Bradenton Beach city commissioners are confronted Aug. 2 by a gallery of Kelly Osborn supporters, citizens with stormwater drainage concerns, and more media than anyone could recall in recent history. Islander Photo: Bonner Joy
A parade of friends and family of the late Sheena Morris filed into Bradenton Beach City Hall Aug. 2 to ask commissioners to demand the city invite the FBI to look into the 2009 death of the 25-year-old Tampa woman, and to ask for disciplinary action against Police Chief Sam Speciale.
Morris died at the BridgeWalk Resort, 100 Bridge St., Bradenton Beach sometime during the early morning hours of New Year’s Day.
Morris’ mother, Kelly Osborn told reporters after the meeting, “We’re not talking suicide anymore. Sheena was murdered.”
Although first ruled a suicide by law enforcement and the medical examiner, the family disputes that conclusion and has repeatedly asked for the case to be reopened, saying they have new evidence.
Speciale — interviewed before the Aug. 2 meeting — said the Morris family has presented no new evidence.
“I have said from the start, if any credible evidence came up, I would reopen the case,” said Speciale. “The mother of Sheena told us she has evidence of a person who has knowledge of the case, but would not give that information to us.”
Speciale said Osborn stated she would only give the information to the FBI.
“I spoke to the FBI and they said they would take the information, and she has never produced it,” he said.
Osborn told commissioners she wants the FBI involved, but Speciale told The Islander that even if the case was reclassified a homicide, the FBI would not investigate it.
“They will not investigate a homicide under these conditions,” he said. “I asked them if they would investigate it, and they told me no.”
In 2011, Morris’ family hired a forensic expert and had her body exhumed. No new evidence was discovered on the body, but the medical examiner changed the cause of death from suicide to undetermined.
Speciale said the decision to change the cause of death was based on the opinion “that the crime scene appeared too clean. So, it was (a second medical examiner’s) opinion that it was staged.”
One medical examiner’s opinion doesn’t override the original medical examiner’s decision, the BBPD investigation and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s determination, he said.
“It wasn’t our department that ruled it a suicide,” said Speciale. “My detective’s responsibility in that case was to determine if there was any evidence of foul play and none was found. The sheriff’s office processed the crime scene and they reached the same conclusion, as did the original medical examiner.”
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has agreed to review the case, and Speciale said FDLE will send cold case specialists to the city to review the case.
“They will either concur with our findings or offer us suggestions on what to do next and, if need be, offer us assistance,” said Speciale, who noted if the investigator finds credible reason to reopen the case, he would do so.
Speciale said FDLE has already reviewed the case file once and reached the same conclusion. He said he is confident that his department did its job.
“They did everything they were supposed to do,” he said. “With the evidence that we had, there was only one conclusion, and it was the same conclusion as other agencies reached. I don’t have the luxury of dealing with opinion or emotion. I have to deal with facts, and the facts of this case show it as a suicide. If the facts change from the FDLE review, I will reopen this case and we will go from there.”
At the meeting, Osborn expressed disappointment in having FDLE review the file, which is partly why she is demanding FBI involvement.
“Reviewing the file is not reopening the case,” she said.
Osborn insists she did try to present BBPD with new evidence, but that they wouldn’t do anything with it.
“I don’t care about (BBPD) trying to convince you of their investigation,” Osborn told commissioners. “The fact of the matter is, they are inept to handle Sheena’s case. When I brought them more evidence, they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Osborn told reporters “Sheena was murdered,” after she left the meeting room.
She said she has spent years trying to get to the truth.
“That’s all we wanted,” she said. “We wanted an investigation and we wanted the truth. We’re looking for justice.”
When asked what justice meant to her, Osborn said, “Getting a murderer off the street.”
The Sheena Morris case
It was New Year’s Eve when BPPD received a call to the BridgeWalk Resort in reference to a woman yelling.
A couple staying in a nearby room heard the woman yelling, “and a man’s voice speaking back to her in a calm voice,” said Speciale.
The officers were dispatched to the scene. As they were climbing the stairs to Morris’ room, the officers passed a man walking calmly down the stairs.
Osborn claims BBPD should have arrested Morris’ boyfriend for domestic violence and it would have saved her daughter’s life that night. Speciale said the call was never in relation to domestic violence.
“It was a disturbance call,” he said. “When the officers got to the room, Miss Morris came to the door and invited the officers in. They had a discussion with her, at which time Miss Morris said she had no way home.”
