Charges are ramping up against four men, including a former Anna Maria Island resident, in connection with the death of a Bradenton man.
A grand jury Jan. 14 indicted Amado Zeppi, 21, James Brewer, 20, Michael Hepner, 22, and Coty Paulk, 22, with first-degree murder in connection with Mohammed Hamed’s death at the Green Galaxy Smoke Shop, 3212 First St. W., Bradenton, in September 2019.
Manatee County Sheriff’s Office detectives originally requested each suspect be charged with second-degree murder.
Zeppi, a former Bradenton Beach resident, and the others allegedly were attempting to rob the smoke shop when — based on store surveillance video — Zeppi struck Hamed with a bayonet attached to his semiautomatic rifle.
The rifle discharged, killing the clerk.
Brewer allegedly had entered the shop to distract Hamed. Zeppi and Paulk then entered with their weapons drawn, and Hepner acted as the getaway driver, according to MCSO incident reports.
Zeppi was arrested at a Longboat Key restaurant where he worked. His arrest was followed by the arrests of Brewer, Hepner and Paulk.
Paulk had remained unidentified and at-large for several months, until the MCSO pegged him as the fourth and final suspect. He was taken into custody in May 2020.
If convicted of first-degree murder, the men could face the death penalty.
A case management hearing will be held Jan. 28 at the Manatee County Judicial Center, 1051 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton.
After the insurrection at the Capitol Building Jan. 6, tensions surrounding Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration are high.
So is the need for tight and skilled security on Inauguration Day, which is Jan. 20.
Law enforcement in Washington, D.C., will have a handful of Anna Maria Island’s finest to help.
Six island officers were headed to the nation’s capital this week to help the U.S. Secret Service, the federal coordinator for security at the inauguration.
Officers Roy Joslin and Devon Straight are the Bradenton Beach Police Department’s choices to attend, according to BBPD Chief Sam Speciale.
Sgt. Mike Walker and Officers Christine LaBranche, Lee Diehl and Adam DeSantis from the Holmes Beach Police Department also are to attend the inauguration, according to HBPD Chief Bill Tokajer.
Tokajer told The Islander Jan. 13 that he is excited for his officers to participate.
“It is an honor,” Tokajer said. “It’s pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the officers. …Just being able to participate in something like an inauguration is an honor.”
“The fact that we can help out from our small little part of the world is something we’re very happy with,” he added.
“It’s definitely an honor,” Joslin said about being selected as one of BBPD’s attending officers. “I was very surprised and excited when I was asked. And it’s definitely a privilege.”
However, Joslin expressed “mixed feelings” about serving as security amid the political turmoil that led to the insurrection Jan. 6 and the loss of life, including the deaths of two U.S. Capitol Police.
“Obviously, I’m happy to be there but, then again, I don’t want something major to go down,” Joslin said. “If something happens to me and Officer Straight … with only 10 full-time officers in Bradenton Beach, if two of us go down, that’s not going to look too good — but I don’t think that’ll ever happen. Hopefully.”
Joslin said he and Straight would leave for the capital Jan. 18 and, later that day, be sworn into service for the inauguration.
He said they would learn Jan. 19 more about their roles and where they would be stationed for the inauguration.
“It’s going to be more detailed when we get there,” Joslin said. “But I believe we’re going to have to be out there by around 3 a.m. …And I think it gets over with somewhere close to midnight.”
“It’ll be very busy, with no sleep,” he continued. “But I’m just happy to go up there and be used as whatever I need to be used as to make sure everything’s secure.”
Tokajer said plans for the officers to attend were in the works for 6-8 months and the violence Jan. 6 didn’t change any minds about going.
“This is a time when they need more officers who are well-trained and know the right thing to do,” Tokajer said. “It would be wrong of us — when we know that they need more people than they presently have — to say ‘no.’”
“The event that happened this last week, although horrific, does not sway us from us going and assisting another law enforcement agency and making sure everything is safe,” he continued.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office substation in Anna Maria did not respond to calls Jan. 14 and Jan. 15 from The Islander.
Better to be safe than sorry.
