Irma’s low waters explained

Editor’s note: This story originally ran  in the Panama City News Herald. Go to the website to see some of the digital tools used to enhance this story, including a before and after of the water I made using the Knightlab juxtapose tool. 

PANAMA CITY — With hundreds of yards of muddy bay bottom exposed, Irma became the perfect time for local fishermen to pick stranded eels out of the uncovered seagrass beds for bait.

“I found 10 to 12 eels in the short distance I walked … and large stone crabs, snails and hermit crabs,” said local Jeremy Acree, who also picked up a fish during his trek. “It was very different. All but one of the eels was dead.”

From Tampa Bay all the way to Mobile, Alabama, the Gulf Coast experienced what meteorologists refer to as a “blowout tide,” when the water drained from the coast, said National Weather Service Tallahassee Meteorologist Parks Camp. The low tide essentially is the opposite of a storm surge caused by strong winds.

“We had a long period of fairly strong northerly winds that pushed the water out,” Camp said. “It’s a lower water level near the coast, and the wind pushed the water (farther) out, where it will level out well in the Gulf.”

Then, as the winds weaken, the water will slip back into its normal ways.

In Bay County, starting at midnight Sunday, the water dropped 1.68 feet below the mean sea level by 9 a.m., almost 2 feet below the normal tide, according to Camp, causing the water to recede dramatically to the dismay of beached sea creatures. By about 3 a.m. Tuesday morning, the water had returned to normal.

“To see it to this extent is pretty rare,” Camp said.

At Capt. Anderson’s Marina, Operations Manager Pam Anderson said she has seen blowout tides before, particularly during the strong storms in the winter months, but Monday’s storm was the lowest she had ever seen the water in the marina.

“We had quite a lot of real estate,” Anderson said, laughing.

Most of the boats had left the marina in advance of Hurricane Irma, but the few that did stay “sunk into the mud,” she said. The boats came right back up, undamaged, along with the tide.
As the tides came back, like the boats everything returned to normal. The rising waters covered up the small island that had formed behind Treasure Island Marina. The beaches lost no sand in the storm, according to officials. And the fish, crabs and other wildlife got their habitat back, and likely suffered minimally as the water moved out slow enough to have them move with the water, according to Sea Grant Agent Scott Jackson, noting cool temperatures and periods of rain likely kept crustaceans like smaller grass shrimp relatively wet.

Even so, a representative from Gulf World Marine Park said wildlife could be stressed from the ordeal and asked people to report strandings to Florida Fish and Wildlife at 888-404-3922.

By Tuesday, the beaches were closed to swimmers as double red flags were flying because of some small swells caused by Irma’s time out in the Gulf, bringing the tides full circle.


Healthcare gap leaves some Florida residents uninsured

Editor’s note: This story ran in the Panama City News Herald in May 2016. Follow this link for sidebar and videos. 

PANAMA CITY — Anita Jackson spent her 50th birthday at Bay Medical Center Sacred Heart Health System, agonizing over the lump in her left breast doctors told her “may or may not” be breast cancer.

She hoped for a resolution, but instead got a referral, which turned into a dead end. The oncologist wanted $146 cash because Jackson has no health insurance.

Jackson — in debt to Bay Medical and unemployed after leaving her job as a cleaning lady because of the pain — didn’t have that kind of money. As a result, she also didn’t have an appointment.

That was August. Eight months later, Jackson woke up in the middle of the night in extreme pain. When she looked down at her lump, she saw a deep red stain forming on her shirt.

At 1:30 a.m., she walked 3.7 miles from her home to Bay Medical. She didn’t bother calling an ambulance; she couldn’t afford the bill.

When she arrived, doctors rushed her through a series of tests. The results confirmed her fears.

Stage 4 breast cancer had spread through her body. The doctors gave her two to three months to live.

2012 ruling

Jackson is one of about 800,000 Floridians who fall into the “coverage gap,” the consequence of a crack in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) created by a 2012 Supreme Court ruling.