Speciale said the officers asked Morris if she had family she could call, but Morris said that her father lived out of state and she hadn’t talked to her mother in years.
“She was asked if she had been hit and she said no,” said Speciale. “By the end of their conversation, he had simply left the premises. The next day we got a call to get people out of a room at the resort. As it turned out, we found Miss Morris deceased in the bathroom, hanging from a dog leash from the shower.”
Speciale said MCSO and a medical examiner were called to the scene.
“The boyfriend wasn’t a suspect because it was not a violent disturbance we responded to,” he said. “We subpoenaed phone records and found out they were texting one another until 4 a.m., so she died sometime between then and when we responded later that morning.”
Speciale said he understands how the family is feeling.
“I have a daughter,” he said. “I can’t imagine what they are going through, but you just can’t walk into a police department and want a case reopened without evidence and we just don’t have that. I just think they don’t believe any of the information because they don’t want to believe their daughter would do this.”
Speciale said there is plenty of evidence suggesting the death of Morris was not a murder.
“If people in the resort could hear them arguing, I would think someone would hear something breaking and people fighting,” he said. “I would hope she would have fought for her life. There is some suggestion that she could have been drugged, but there were no drugs in her system.”
Speciale said there was no evidence on the body that a physical altercation had occurred “and no marks on her feet that she had been dragged across the floor and into the bathroom.”
Speciale said Morris and her boyfriend were apparently on the island to plan their wedding. An argument of some kind caused the boyfriend to leave and after trying to contact him all night via cell phone, “she was in a mind frame to do what she did.”
A crew from Superior Asphalt repairs the stormwater system at the Anna Maria intersection of North Shore Drive and Palm Avenue as part of the public works department’s ongoing effort to tackle drainage problems as they arise. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin
Anna Maria commissioners at their July 30 public hearing for the 2012-13 budget set the city’s tentative millage rate at 2.05 to fund a $2.3 million budget.
The commission can lower that rate at future public hearings on the budget, but cannot increase the rate beyond 2.05.
When the commission began its budget work sessions in July, city treasurer Diane Percycoe submitted a tentative budget of $2.287 million at a 2.0 millage rate. That rate would have generated $1.148 million in property taxes. The remainder of city revenue comes from various local, county and state sources.
The rollback rate, the millage needed to generate the same amount of ad valorem tax revenue in the 2011-12 budget, is 2.0214 mills.
Percycoe said the rollback rate is lower because taxable property values in Anna Maria increased for the first time in several years.
One of the adjustments commissioners will see in the 2012-13 budget packet at the 6 p.m. Sept. 11 public hearing is a drop in the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office contract, from $698,000 to $672,000.
Mayor Mike Selby and Sheriff Brad Steube negotiated a contract reduction, but Selby said Steube advised him to start negotiations immediately for the 2013-14 contract.
One of the main issues in the MCSO contract is that Anna Maria pays the salary and retirement benefits of deputies, and many deputies with years of experience with the MCSO apply for openings in Anna Maria. These deputies receive a higher salary than a deputy with just a few years with the MCSO.
The MCSO contract calls for seven deputies, including a sergeant, at the MCSO-Anna Maria substation and 24/7 coverage in the city. Some residents in the past have questioned the need for seven deputies, but Sgt. Dave Turner, current head of the substation, and Sgt. John Kenney, his predecessor, have said that would mean a reduction of coverage and fewer deputies on the road.
One mill equals $1 per $1,000 of taxable property value.
An Anna Maria property owner with a home valued at $500,000 with a millage rate of 2.0 mills — the same as the 2011-12 budget — would pay $1,000 in city property taxes.
At a millage rate of 2.05 mills, the same property owner would pay $1,025 in city taxes.
Were the city to adopt the rollback rate of 2.0214 mills, the same property owner would pay $1,010.70 in city tax.
Of the total annual tax bill a property owner receives from Manatee County, 11 percent goes to the city. The Manatee County School Board receives 50 percent of the total, while 36 percent goes to Manatee County government. The remaining 3 percent goes for taxing districts such as mosquito control and water management.
The fee for the West Manatee Fire District is not a tax, but an assessment collected by the county for WMFR.
David Marshall, principal of Anna Maria Elementary School, stands ready at the front desk — ready to welcome students to a new academic year.
Anna Maria Elementary School classes begin Aug. 20 with fewer students for the 2012-13 school year and some changes in schedules — including the elimination of early release Wednesdays.
The school year also brings new teachers and new online information.
