasty divorce with the toddler’s mom, Melinda Duckett. After Melinda hacked one of Josh’s social media accounts and sent herself a threatening Myspace message, Melinda was granted an injunction and all custody and visitation rights were snatched away from Josh. He never imagined when he took Trenton swimming for the weekend just before the message was sent, that would be the last he saw his smiling little boy who was learning to use the potty on his own. And now the tiny toddler, residents of Lake County and people all around the country prayed for, is an 18-year-old man if he is still alive.

Many theories have been thrown around over the years by law enforcement, family, friends, strangers and armchair detectives, but there is no evidence Trenton is deceased. “There is no verifiable proof he is dead,” Leesburg Police Capt. Joe Iozzi said.

Trenton Duckett is seen here in this undated photo.

Tips still come in so many years later and the latest tip came on Trenton’s birthday from the FBI, according to Iozzi. “We work with all local, state, federal and even international agencies to follow up on tips,” he told Inside Lake.

An investigator is assigned to the case and LPD continues to utilize all available assets from other law enforcement agencies and all forms of media, including print media, broadcast media and social media to crack the case.

“The case is never cold,” Iozzi said, “it’s open all the time. After all these years, he is not forgotten.”

Still today, Trenton’s missing child flyer adorns the front of LPD as visitors walk in the front door.

On Aug. 27, 2006, 2-year-old Trenton was reported missing by his mother, Melinda. She told authorities she put him down for bed around 6 p.m. and after watching “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” with two male friends, she checked on him and he was gone, the screen in his bedroom window sliced open. She soon became a suspect – police found discarded sonogram photos in the dumpster of her apartment complex, and they didn’t buy her story about the cut screen. Leesburg Police Department soon began tracking her movements in the days before the boy went missing.

Information she gave the police did not match evidence found through surveillance videos and witness accounts and the case began to attract national attention.

The boy’s disappearance was covered by Nancy Grace, Greta Van Susteren and Dr. Phil to name a few and less than two weeks later, Melinda took her own life. “It’s a pretty puzzling case,” Iozzi said, and Melinda took all the answers with her when she committed suicide.

The suicide happened just one day after a fist-pounding interview by Grace. Melinda’s adoptive parents later sued Grace and agreed to a $250,000 settlement.

Each year, on Aug. 27, Josh holds a candlelight vigil to mark Trenton’s disappearance at Leesburg’s Town Square. Even now, so many years later there are often more than two dozen people in attendance. This year will be no different, Josh plans to be there once again, and will give a small speech and light candles at nightfall.

“We have never given up,” Josh told Inside Lake. “We continue to fight. Hopefully, we can bring him home where he belongs.”

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) releases an age-progressed photo approximately every two years, according to Josh. The most recent photo was released in June and portrays what Trenton may look like at 17 years old.

When asked if he believes the photo is close to what Trenton may look like today, Josh said, “It’s hard to say. (NCMEC) takes photos of me and Melinda to create the photo of Trenton. Not knowing whose features are dominant…it’s hard to say.”

If you have information on Trenton’s disappearance, call LPD at 352-787-2121.

First Day of School Introduces New SROs to Eustis Middle and Eustis High

EUSTIS, Florida—Eustis Middle and Eustis High school students will see some new faces this school year, as Eustis Police officers take over the role of school resource officers from the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.

EPD Chief Craig Capri, who has been chief a little more than a year, said it was important to him to have EPD officers in the schools. “I want our own officers in our own schools. One of the most important things is protecting our children from evil. We will engage all threats immediately,” he told Inside Lake

Capri said having his officers at EMS and EHS’ two campuses will allow his officers to build relationships with residents at an early age, which enhances trust between the community and the police department. Capri and his officers have been heavily involved in the community since he became chief, hosting numerous events including Pizza with the Police, Cookies with a Cop, and several bicycle rides.

The SRO unit will be supervised by Capt. Dave Carney, Sr. Officer David Perez will be at EMS, Sr. Officer JT Allred will be at EHS Curtwright Campus and Officer Marica Freitas will be at EHS Main Campus; Officer John Koller and Officer Cambry Herrero will serve as alternates, Capri said.

We asked the new SROs a few questions earlier this week.

Sr. Officer David Perez, Eustis Middle School

Perez is a 6-year veteran of EPD and is excited about his new role as an SRO. He told Inside Lake he is ready for any challenge that comes his way.

PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Why did you choose to become an SRO? I became a school resource officer because I want to be a mentor for our future adult generation. Some children need a role model to look up to and I am willing to step in to provide that direction for them.

What do you want the kids to know about you? I am here for them if they need anything. I have an open door and welcome them to stop in anytime.

Do you think your presence in the schools will enhance community trust and why? I greatly think having officers in the schools enhances community trust. I believe having armed security in schools creates a peace of mind for many parents.

With the recent school shootings, safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Have you participated in active shooter training and safety drills? How does this training prepare you for the worst possible scenario? During the summer months, all officers of the Eustis Police Department participated in many trainings and safety drills regarding school safety. These trainings have helped prepare all of us for worst case scenarios. We are not afraid to go in and protect our children if it comes down to it.

What do you hope to accomplish as an SRO? I hope to establish relationships with the children at Eustis Middle School and create a positive rapport. I also hope to change perspective in the children’s minds regarding the views of police officers as most of the children may only know what they hear or see in the media.

Sr. Officer JT Allred, Eustis High School Curtright Campus

Allred has been with EPD for more than five years and is the Team Leader for the EPD SWAT Team. Allred is looking forward to being an SRO and thinks it is vital for an SRO to be active in their school.

PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Why did you choose to become an SRO? I have children who are in school, and I know what it is like to wonder if they are safe. I chose to become an SRO because it is my way of giving back to the community. It’s my way of ensuring the generations of tomorrow have a safe place to get an education and effect positive change in their community.

What do you want the kids to know about you? My door is always open; I am not here to make life hard or make kids hate coming to school. I’m here to ensure they are safe and have a safe place to learn. I will make it my mission day in and day out to keep them out of harm’s way. I will always be there to listen and give you advice, if it’s wanted. I am one of the good guys, and together we will make it a fun school year.

Do you think your presence in the schools will enhance community trust and why? Absolutely, I am the face the kid will see. When the kids come home and talk about “their” SRO and our positive influence on them, it lays the foundation of trust. Through events at the school and getting to know all the kids, they will learn we are someone they can trust and depend on.

With the recent school shootings, safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Have you participated in active shooter training and safety drills? How does this training prepare you for the worst possible scenario? I am one of the Active Threat instructors at the police department. I went through Active Threat instructor school in January of this year, offered through F.L.E.T.C. (Federal Law Enforcement Training Commission.) Having this training and being on the SWAT team, I feel I have a hand up on the response and neutralization of an active assailant.

What do you hope to accomplish as an SRO? Build rapport with all students, and show them I’m a friendly guy and very approachable. Make sure I am available anytime a student needs to talk and make it a fun and educational school year

Officer Marcia Freitas, Eustis High School

Freitas is a two-year veteran of EPD and said she is grateful for this new opportunity. She is looking forward to developing trusting relationships with students and staff members.

Courtesy photo

Why did you choose to become an SRO? This is an amazing opportunity to get more involved with the community and to show our human side. There is more to “us” than just a badge and a gun, there’s a whole lot more to our job than just chasing bad guys.

What do you want the kids to know about you? I chose this career path to help people, and I will never stop! I will always be true to our law enforcement code of ethics.

My fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice. I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession . . .law enforcement.

Do you think your presence in the schools will enhance community trust and why? Absolutely. My marked patrol vehicle is the external deterrent to trouble, my presence and involvement inside the school is what works to keep threats from within occurring.

With the recent school shootings, safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Have you participated in active shooter training and safety drills? How does this training prepare you for the worst possible scenario? Yes, as an officer we are constantly learning new and better techniques, that way we are prepared for any challenges we may encounter.

What do you hope to accomplish as an SRO? I hope to build relationship with students and staff by being congenial, visible and accessible.

Tavares Police Train for the Worst Case Scenario

TAVARES, Florida—While a lot of people are out enjoying the Florida summer, law enforcement agencies around Lake County have been training and preparing for the “what if?”

Tavares Police Department invited Inside Lake to join them in active shooter training this week at Tavares Elementary School. They trained two days, for eight hours each, in the blazing July sun.

“We do this once a year,” TPD Lt. Sarah Coursey said Thursday, “Each sworn officer goes through the training.”

Tavares Police officers approach the entrance of Tavares Elementary School Thursday during the department’s annual active shooter training. PHOTO: Marilyn M. Aciego/Inside Lake

TPD invited other local agencies to join them in the training, including Astatula Police Department, Eustis Police Department, Howey-in-the-Hills Police Department and Mount Dora Police Department. Lake County Schools Supervisor of Safety and Security Joseph Mabry also participated, and on Thursday, he portrayed the “bad guy” during several scenarios.