Under the ACA, Medicaid was supposed to expand to include anyone who lived at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty line. People above that mark would make enough to qualify for the ACA health insurance markets. Between the two, everyone would have health care or pay a penalty.

But when the Supreme Court made Medicaid expansion optional, 19 states, including Florida, chose not to expand Medicaid, leaving people like Jackson — and an estimated 3 million Americans working and unemployed — in the coverage gap, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The gap is a health care no-man’s land. Directors of the few clinics accepting uninsured patients in Bay County said patients often are required to make cash payments they don’t have or go without treatment, the insurance liability makes it too risky for doctors to treat them for free, and many of these patients are so beaten down from being told “no” they don’t look for treatment until they are very ill.

People in the gap are almost entirely reliant on charity for medical care, and charity is increasingly harder to come by as more people believe everyone has health care.

“Services used to allow a certain percent for charity,” said Robin Estes, executive director of BayCares, one local clinic that accepts uninsured patients. “The word ‘charity’ is like gone now.”

In Bay County, the cracks are starting to show.

Florida’s federal funding for Medicaid was reduced by about $400 million this year. Those cuts were passed on to hospitals that historically were subsidized. The effects have been felt already.

The Bay County Health Department in December asked the two Panama City hospitals, Bay Medical and Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center, to chip in $150,000 each for the Health Department’s low-cost emergency room diversion clinic. Bay Medical said no — the hospital already is facing $9 million in cuts in two years, according to CEO Steve Grubbs — and the clinic closed in January.

Four notable options still are available to the uninsured: PanCare Health, the Avicenna Clinic, the St. Andrew Community Medical Center and BayCares.

PanCare is a government agency offering care to uninsured, Medicaid and Medicare patients on a sliding pay scale.

Avicenna and St. Andrew both offer free primary care to uninsured individuals living at or below the federal poverty line. The St. Andrews clinic keeps files on 3,000 patients. Avicenna keeps files on 2,000 patients.

BayCares serves patients diagnosed with a severe condition needing immediate treatment, such as cancer. It’s a network of doctors in 10 counties who offer free care in exchange for protection from lawsuits. Of 300 doctors in Panama City, 200 are on BayCares’ list, providing $30 million worth of medical care annually, Estes said.

However, Dr. Neal Dunn, a former surgeon and current Congressional candidate who is also the chairman of BayCares, said it is becoming harder to recruit doctors and find funding for procedures like CAT scans or MRIs.

In need of $146

In the eight months between when Jackson was told she “may have cancer” and her Stage 4 diagnosis, she alternately worked and looked for help.

Shocked by her medical bills, she worked at a local fast-food franchise for a few months trying to scrape together the $146 to see an oncologist. Her employer always scheduled her for less than 15 hours a week.

Most of the money went toward motels — Jackson hasn’t had her own home since she was evicted from a trailer in Springfield years ago — and there was never money left over for doctors.

In December, she lost the fast-food job after calling in sick. A friend allowed her to stay with him in a small, deteriorating cottage they filled with colorful art to combat the dreariness of the hardwood furniture.

It wasn’t until her official diagnosis on March 9 that Jackson’s medical care came together. She was referred to the St. Andrews clinic, which took over her primary care.

She also qualified for BayCares for the first time, because she went from being a patient suspected of having cancer — a gray area where BayCares can’t help — to a cancer patient.

With Jackson’s paperwork squared away, BayCares moved swiftly. The found an oncologist in Santa Rosa Beach with time to add Jackson to his patient load and even arranged a driver to transport her. It was the first time BayCares had ever offered a patient transportation.

“The driver was real nice. She spent a good hour telling me it was going to be OK,” Jackson said. “She prayed for me and everything right before I went in.”

Nowhere to turn

St. Andrew Community Medical Center sees many people in the flux period in which Jackson spent eight months — patients who doctors and nurses suspect have a serious condition but can’t afford the tests to prove it.

There is Brenda Iles, who has been waiting a year for a CAT scan to determine what is wrong with her thyroid. There is Cathy Adams, another cancer patient whose treatment was disrupted when she moved. St. Andrews clinic director Carole Summey estimated the clinic has about 15 patients who need hernias or their gallbladder removed, 25 in need of a colonoscopy and 25 in need of a urologist.