Manatee County School District community and press relations specialist Mike Barber said last week the district is projecting 287 AME students this year, down from 295 last year.
“It’s important that they’re considered projected, because the state uses the numbers in funding,” he said.
AME principal David Marshall said enrollment is typically in flux for the first several weeks. Ten days after the first day of school, a count is recorded, Barber said, adding that final enrollment numbers won’t be known until October.
“Enrollment is down a little bit,” Marshal said, adding, “it’s all about Choice. The Choice numbers are dwindling.” The Choice program allows families to choose to send students from other elementary schools to AME. “If parents don’t want to drive across the bridge or what, I’m not sure,” he added.
The number of classes for each grade depends on class size, Marshall said. And because final enrollment numbers are not yet in, the district can still make adjustments, he added.
The state mandates no more than 18 students in pre-kindergarten through third-grade classes and, for fourth- and fifth-grade, 22 students or less, he said.
Discontinued by the school board for 2012-13 is the districtwide early release Wednesdays. For the past five years, the school day had ended at 1:15 p.m. for elementary school students to allow for professional development.
It was eliminated on the recommendation of school district superintendent Tim McGonegal, Marshall said. Phone surveys of parents had indicated dissatisfaction with early release.
“The school board decided there wasn’t enough support for it,” said Barber.
The board also considered school grades and Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results and determined “it didn’t warrant having the shortened day,” he said.
Students will be returning to AME with an 8:30 a.m.-2:50 p.m. Monday through Friday school week.
New teachers at AME include Kathy Houston in the school’s Various Exceptionalities Program and Nick Leduc in a fourth-grade class. Both are coming to AME from other district schools, according to Marshall.
Two buses will continue to serve the school, Marshall said, adding that the bus schedule will be ready about one week before school starts.
Barber reported on a new online portal called FOCUS that is designed to track students’ progress. It should be accessible to elementary school parents sometime during the first semester.
The FOCUS portal, which already is available for middle and high schools, will be introduced to elementary schools by their principals.
Call center ready for questions
Information phone lines already are available to help parents and others with back-to-school questions.
The School Board of Manatee County opened the call center Aug. 7 to provide information on registration, school zones, bus stop locations and times and home education, and to field other inquiries common at the beginning of a new school year.
The phone number for general information is 941-708-4971, while the number for transportation is 941-782-1287.
The general phone line will operate 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Aug. 7-23.
The transportation phone line will operate 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Aug. 7-17, and from 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Aug. 20-22.
Bradenton Beach commissioners Aug. 2 approved an engineering study on the Historic Bridge Street Pier after the porposed contract with Sego & Sego Engineering stalled in mid-July over insurance concerns.
The contract approval opens the door to a reconstruction project. Building official Steve Gilbert said it would take about 30 days for the drawings to be submitted to the city and, in the meantime, the city also would move forward with preparing bid requests.
The contract stalled when city attorney Ricinda Perry said she was not comfortable with the city’s protection under the insurance clause of the contract, but those issues have been resolved.
There was some discussion from commissioners whether they were still comfortable with the contract, but Commissioner Gay Breuler said it was time to move forward.
“This is just for the engineering study not for the construction itself,” said Breuler. “It’s not that much of a burning issue that we should keep putting it off when we need to get the pier fixed.”
Breuler said she was comfortable if Perry was OK with the contract. The remaining commissioners ultimately agreed to approve the renegotiated contract.
The commissioners reached a consensus to proceed with Phases 1 and 2 of the Avenue A stormwater project.
Commissioners heard from several residents of Avenue A that previous work to alleviate flooding thus far has caused more standing water.
Residents said the swales that were constructed to drain water off the roadway have become ponds, creating a mosquito problem and is killing landscaping.
The engineer of record for the Avenue A project is Lynn Townsend-Burnett, who confirmed the residents’ complaints.
“The concerns being expressed are accurate,” said Townsend-Burnett. “When the first phase was completed during construction of Avenue A, there were some requests made on literally the last day of the graders being out there doing the repaving.”
Townsend-Burnett said those requests led to deeper than expected swales, “but the intent for this phase was to observe Avenue A during numerous storm events to see how it would perform. My apologies for the inconvenience and that it has taken as long as it has.”
Townsend-Burnett said the project was delayed due to budget constraints, but those issues have been resolved and the project is ready to move forward again.
“I am meeting the contractor on site next week,” she said.
It’s time to vote.
Absentee voter ballots for the Aug. 14 primary election have been mailed and must be returned to the supervisor of elections by 7 p.m. the day of the election. Early in-person voting for the Aug. 14 primary election ends at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11.