 Mabry, who is also a school guardian, told Inside Lake, the safety of the children is paramount, “It’s the most important thing we do,” he said. “We want our parents to feel safe; ultimately, it’s our responsibility.”

Coursey said TPD invited other local agencies to join them because if they were faced with an active shooter situation, many different law enforcement agencies would not hesitate to go to the scene and help, she said.

“They would all respond,” Coursey said. “It just goes to show what kind of law enforcement we have in Lake County.”  

Officers from MDPD participated in the scenarios and an EPD captain stopped by during training, Coursey said. Eustis Police Department and Leesburg Police Department also held their own active shooter trainings this month.

Led by TPD firearms instructors Sgt. Jason Mahaney and Officer Ben Carter, officers participated in the scenarios to prepare for multiple situations that could arise. Mahaney and Carter critiqued each officer’s response; telling each one what they did right, and what they did wrong.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Mahaney said. “When it comes to stuff like this, there is no absolute. Any time we can change our view of certain things, we can improve. Nobody is going to get it right every time.”

Tavares Police Department officers participating in TPD’s annual active shooter training, July 2022. VIDEO: Marilyn M. Aciego/Inside Lake

Mahaney, who portrayed the active shooter for most of Thursday, explained what they teach officers to look for; stimuli and indicators to assess the situation immediately. Stimuli can be many things, like screams or the sound of shots and an indicator could be shell casings.

“In the presence of those indicators, you can at least get a path (to the shooter,)” he said.

Carter, a former Navy combat medic, watched officers as they entered the school, sometimes just a single officer, and some in groups. Officers faced different issues as they entered and made their way through the school. The issues were discussed, and solutions were created to prevent those issues from happening in an actual situation.

Tavares Police Sgt. Jason Mahaney, right, critiques Det. Dana Scola’s response during active shooter training at Tavares Elementary School Thursday, while Lt. Jon Hall and Lt. Sarah Coursey listen in. Officers participated in different scenarios this week and were critiqued by TPD firearms instructors Mahaney and Officer Ben Carter. PHOTO: Marilyn M. Aciego/Inside Lake

Inside Lake is not providing tactical details about the scenarios in this story to ensure the safety of officers.

“We have to put ourselves in a position for the best possible outcome,” Carter explained.

Coursey, who was recently appointed TPD chief and assumes the position next month, said this training is one of the most important things they do each year.

“The large majority of us (TPD) are parents, it’s our promise to Lake County that we are going to protect your children and ours.”

EXCLUSIVE: Fiancé of Man Killed Last Month Says, “My Father was No Hero.”

LEESBURG, Florida—“It feels like I’m in hell.”

Lauren Carlton spoke exclusively to Inside Lake this week about the death of her fiancé, Austin Graham, at the hands of her father, James Carlton last month.

Carlton was accused of shooting Austin in the head and killing him after Austin stopped to talk to Carlton in the middle of Whitney Road in unincorporated Leesburg June 22. Austin, 26, recognized Carlton’s truck, Lake County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Fred Jones said last month, and stopped to talk to the grandfather of his children. After a brief conversation, Carlton, who was known to carry a gun, shot Austin and fled the area. Carlton called his wife, who he had recently reunited with, after being estranged for more than a decade.

Lauren, 26, was on the phone with her mom when Carlton called her and moments later, she called Lauren back to tell her that her father had shot Austin. Not long after, Carlton texted Lauren, “I’m sorry.”

Carlton was arrested for Austin’s murder at a Marion County bar, near the Lake County Line. Lauren said her dad was drunk when he was arrested. “Whiskey turns him into the devil. That’s the best way I can say it.”  

Carlton died of a heart attack a little over a week later.

Lauren reached out to Inside Lake to clear Austin’s name and dispel rumors that have been spreading on social media following Austin’s death.

Together five years and engaged for 4.5 of those years, Lauren met Austin through his sister, one of Lauren’s close friends. Austin’s sister Ronni was taking Lauren to get a tattoo and they stopped by Austin’s house. Lauren had a word tattooed on her neck and that word would later become their daughter’s name. Lauren did not want to name her children for this article. They shared two children, a 3-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy and had decided to have a third baby just before he was murdered.