A few years ago, the clinic could turn to Bay Medical to do many of these tests for free, but when the hospital was sold, cuts were made, Grubbs said. They scaled back, no longer offering some of the more expensive tests.

Grubbs said Bay Medical still does a lot. Last year, the hospital provided $73.645 million in uncompensated care, according to their records.

“In fact, in the past three months, we have provided $817,694 in free diagnostic testing for St. Andrews clinic, Avicenna, Health Department, after-hours clinic and BayCares,” Grubbs said.

In 2015, Gulf Coast provided a little more than $12.192 million worth of charity and uncompensated care, according to President and CEO Carlton Ulmer.

Even with more than $85 million of uncompensated care being offered between the two hospitals, Summey said there is still a demand for more. In 2015, the death rate at the St. Andrews clinic had a sharp uptick to 13 people compared to four in 2014, which has her worried.

Who should pay?

When it comes to indigent care, the question often becomes, whose responsibility is it to pay for the working poor?

Some think the answer lies in expanding Medicaid, which offers doctors some reimbursement, though not enough to put them in the black.

“Along with most of the health care industry, we support the expansion of Medicaid in Florida and other states,” Grubbs wrote in an email, pointing out that the cuts to Bay Medical could have been avoided. “The citizens of Florida pay federal taxes designed to compensate states for care provided through their Medicaid programs. Absent the expansion of Medicaid in our state, our citizens’ taxes are diverted to other states.”

Others say expanding Medicaid is not the answer. Dunn, who is running for office on the platform of dismantling the ACA, pointed out that on the exchange, premiums and deductibles are so high for the “affordable plans” the insurance is no more than “an illusion.”

Before the ACA, he said, “we just leaned it and did it. If a patient crawled in with a kidney stone or gunshot wound, of course we treated them.”

The finances, he said, were worked out later. Now, government paperwork drives up costs. He said repealing the ACA could help that.

In the meantime, Jackson is starting chemotherapy this month. Her doctor said she is an excellent candidate.

She’s not as optimistic.

“If we honest, nuh-uh; I don’t think I’ll be cured,” Jackson said. “But every day, I get one more day.”

She’s worried about surviving the chemotherapy. She’s scared, but she hopes her story matters.

“There are other people out there like me,” she said. “I think there are a lot of other people out there.”


—- Sidebar: Stories from others like Anita —

Cathy Adams frets about the price of gas as she drives the 30 miles from her friend’s home in Mexico Beach to the St. Andrews Community Medical Center, creating a mental list of what other items she can get done on this tank.

Money is tight. Tighter than it’s ever been.

A year ago, Adams worked at a health care company in Sarasota, specializing with dementia patients. She liked making them laugh; it helped her forget about lump in her breast being tested for cancer.

Last June, the company reorganized, cutting Adams’ position. The same day, her tests came back positive: She had cancer.

“I went home and cried and cried,” said Adams, 60. “I laid in bed for a couple days and just cried.”

Then, she planned. Her insurance would last for a little while — long enough to at least start her treatment — and she had five months of unemployment payments. Between the two, she hoped to patch things back together.

Though the job market was finicky, Adams did find a private oncology group willing to start her chemotherapy. When her insurance ran out, a community hospital took over her treatments.

But just when things seemed settled, “my roommates kicked me out,” she said.

Not knowing what else to do, she said goodbye to her doctors and moved in with a friend in Mexico Beach in early January, bringing her clothes, some curtains, her yorkie-poo and a list of medical facilities she thought could help her.

At the end of February, she found the St. Andrews clinic, after being turned away everywhere else. At that point, she had gone three months without treatment and had no income.

“I was scared they would turn me away, too,” she said.

Instead, they found a doctor in Sandestin willing to take on her case, raised funds to pay for more testing and helped her manage. She started her treatments May 3.

It doesn’t solve everything — she can barely afford the gas — but she feels like she is back on track.

Every day, Brenda Iles prays she isn’t dying.