Early votes must be cast at the Manatee County Supervisor of Elections, 600 301 Blvd. W., Suite 108, Bradenton.
Florida law requires a signed photo identification card, such as a driver’s license to vote.
Voter registration for the Nov. 6 election, including the presidential election, state, county and local city offices, closes Oct. 9, and early voting for the election begins Oct. 27.
A primary election is for registered party voters to select a candidate who will advance to the Nov. 6 general election, and does not include nonpartisan races, such as Anna Maria Island’s three city commission races.
Island polling stations that will open for the Aug. 14 primary election include:
• Precinct 91, Roser Memorial Community Church, 512 Pine Ave., Anna Maria.
• Precinct 92, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, 6608 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.
• Precinct 93, St. Bernard Catholic Church, 248 S. Harbor Drive, Holmes Beach.
• Precinct 94, Tingley Memorial Library, 112 Second St. N., Bradenton Beach.
Anna Maria currently has 1,305 registered voters, Bradenton Beach has 929 voters, and Holmes Beach has 3,264 voters.
Cortez residents vote at the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage community center at 4415 119th St. W., Cortez.
For more information, including sample ballots for the primary, go online to www.votemanatee.com..
Bradenton Beach filed a motion July 24 in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by Holmes Beach concerning ownership of 27th Street.
Holmes Beach filed suit May 24 asking the court to declare as public a portion of the street adjacent to the Sandpiper Resort, a mobile home cooperative in Bradenton Beach. The street runs east of Gulf Drive to Sarasota Bay within Bradenton Beach at the border of Holmes Beach.
The lawsuit also seeks a court order requiring the Sandpiper to remove gates and private property signs from a fence at the border and to remove a portion of the fence for access between adjoining property in Holmes Beach.
Bradenton Beach’s motion, filed by Charles F. Johnson of the Bradenton law firm of Blalock Walters, P.A., maintains that Holmes Beach failed to set forth a legal claim to allow a court to declare 27th Street a public street.
The motion also argues that Holmes Beach lacks “standing to request the relief sought,” and failed to contain proper allegations for the requested court order to remove the signs, fence or gate.
“The underlying property is owned by either Sandpiper, Bradenton Beach or unspecified third parties,” according to Johnson’s motion. “There is no factual scenario, and certainly none alleged in the complaint, where the underlying property is owned by the plaintiff.”
Johnson states the allegation that the property is “to be held for the public in general” does not provide standing.
The Sandpiper Resort in June argued the mobile home park was improperly named in the lawsuit, and Holmes Beach corrected the name error with an amended complaint June 27.
As of the end of June, about $9,300 has been spent by Holmes Beach “suing our neighbors,” according to Commissioner Jean Peelen.
Peelen and fellow Commissioner John Monetti each recused themselves from voting on Sandpiper-related matters — Peelen because she owns property in the mobile home park and Monetti because he owns property on the border of 27th Street in Holmes Beach.
While Peelen has spoken against the lawsuit, Monetti, who is running for re-election in November, has been vocal about providing access by Holmes Beach residents to 27th Street.
The dispute first arose in December 2008 when Holmes Beach learned of an impending Bradenton Beach quitclaim deed and ordinance supporting the property transfer to Sandpiper Resort.
At the time, Bradenton Beach supported the quitclaim to clarify ownership of land because some Sandpiper mobile homes were found encroaching on the 27th Street right of way.
While Holmes Beach commissioners dropped the matter shortly after pointing out the city’s objections to the deed, the issue arose again last summer when the Sandpiper erected a fence, installed gates and posted no trespass signs along the border.
Last fall, Holmes Beach initiated a conflict-resolution process, which is required before one municipality sues one another. The state-mandated process did not require the Sandpiper’s participation.
A series of public meetings ended in February without resolution.
After private settlement discussions in March between Holmes Beach and Sandpiper representatives, Holmes Beach commissioners proceeded to file the lawsuit.
Sarasota Bay waters rise during Tropical Storm Debby in late June, spilling into the streets of Bradenton Beach. TS Debby was a reminder that islanders need to remain vigilant during hurricane season. Islanders are invited to attend an Aug. 15 meeting at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive, to learn what to do during a storm. Islander Photo: Mark Young
The 2012 hurricane season has been fairly quiet thus far, but it is a long way from over — with three months remaining in a season predicted to have 13 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.
According to weather.com, a late-developing El Nino system has slowed hurricane development, but as such storms as Andrew and Katrina have proven, it only takes one to cause devastation.