Holmes Beach Mayor Judy Titsworth told The Islander Jan. 14 that city staff decided Jan. 6 to close city hall in response to the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Florida.
The city first closed its doors in early 2020 to curb the coronavirus's spread between staff and members of the public but reopened in the fall, when the number of new statewide COVID-19 cases hovered around 5,000 per day in the state.
“When everyone else started opening, we opened again,” Titsworth said. “Even though we didn’t feel ready, we just felt we had to, so we took on extra precautions.”
However, the number of new cases spiked after the winter holidays.
Other than Jan. 1, when Florida did not process any COVID-19 tests, the state has recorded more than 10,000 new cases every day since the new year — including a single-day record-high 31,518 new cases Jan. 2.
Titsworth said city staffers, who meet Wednesdays, discussed the issue Jan. 6.
She said building department staff, who had previously argued to keep city hall open, saw the spiking case numbers and reversed course.
“We’re so small. If we lose any one department, we could be shut down for weeks, the mayor said.
“Once the numbers kept going up and the new variant came around, they decided ‘OK, we’ll change our minds,’” she continued.
For now, city hall will be locked.
Members of the public must make appointments to enter city hall or call a number posted on the front door for assistance.
“If they really need us for immediate assistance, we’ll meet them at the door right away,” Titsworth said.
Once inside, city staff will check visitors’ temperatures with a noncontact infrared thermometer, since a feverish temperature is often one of the symptoms of COVID-19.
People are required to wear face masks and social distance within city hall.
Titsworth said she hadn’t received any negative feedback regarding the closure.
“I haven’t heard of anyone that’s upset,” Titsworth said. “I think everyone pretty much now understands. …I definitely feel the staff is safer.”
In the meantime, nothing has changed in the island’s other two cities.
Both Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach closed the doors of their city halls last year and have yet to reopen them to the general public.
For now, people must make appointments to enter either building and city staffers check temperatures before admitting visitors.
Also, people must wear face masks and social distance in both city halls.
Anna Maria Mayor Dan Murphy wrote in a Jan. 15 email to The Islander that the city-sponsored events at City Pier Park — the Farmers Market and Movies in the Park on Tuesdays with face masks and social distancing required — would continue without changes.
New PPP relief offered
Another round of financial assistance is on the way.
The federal Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program reopened Jan. 13 for another round of loans and new borrowers' opportunities.
This round of PPP loans is available to some businesses previously ineligible for funding, including 501(c)(6) housing cooperatives and direct-marketing organizations.
The loans also can be used to cover some expenses previously uncovered by the program, including property damage costs, supplier costs and worker protection.
For more information, visit www.sba.gov.
— Ryan Paice
The beaches are clean, but the hull of a shrimp trawler that wrecked two miles off Anna Maria Island remains on the seabed.
The crew of the Warrior, owned by the Tampa-based Versaggi Shrimp Corp., required rescue from the U.S. Coast Guard the night of Jan. 8 after the vessel began flooding.
Nobody was hurt, but flotsam from the broken-up vessel was littered across island beaches.
With help from Manatee County, public works crews from the island municipalities removed much of the washed-up debris Jan. 9.
Arthur “Art” Whiting from Tampa-based Harden Marine Associates, Versaggi’s insurance adjuster, told The Islander Jan. 14 that the cleanup wasn’t finished. A portion of the hull — including up to three gas tanks capable of holding thousands of gallons of diesel — remained intact in 14 feet of water.
Whiting hired Tarpon Springs-based Florida Dredge and Dock and Palmetto-based DiveCom Marine to inspect the wreckage, remove the gas tanks and salvage any remaining valuable parts from the hull.
DiveCom divers began inspecting the hull Jan. 14 to locate the fuel tanks and prepare for their removal, according to Whiting.
“If the tanks aren’t in there, then we’ve got another situation, but we believe the remaining tankage is still in the hull,” Whiting said. “So, they will remove parts of the hull to get at those and get them out. …From a pollution standpoint, that would take care of just about everything.”
Whiting said a pollution containment boom — a floating dam designed to contain oil spills to a small area — was placed in the water above the wreckage as a precaution for any gas leaks.