She could be. About a year ago, her doctors discovered her blood pressure was “out of control” and worried that something was wrong with her kidneys. When she had an X-ray, the radiologist saw something unusual and ordered a CAT scan to get a better look.

But Iles couldn’t afford a CAT scan, which can cost hundreds of dollars, so she hasn’t had one yet.

Iles’ problems started three years ago. She decided to stop working when the aches in her knees and back made her work as a role player for the military unbearable. She was an independent contractor, so she didn’t have any benefits. Since then, Social Security has denied her claim, and because she in her 50s, she is still too young for Medicare.

She thought leaving work would be temporary and didn’t imagine she would wind up in her current situation.

“I’ve always worked,” she said. “This put the brakes on all of that.”

The director of the St. Andrews Clinic is working on finding some grant money to pay for the CAT scan. If that falls through, Iles will have to raise the money herself or simply go without.

So, she prays, she saves her pennies and she waits.

“It’s nerve-wracking when something is going on in your body and you don’t know what is,” Iles said. “I think about it whenever I feel a little pain.”

On an average day, she said her pain hovers at about a 4 out of 10, but sometimes it gets worse — much worse. She also has thyroid issues that require daily medication.

Since the pain started, Iles left her home in Louisiana and moved in with her son in Panama City. On her good days, she likes to bake and watch over her grandkids. She uses a cane — a purple floral one, with a worn dark handle — to follow them around.

On her bad days, she just “gets through them.”

Felicia Mincy took a deep breath in through her nose, the kind that could either be a reaction to pain or an attempt to quell surging frustration, and stared at the ceiling as the technician stuck a biopsy needle into the right side of her neck.

In this case, Mincy’s breath was less about pain and more about frustration. The technician was biopsying the wrong side of her throat, the wrong nodule, and wasn’t listening to her.

Mincy and her nurse at the St. Andrews Community Medical Center had worked for months to get that biopsy, appealing to doctors, negotiating with BayCare and making dozens of phone calls.

And ultimately, it seemed like none of it mattered.

“I was awake when they did it,” Mincy said. “I told him before he did it it was the wrong side, but he said he was seeing something and he’s the physician … you don’t have a lot of room to talk when you not paying.”

Mincy left the hospital with a bandage on her neck, both furious and devastated. She was no closer to knowing what the soft tissue mass growing on the left side of her throat was. Her nurse as St. Andrews thinks it might be lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes, but there is no way to know without the biopsy.

Now she is back at what feels like square one, appealing to doctors, negotiating with BayCare and making phone calls.

Mincy, 45, can feel the lump every time she swallows, and it hurts to drink even water, she said. While waiting for another biopsy, she makes up worst-case scenarios: the mass bursting in her throat; no longer being able to eat; her voice becoming so gravely she can’t speak anymore. The mass becoming so enlarged her children and grandchildren no longer want to hug her.

“It makes me panic,” she said. “I am always ready to go to the ER.”

Timothy Spinks has been a Type 1 diabetic since he was 12 years old, managing his condition through his parents’ insurance and then St. Andrews Community Medical Center’s free clinic.

But a few years ago, his health took a turn for the worst when his eyesight started decaying and he realized free care wasn’t going to cut it. So, he tried use the Affordable Care Act.

Spinks, a chef at a small, low-cost local restaurant, first tried getting insurance through his employer, but when he looked at his options he realized they wouldn’t cover his normal medications, let alone the bi-monthly shots he gets in his eyes to keep from going blind.

Then he tried the health insurance exchange, navigating the government website on his own. But no matter which way he punched in the numbers or what version of a plan he looked at, he couldn’t find one that met all his needs.

So he called a government navigator and explained his situation.

He told them he needed a plan that would cover the medications necessary to manage his condition, including insulin, test strips, etc. It also needed to cover specialists, such as the eye doctors helping to control his diabetic retinopathy — the condition destroying his eyesight — and the trigger finger in his hand.

It also had to be reasonably priced. Spinks has bills to pay and is a single parent to a 9-year-old daughter.

“They didn’t seem to really understand,” he said.