“Austin never once put his hands on me. Never.”

Lauren said LCSO detectives immediately asked her if Austin abused her and she very clearly told them, “no.” Lauren does not have social media pages, but people close to her have told that numerous comments have been made that her dad killed Austin because he was abusive. Lauren said that just is not true. “My dad knew Austin never put his hands on me,” she told Inside Lake.

She does not know exactly what set Carlton off that day but was extremely candid about his battles with alcohol throughout the years. Lauren said Carlton gave up drinking for the first time in her life when she got pregnant with her daughter but had recently started again due to pressure in his personal life.

“My dad, my entire life, was an abusive alcoholic. Honestly, I don’t really feel like it was about Austin. I don’t know. It was my dad’s hate for himself.”

Carlton had recently reunited with Lauren’s mom and Lauren believes the pressure of responsibilities got to him. Austin and Carlton had not argued recently and there was no indication this was going to happen other than Carlton had started drinking again.

“The pressure. My dad, my whole life could never handle the pressure of being a father, or having a wife, or doing what was right. I feel like he snapped.”

Lauren said she remembers when she was younger, she would know what kind of day it was going to be by the way Carlton’s truck was parked.

“I used to get off the bus and I could see the way his truck was parked, and I wouldn’t want to get off the bus because I knew he was (extremely drunk.)”

Lauren said Carlton beat her mom several times, “It was a bad childhood.”

Lauren feels like Carlton was looking for Austin that day; Lauren and Austin frequented a property off Whitney Road and several people with video surveillance have since told her Carlton’s truck drove up and down the road several times before the murder.

Lauren is trying to heal and stay strong for her babies, but she is having a tough time, “I just never knew anything could hurt this much. I want everybody to know how good Austin was.”

“I feel like God gave me Austin and my dad took him away.”

Lasting Effects 2 Years After Ambush Attack On Eustis Police Captain

EUSTIS, Florida–Two years ago Sunday, it was a normal Thursday for Gary and Stephenie Winheim; a warm December day, just six days before Christmas. Little did they know, their lives would never be the same.

It is a struggle every day, Stephenie Winheim told Inside Lake earlier this week. One crazy afternoon and their lives forever changed, she said.

Eustis Police Captain Gary Winheim’s uniform shirt after being shot in the neck Dec. 22, 2019. PHOTO: Courtesy of Stephenie Winheim

Below is an exclusive interview with the Winheims and Inside Lake Publisher Marilyn. M. Aciego that previously published on Lake Legal News on Dec. 22, 2019.

Eustis Police Captain Gary Winheim is grateful to be alive and grateful to the community he serves.

“I am humbled by the outpouring of support from the community. [I have] enormous respect for all the fire, medical and law enforcement professionals in the incident. Our community is truly strong.”

Just two days after being shot in the neck by an ex-con with a violent history, Winheim, his wife, Stephenie, and their beloved dog Laike sat down in their home with Lake Legal News for an exclusive interview Saturday. “This is my story,” Winheim said. “And I want my story to be told by me.”

Sporting bandages on his ear, neck and back, Winheim, 49, a 24-year veteran of Eustis Police Department is doing well after having surgery to remove the 9mm bullet that clipped his earlobe, entered his neck and travelled slightly down his back. Doctors at Orlando Regional Medical successfully removed the bullet Friday and he was released from the hospital. He is expected to make a full recovery.

EPD Capt. Gary Winheim speaks with reporter Marilyn M. Aciego just two days after getting shot on Dec, 19, 2019. PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher

Thursday, around noon, Winheim was in full uniform and in his unmarked truck— a truck well-known in the community to be driven by Winheim— at the traffic light at County Road 44 and State Road 19 when he heard gunshots coming from the area of a small mechanic shop, a Shell gas station and a Winn Dixie. Winheim’s wife, Stephenie, a former ICU nurse, was on the phone with him when he heard the shots. “I was not responding to a burglary call or a robbery call. I was not responding to any call. I was minding my own business,” the captain expains to LLN.

The Shell station at 1905 North State Road 19 in Eustis, Florida, was held up by an armed robber Tuesday evening and EPD was working on getting a warrant for the suspect’s arrest Thursday morning. 