For residents on Anna Maria Island and other coastal cities, vigilance during hurricane season should remain a high priority.
Bradenton Beach Commissioner Gay Breuler said that’s the reason for an Aug. 15 hurricane preparedness meeting being held at Holmes Beach City Hall, 5801 Marina Drive.
“It’s always good for people to be prepared,” said Breuler, who organized the meeting after commissioners from the three island cities agreed it was necessary. Especially, said Breuler, following the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby, June 24-26, to remind islanders what to do in the event of a major storm.
“I’ve had a lot of questions from people about what they are supposed to do,” said Breuler. “It was brought up at a meeting that we would like to do something for all three of our cities, and I just picked up the ball and set up the meeting.”
Breuler said the meeting will feature talks on what citizens need to do if an evacuation is ordered, how and when they can get back on the island and general hurricane preparedness.
“There’s a lot of people that need to know what to do if a storm comes through and someone decides the island needs to be evacuated,” she said. “The people of Anna Maria have to come through Holmes Beach, and the people of Bradenton Beach can either go out through Longboat Key, Cortez or Holmes Beach. So we all have to know what the other city is doing.”
Breuler said TS Debby was a good reminder of why everyone needs to be prepared for a storm and to have evacuation plans in place.
“It’s the reason why we wanted to have this meeting now,” she said. “Debby reminded everybody how vulnerable we can be as coastal cities, and it’s just a good idea to keep your preparations and knowledge of what to do fresh in your mind.”
The Aug. 15 meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. and is free to attend.
Emergency management personnel will be guest speakers. There also will be a question-and-answer session.
For more information, contact Breuler at 941-727-5210.
The Holmes Beach welcome sign at the Kingfish Boat Ramp on Manatee Avenue was damaged last week. Islander Courtesy Photo
It might be difficult for this manatee to wave “hello” to passersby.
The manatee on the welcome sign at the Manatee Avenue entrance to the city of Holmes Beach is missing its right fin.
Rotary Club of Anna Maria Island reported Aug. 3 that the fin had been broken from the manatee mold and found on the ground sometime last week.
It is unknown at this time how the damage came about, but the club suspects vandals or an accident.
“This is not the first time the sign has been disfigured,” according to an AMI Rotary Club press release. “Last year, the tail on the dolphin was pulled off.”
The welcome sign is constructed of Styrofoam to meet Florida Department of Transportation requirements that limit damage the sign could make if struck in a crash or a dislodged in a storm event, the press release stated.
“The Island Rotary Club is in the process of having the Manatee’s right fin restored to its rightful place,” said club president Lynn Zemmer.
Ella and Luke Bisio of Bradenton Beach, check out the hometown news while 2,501 meters high atop Spitzmeilen in the Swiss Alps. Leaving from the ski resort at the top of Flums, it took the Bisio family almost six hours to hike —including some serious rock climbing — to the mountaintop. The mountain photo, including the summit where Ella and Luke are pictured, was taken from the resort. Pictured climbing, Ella and mom, Anne-Lise. According to dad, Rick, the good news is the view was exceptional.
The Manatee Public Beach, 4000 Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, saw temperatures in the mid-90s last week and a sea of shade-producing umbrellas Aug. 3. Islander Photo: Rick Catlin
Some folks on Anna Maria Island might be wondering if there is much difference anymore between the winter and summer season.
“It’s been a wonderful summer,” said Anna Maria Island Chamber of Commerce president Mary Ann Brockman. “I haven’t talked with anyone who hasn’t done well these past few months.”
The chamber had more than 1,200 telephone calls in July requesting information about Anna Maria Island, in addition to thousands of hits on the chamber website, she said.
Jesse Brisson, who reports real estate transactions for The Islander and is a broker at Gulf-Bay Realty in Holmes Beach, said his vacation rental business was up considerably from last year, and many units are booked through the last week of August.
August has become a very busy month for visitors in Florida after the Legislature several years ago changed the opening date for public schools from the first week in August to late August.
“August is the traditional month for Florida visitors. When school was starting that first week, tourism just dried up,” Brockman recalled.
Lobbying by the Florida tourism industry and the Florida League of Cities several years ago resulted in later school openings date, allowing Floridians their traditional time at the beach, she said.
Manatee County public schools are scheduled to resume classes Aug. 20, while private schools and Florida universities have various opening dates for fall classes.
For news on Anna Maria Elementary School fall opening and open house, see page 13.