So he gave up, deciding he was better off paying the penalty. He figured without health insurance, he could keep going to the St. Andrews clinic for his primary care and medicine, and BayCare would continue to administer his eye treatments.

But BayCare dropped him. Spinks said he understands; BayCare specializes in critical patients, not long-term maintenance like he need.

But now, he said he’s stuck. He can’t afford the eye appointment — which cost $700 a pop for a private payer — and he can’t find an insurance plans that works. He thinks he’ll end up choosing a plan, though, even if it’s imperfect.

“I don’t feel I have a choice,” he said.

Edward Summerlin defines himself as a workaholic.

Years ago, he was a truck driver, but his diabetes took a turn for the worse and his employers took him off the road. He was offered Social Security disability, but “I turned it down,” Summerlin said. He figured he still had enough working years ahead that he didn’t need a disability check.

He found a job at a Home Depot in Nashville, where he worked for the next 10 years. It was there he had two heart attacks at work in one week. He ignored the first one and kept working. The second time, he finished his shift and then went to the hospital.

Even with medical insurance, the heart attacks cost him $11,000, enough to “wreck” him financially, he said.

After that, he wanted to be somewhere warmer, so he packed his things and moved to Panama City, where he took a job with a local lumber company. During his trial period there, he started having problems with his heart again, and a diabetic ulcer formed on his foot.

He hadn’t been at his new job long enough to receive medical insurance but decided to go the hospital anyway. He ended up spending several days there, and his employer let him go.

Summerlin’s health issues only got worse that year. He needed triple bypass surgery on his heart, and parts of his feet were amputated. Some of the procedures were covered through charity programs at Gulf Coast Medical Center and Bay Medical Center. Others he recieved a bill for, he said.

That was two years ago, but he still hasn’t returned to work. His doctors won’t sign the necessary paperwork.

“That’s the most frustrating thing, that I can’t work,” he said.

Social Security, on the other hand, thinks he could work, so they won’t grant his disability claim.

So Summerlin lives on his landlord’s generosity and $189 a month in food stamps. In his free time, he volunteers at his church — setting up tables and working with inmates at the local prison — and tends to his garden.

He likes what he does and “doesn’t blame anyone,” but he can’t help a nagging feeling he would have been better off if he accepted disability and stopped working the first time the government offered.

For Jeannette Whitmore, getting older came with the typical batch of aches and pains — trouble sleeping, suspicious lumps, earaches and difficulty breathing from 44 years puffing on cigarettes.

It made her want a doctor, someone she could call when something seemed not quite right. But she was earning a meager income as a housekeeper cleaning condos and didn’t have any insurance, so it seemed out of reach.

The health department, though, told her about the Avicenna Free Clinic, a small health care facility on 15th Street that shares a receptionist with the adjacent Islamic Understanding Institute.

“They became my support network,” Whitmore said. “I quit smoking and stopped biting my nails, my two biggest triumphs.”

They handled her little issues, but they also have helped to handle her big issues. When Whitmore’s smoking started to suffocate her, they nagged her to quit. When a problem arose with her thyroid, they prescribed the right medication.

The latest thing to go is her back, which has become so weak her doctors say she needs a rod inserted and two metal braces to support her neck. One wrong fall, her doctors said, and she could find herself in a wheelchair.

Whitmore said she is looking into insurance plans to cover the procedures for her back, but so far nothing has been affordable. But she’s still hopeful it will be resolved and said even with her back condition, she’s still in better shape than she was when she first showed up at Avicenna three years ago.

“Once this stuff with my back gets resolved, I want to learn how to paddleboard,” she said. “That’s the new fad. I want to do that. It looks like good exercise.”

Social media subculture lets youths live double lives

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a two part series that ran in the Panama City News Herald in February 2017. It was co-written with Eryn Dion. 

PANAMA CITY — Unanswered questions haunted members of the LEAD Coalition on Jan. 5, the day after Owen Frazier was fatally shot. Only 15 days earlier, another young black man, Alton Mills, had also been killed.