However, he said weather could be a factor in completing the job, since inclement conditions could complicate the tank removal and render the boom ineffective.
“So far, we’ve had excellent cooperation with our contractors,” Whiting said. “Everything’s gone smoothly.”
The local numbers dropped in the past week.
But not by much.
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of seniors awaited notice of vaccine appointments in Manatee County and apparently the supply of vaccine doses has been drained.
Between Jan. 8-15, 1,430 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported to the Department of Health-Manatee County, a decrease from the week prior, when 1,586 new cases of the novel coronavirus were documented.
As of Jan. 15, 146 people in Holmes Beach, 61 people in Bradenton Beach and 43 people in Anna Maria had tested positive for the virus — an increase of nine cases for islanders compared with the week prior.
According to metrics provided by the DOH, as of Jan. 15, 25,743 people had tested positive for the virus in the county, with 454 fatalities and 1,168 hospitalizations.
Of those testing positive, 463 were nonresidents, compared with 427 the week prior.
Meanwhile, the effort to vaccinate those 65 and older continued, but not without criticism about the pace and process.
Within the county, 13,919 people — mostly health care workers — were treated with the Moderna vaccine as of Jan. 15. This leaves an unknown number of people awaiting a second, required dose and more than 80,000 seniors waiting on a first dose of vaccine.
People can join the county’s standby pool by registering online at vax.mymanatee.org or by calling the county’s 311 call center for assistance. The call center operates 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Edwin Michael, professor of epidemiology in the University of South Florida College of Public Health, has garnered statewide forecasts of the impact of vaccine rollouts.
Michael’s model shows that if there’s a 10% statewide increase in the number of individuals who wear face masks and reduce social activity, there would be 67,000 daily cases Feb. 13.
However, if individuals take fewer precautions, statewide there could be 172,500 daily cases by Feb. 14.
Model projections show that a slow rollout of the vaccine would lead to a peak of 113,500 daily cases in Florida by Feb. 18 if social distancing measures remain the same, according to the report.
Pandemic precautions, including face masks and social distancing, are believed to prevent 40%-45% community transmission, the USF report stated.
“If the size of the coming wave is not reduced by ramping up social mitigation measures, then it will lead to requirements for hospitalizations that will overwhelm the current capacity of the Tampa Bay hospital system,” Michael said in a news release.
On the island, Anna Maria and Holmes Beach mandate that people more than 6-years-old wear a face covering in public when closer than 6 feet to a person unrelated or from another household.
Bradenton Beach does not have such a mandate, requesting that people wear masks in businesses that request the measure.
Shot in the arm, or not?
Tampa Bay researchers released the first national survey of attitudes about vaccines for the novel coronavirus.
Some findings from the University of South Florida’s school of public affairs include:
- A third of respondents said they “will definitely get vaccinated” in the coming months.
- About 59% said they will either “definitely” or “probably get vaccinated.”
- About 23% said they will “probably not” or “definitely not get vaccinated.”
- More than a quarter of respondents said they are either “not very confident” or “not at all confident” that the recently approved vaccines are effective in preventing the spread of the virus.
- About 71% said they are at least “somewhat concerned” about the potential side effects of the COVID-19 vaccines.
- Male respondents were more likely than female respondents to indicate they will get vaccinated.
- About 76% of those 65 and older said they “probably” or “definitely” will get the vaccine.
- Vaccination plans were lowest among middle-aged respondents, as 48% of those between 45 and 54 indicated they are likely to get vaccinated.
- Only 21% of Americans have talked to their primary care doctor about whether a COVID-19 vaccine is appropriate.
- The most commonly cited sources of information that respondents have used to learn about the COVID-19 vaccine include television news at 57%, friends, family and coworkers at 40% and social media at 32%.
- Two-thirds of respondents said they will “somewhat support” or “strongly support” a nationwide mask mandate, including penalties for non-compliance.
- About 51% indicated they will support “a national shutdown of nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the virus.”
The survey was conducted Jan. 9-12 with a margin of error at plus or minus 3%.