Winheim, a 12-year SWAT team member, saw a dark-colored SUV leaving the parking lot of the Winn Dixie driving erratically and he began to follow it. Winheim followed the SUV eastbound down County Road 44, when it suddenly pulled over near Trout Lake Nature Center. Winheim pulled over too. At this point, Winheim did not know he was following Jayson Colvin, the man suspected of robbing Shell. “I had no idea who he was,” Winheim said. “No clue.” As captain over the Criminal Investigations Division, Winheim was familiar with the investigation and where that investigation was, but it never entered his mind that he might be following Colvin, he tells LLN. “We firmly believed he had left town.”

“I firmly believe he knew who I was because he has history in this county,” Winheim said. Colvin, who has a criminal history in Lake County dating back to 1998, was arrested by EPD in March for resisting without violence, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia and again in April for resisting without violence. All the charges from the March case were dropped; he was sentenced to probation and given a fine in the April case.

“I was catching up to him and he pulled over,” Winheim relates. He did not know why the SUV stopped because he had not activated his emergency lights. He was not sure if the driver needed assistance, or if he was pulling over for sinister reasons. “All the scenarios that you’re going through—‘Is he hurt, was he just shot at, does he have somebody in the truck who’s hurt, or was just shot at?’” In addition to wondering if the man needed assistance, Winheim also wondered about his own safety. “Is he flagging me down because he needs assistance or does he have bad intent right now? This is how it processes for law enforcement; all of the bad things that could be happening to them that we need to help them with, or all of the bad things that they’re intending to do to us. You have all that processing through your head,” Winheim tells LLN.

“He (Colvin) jumps out, immediately raises the gun and starts firing at me. It’s an ambush,” Winheim recalls thinking. Winheim was still sitting in his truck when he took fire; he never got the chance to get out, or to grab his gun.

Colvin fired multiple shots (the exact number has not been released, as it is part of the still-active investigation) striking Winheim once, through the windshield of his truck.

“So when he jumped out and started shooting at me, I had no idea what was going on at that point. When he started popping off rounds and I got hit in the neck and I knew I was hit in the neck, it stunned me.” Winheim tried to lie down over the seat, but his truck has a large center console and he could not get low enough, “So I caught the round in the neck.”

When asked what was going through his head once he realized he was being shot at, Winheim said he thought to himself, “I’m in a really bad spot.”

“We can train for a whole bunch of tactical scenarios. You cannot train for an ambush. An ambush is an ambush. The only thing about an ambush is you can train to fight through an ambush.”

Colvin fled and Winheim bailed out, ran to the back of his truck and thought to himself, “This is not where I end.” At that point, his main concern was blood loss. A vehicle pulled in behind Winheim during the shooting and Winheim ran to it. The driver rolled down the window and said, “I’m on the phone with 9-1-1.” Winheim responded, “Ma’am, I am 9-1-1. I’ve already called them.” He asked her how bad he was bleeding and she gave him her jacket and put it against his neck and held pressure to his wound. 

EPD Senior Officer Wayne Perry Sr. was the first to arrive and was getting his med kit as EPD Sergeant Dan Post arrived and Winheim said “Dan, give me your med kit,” and  Post replied, “I brought a fire truck.” “Love me some Dan Post,” Winheim says. “He’s awesome.”

Winheim likes to give the fire department a hard time. “I mess with firefighters horribly,” he adds with a grin. “The old police-fire thing. I am ruthless with the fire department.” But Winheim teases them affectionately, “I truly do love those guys and appreciate the job they do.”

A firefighter Winheim has known for many years treated him, and Winheim looked at him and said, “Do not let me die.” And he said, “Oh, I’m not letting you die; you’re not going anywhere.” Winheim responded, “Great! Take care of me. I’m getting through this. I’m not done yet.” The firefighter said, “No, you’re not done yet. You’re getting through this.”

Always the jokester, even in a crisis, Winheim said, “And I want everybody here to know, all those jokes I made, I was just kidding.”

Colvin fled to Umatilla and crashed near Cookie’s Junkyard & Towing, 19813 County Road 450, bailed and ran into a wooded area. More than 500 law enforcement officers responded to the search scene from local, state, and federal agencies, Lake County Sheriff Peyton Grinnell said in a press conference Thursday.

After nearly seven hours of searching, a helicopter pilot from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) Aviation Unit spotted Colvin hiding under a canoe, along the shoreline of a small lake. The pilot saw him take position in an aggressive manner. Colvin refused to comply with deputies’ orders and was shot and killed.