They knew these kids. Naisy Dolar worked with Frazier at Gulf Coast State College, had even spoken to his mother, assuring her that “yes, he was showing up for class.” Matt Shack, who watched Mills grow up, didn’t believe it was possible he was involved with a gang.

These were good, kind kids, they insisted.

But the evidence of their drug dealing was all right there, chronicled by the two young men on their Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“They’re living double lives,” said Janice Lucas, executive director of the coalition, adding it’s contradictory but possible for Mills and Frazier to be both the good kids she knew and the people in their Facebook profiles.

The questions coalition members asked at that day’s meeting were about why. Why are these young men turning to dealing and violence?

Is it that guns are more prevalent? Manufacturing and gun sales both have grown exponentially in the last year, according to federal data, though the number of households with guns has declined.

Is it lack of work? The county’s unemployment rate has stayed at a low 5.3 percent in 2016, but the rate in Glenwood — where Mills lived — was a devastating 18.9 percent. Do area youth simply make more money in the streets than at jobs?

Is it statistics? Is it the disproportionate rate of suspensions of black students the Department of Education statistics show in Bay Schools? Do national trends of the absent black fathers or disproportionate discipline in the justice system for blacks cause it?

For a coalition that started in the wake of a string of homicides in 2014 with the goal of it never happening again, the biggest question they asked was: How do you stop it?

“We have to reach these kids,” Lucas said.


Every afternoon, Tim “Scooter” Brown and JC Carlisle set up orange plastic cones in a field outside Kingdom Agenda International ministry on the corner of East Avenue and 11th Street and get ready to coach whatever kid shows up that day. They run laps and learn about football, but what Brown, Carlisle and the people who help them are really trying to teach is a better way of life.

The streets are nothing like they used to be, says Brown, who grew up in Glenwood. People used to be more willing to settle a fight with their fists, not a gun. And people used to be more invested in the business of dealing drugs than the business of stealing drugs.

But social media has changed all that, he said.

“If you lose a fight, everyone in the world knows,” Brown said.

“So you gotta come back with revenge,” Carlisle added.

And it never, ever goes away. One year later, five years later, even 10 years later, Facebook will still remind you and everyone tagged in your post about “the memory,” asking if you want to share it with your friends.

It’s a place where with a few carefully chosen photos, a young man can craft the image of himself as a someone with street cred — an image his parents, the schools and the police are all unlikely to see. Flash some cash, maybe show a picture of smoking weed. Talk tough. Use a BB gun to make it look like you have a real gun, or steal one, like police say Datrion Hand stole the .40 caliber handgun used to shoot Frazier.

The image, whether real or bluster, becomes a challenge. It’s a challenge to oneself to live up to that character or be mocked, and it’s a challenge to others to one-up you.

“You can have a BB gun, not have a real gun, and go on social media and wave it around,” Brown said. “If anyone tries anything, they feel like you got a weapon. So if a person come at you anyway, and they got a weapon, they’re going to feel like they have to use it first.”

It also makes you a target, Brown said.


Monitoring that kind of online activity is all but impossible.

“I don’t have this room full of people to sit there and sift through social media and all that looking” for suspicious activity, Panama City Police Chief Scott Ervin said recently. “There are 160,000 residents in Bay County alone. There is no way we could monitor everybody’s Facebook chat to try to find something. That’s unfathomable, and I don’t think there is a realistic expectation of that.”

Even if the department had the resources and desire to monitor for public posts advertising drug deals, whether they would be able to translate them to legal action is still unclear. Local attorney Alvin Peters called it “the cutting edge” of the law.

“There’s no clear indication of who posted it, and so as far as I know, the courts are not accepting Facebook as a reliable basis for probable cause,” Peters said. “Obviously, you can use it for investigative basis, but I don’t see it being used to secure probable cause without a reliable witness.”

As Ervin puts it, an officer can see a photo on Facebook and say, based on his training, “That looks like marijuana.” But “there’s a lot of gray area,” and the officer still would have to do more leg work to prove probable cause.