EPD Capt. Gary Winheim is pictured with his wife, Stephenie and their dog, Laike Dec. 21, 2019. PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher

Stephenie Winheim, now a Realtor, was home when she found out her husband was shot and Winheim called her himself. “Damn right, I did, That’s my wife.” He said, “Baby, I want you to know I’m OK. I’ve been shot. And I love you.” Choking back tears, he recalled, “I told her I was not gonna die and I was not leaving her.”

Since they’ve been together, Captain Winheim has been involved in three other shootings prior to Thursday’s shooting, “I definitely didn’t react the same way to this one as I reacted to the first one,” she tells LLN. “I worked in ICU, it’s high stress level. We see a lot of things; we’re good compartmentalizers. You can’t freak out— you have to deal with what’s going on.”

The shooting was just one week after the pair celebrated their seventh anniversary. They were married on December 12, 2012, (12-12-12) and dated for five years prior to getting married. They travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, to celebrate their anniversary and returned just three days before the shooting.

The love the two share for each other is obvious. Each one choked back tears several times while talking with LLN. They speak in unison, finish each other’s sentences and complement each other’s personalities. They both told LLN that they are best friends. 

Notably, the couple taught a section at EPD’s in-service training program to help teach spouses how to cope with the aftermath of serious incidents. “Almost 24 years with Eustis, almost 12 years as a SWAT operator; I’m an active shooter instructor, reality-based training. I’ve been really fortunate in my career to have attended a lot of training classes and a lot of firearms-related training classes. I consider myself a tactical guy,” the captain states.

Captain Winheim tells LLN that he thinks law enforcement is excellent at training, and he has seen it get better and better over his career, but there are still some flaws. “We are awesome at training right up to the point of pulling the trigger. We don’t teach our officers what happens afterward. We don’t teach officers about the media coming and asking them questions and getting on their Facebook to find things out,” he explains to LLN.

“There are law enforcement officers who believe, ‘Don’t include your spouse in your work. Don’t burden your spouse with your work. Don’t bring your work home,’” Winheim notes, but he disagrees. “If you don’t inoculate your spouse to what you do, prior to an event like this, how do you expect your spouse to get through an event like this? The body can’t go where the mind hasn’t been.” 

Mom Of Man Missing 3 Years Wants Answers

LADY LAKE, Florida—It has been three years since Mariann Decker heard her son, Danny’s voice.

December is an extra hard month for her; her son’s birthday is Dec. 6, the anniversary of his disappearance is Dec. 15 and of course, Christmas.

“It’s not a great time of year,” she said.

Daniel “Danny” Decker, who was 34 at the time of his disappearance, has not been seen or heard from since the early morning hours of Dec. 15, 2018, Lake County Sheriff’s Office Detective Clay Watkins told Inside Lake earlier this week.

Double D, as Decker was affectionately known, literally gave a homeless man the shirt off his back one cold night and was a fun person who liked to bust people’s chops, his mom said. “Danny had a sense of humor from the day he was born. I can’t explain how funny he was.”

He loved his dad, and they were joined at the hip, Mariann Decker said. He always wanted to go to work with him, you could separate them.

On Dec. 14, 2018, Decker was at a friend’s house in Carlton Village when he and another friend borrowed a car and went to Sumter County to play fish games at an arcade and then later returned.

“We know he was at a friend’s house, (and) we know he was looking for a ride away,” Watkins said.

The friend wanted his car back and Danny and another friend left to meet the owner and return the car.

“They believed they were being followed,” Watkins said, and Decker called his mother at 2:11 a.m. and told her he thought they were being pursued. Decker had some prior minor run-ins with the law.

“He wasn’t an angel,” Mariann Decker said. “He was his own worst enemy sometimes, he trusted everybody.”  

Mariann Decker said she will never forget that last phone call from her oldest son. She remembers his tone and everything he said.

“Ma, they’re chasing me,” he told her. She asked who was chasing him and he said, “I don’t know, the cops. Somebody is chasing me.”  

Danny Decker PHOTO: Courtesy of Mariann Decker

It was not law enforcement chasing him, Watkins said, but it still unknown who was chasing him. Decker sped up and drove down Eleanor Lane, a small dirt road off Marion County Road, abandoned the car and fled the scene.  Mariann Decker does not believe it happened that way. “My son would never a vehicle because it’s his last line of defense.”

Decker’s friend said he ran one way and Decker ran another and, “Danny was never seen again,” Watkins said.

A neighbor found the abandoned car and after LCSO received the case, it was processed at the tow yard, “No physical evidence; nothing inside the car that would indicate a crime,” Watkins said.  The keys to the car were never found.

Originally a Lady Lake Police Department case, it was turned over to LCSO and LCSO utilized helicopters and K-9s in the area that is mostly rural cow pastures, wooded and includes several lakes, but nothing was ever found. “We canvassed the area, and nobody saw anything,” Watkins said.    

Watkins believes Decker is likely dead since so much time has passed, and no one has heard from him. He is asking anyone with information on Decker’s location to come forward and give Decker’s family some closure. Mariann Decker agrees her son is no longer here. Her mother’s instinct told her he was gone before he was officially missing. About five hours after receiving his last phone call, she went looking for him and was drawn to Marion County Road. She said she felt pulled in a northwestern direction and still feels his body is in that area.   

“He wouldn’t go a day (without) talking to me,” she told Inside Lake. Choking back tears, she said he would hug her and kiss her cheek every day. “I miss him very much.”

Danny Decker
PHOTO: Courtesy of Mariann Decker

There have been numerous rumors and tips over the years; some plausible, and some extremely far-fetched, but Watkins chases them all down.  

“Mariann deserves to bury her son and know what happened to her son,” Watkins said, “They want to put him to rest.”

If you have information on Decker’s disappearance, call Watkins at 352-343-2101. 

Family Of Murdered Mom Celebrates Her Birthday With Balloon Release Monday

EUSTIS, Florida—Melissa Nease would have turned 30 Monday.

Instead of celebrating this milestone birthday, Nease’ children and their father Shane Jenkins, her big sister Amy Harris, her mom Lisa Nease, best friend Abby Henderson and more than three dozen loved ones, sang “Happy Birthday” and released more than 100 balloons at her gravesite at Greenwood Cemetery Monday afternoon, many wearing memorial pink—Nease’ favorite color—shirts.

Nease’ mom, had a special “#1” balloon to signify a long-running family joke. Nease always made cracks about being Lisa’s number one daughter, Harris said with a smile.

Several of Nease’ loved ones held back tears as they spoke about her to Inside Lake. Henderson, who was her best friend for four years, said they instantly became best friends when they met and went through a lot of ups and downs together. Monday was a way to honor Nease and her birthday, but she misses her terribly and wants justice for her friend.

“It’s not any kind of relief,” Henderson said. “It won’t bring the peace we’re waiting for.”

Nease will be remembered for heart, Henderson said. “She was always so loving to everybody.”

Shane Jenkins and his daughter kneel next the Melissa Nease’ grave Monday, Monday would have been Nease’ 30th birthday.
PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Nearly 10 months ago, Nease, 29, was found murdered in her secluded Ocklawaha home in Marion County the afternoon of Feb. 28, by a family friend.

The 2010 graduate of Tavares High School, was home alone while Jenkins and their three children were out of town when she was shot; Marion County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the case. MCSO has released little information in the case—just two short video clips showing two assailants running away from her home following the murder.

PHOTO: Melissa Nease/Facebook

Jenkins choked back tears as he spoke to Inside Lake Monday night. He said he spends his time focused on his children; he shared two daughters and a son with Nease, and they visit her grave each week. Jenkins’ mom, Stacey Miller, passed away in 2019 and Nease is buried right next to her.  

He tries to keep his children entertained and busy, “I do everything for them,” he said. “I’m with my kids 24/7.”

Shane Jenkins stands next to the grave of his murdered girlfriend Monday afternoon. PHOTO: Bonnie Whicher/Inside Lake

Jenkins theory on Nease’ murder is a burglary gone bad. He thinks the perpetrators believed the whole family was out of town and Nease surprised them and they killed her.

“It eats at me every day,” he said. “We want this person caught more than anybody.’

Jenkins moved out of the home where the murder happened because it was just too hard for him. He had to clean up the home after her murder and the pain was obvious in his face as he spoke. “We moved out of there as soon as we could.”

Unidentified suspect In Melissa’s Nease’ murder. PHOTO: Marion County Sheriff’s Office

Harris vows to never let up until her sister’s killers are caught.

“I’m not stopping,” Harris said. “Marion County needs to know, I’m coming.”

If you have information on the murder of Nease, call MCSO Det. Daniel Pinder at (352) 368-3508 or if you wish to remain anonymous, call Marion County Crime Stoppers at (352) 368-STOP (7867) and reference 21-20 in your call.

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