It also isn’t what the police department — which has yet to recover from pre-recession staffing levels — focuses on.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of what we do is we respond to things that have occurred,” Ervin said. “Prevention starts at the individual level, and that’s everything from, as a child growing up, those people that are responsible for care of the child teaching them right from wrong, helping them learn how to make good decisions. And then of course the individual, as they grow up and become adults, they have to make good choices, and they are accountable to do that. They have to make that determination not to be involved in criminal activity.”

In the meantime, he said his department is out there working every crime, not picking and choosing what to investigate, but taking all cases seriously. They have good relationships in all of the communities involved in the recent violence, he said, working to develop leads and chase all of them down.

And his department, he said, will never give up on finding justice for homicide victims.


But Robert Stewart, a local DJ, convicted felon and Mills’ cousin, feels the police department’s efforts aren’t enough.

The way he sees it, the police enforce a double standard, and by putting so much emphasis on treating every crime equally, they miss the important crimes.

He used a neighborhood gathering called “Chunky Sunday” as an example. For a while, Glenwood residents tried to have a Sunday dinner at a city park with free food, and he would DJ the event. But, he said, neighbors would complain it was too loud, and the police would show up and try to kick them out for drinking, which isn’t allowed in the park.

But in that case, Stewart reasoned, shouldn’t people playing Pokemon Go this past summer have been kicked out of the marina and parks after sunset? (Players occasionally were asked to leave public places.) Some of them were drinking, he said, but no — the police drove through the marina playing the Pokemon theme song some nights.

It’s not just the police he has an issue with. He said the Downtown North Community Redevelopment Agency’s (CRA) recent decision to tear down the Old Lee’s Motel was a real shame. It put people out of their homes, he said, adding there were better ways to spend the money in the community.

“Act like you care,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s fake; at least pretend you care. Put on a puppet show. Do it for politics, win out votes, whatever. Act like you care. Do something.”

The police say they have to enforce all laws equally, and the CRA officials say opening up the space to new development will benefit the community.

But Stewart says they all can do better, and that the burden is on the department and city to rebuilt trust.

“They’re growing up and they hear, ‘Oh, the police’ and run,” Stewart said. “Change that image. When you’re rolling through Foxwood two cars deep, don’t jump out and harass people. Start handing out suckers and fake handcuffs and stickers or fake badges. Play tag with the kids and run around in the street with them. … Play with my kid. Then, what does the older generation do? They think you’re not so bad. I ain’t gonna give them a hard time next time.”


“I worry about my son all the time,” Brown said. “And I worry because of society. As a black kid, you got to understand there are so many negative things that are going to be said; there are so many negative things out there.”

For example, he said his son always hears about black-on-black crime rates, which Brown said is “a downgrade to our race.” But what his son doesn’t hear, because people don’t talk about it, is that in the 2013 FBI crime data, there were 2,509 white-on-white murders, a little higher than the 2,245 black-on-black murders.

Teaching a child right from wrong starts at home, he said. He’s committed to being a father that will be there for both his kids and the neighborhood kids. Many years ago, he coached Mills on the basketball court, and when Mills started to walk away, he let him leave.

That’s not happening again.

He says he or someone from the ministry will be there every night at the corner of 11th and East, ready to help kids. For the older ones, it might be too late, he said, but he’ll try to get them while they are young and keep them, so they don’t feel the need to go across the street to one of many spots a 13-year-old boy can buy a bag of weed to sell for a quick profit. He and his team at Stop the Violence, many convicted felons who come from poverty and understand these kids, will find a way to turn their lights back on if the power gets cut.

The dealers across the street “won’t scare them off,” he said, and he doesn’t want kids in jail or at the rehab clinic across the way.

Stewart is going to try to organize community events to give the children something to do. The pastors in the black community have been using their pulpit to try to reach the youth. The colleges, particularly Gulf Coast, are trying to build up their workforce development programs to give young men other options. The LEAD Coalition is continuing its regular dialogue and pushing the Panama City Commission to hire more police officers next year and parents to check up on their children’s social media accounts. They’re also talking about starting a new community liaison program to improve relations between neighborhoods and the police.

“There’s a unity in the streets now,” Stewart said, a step in the right direction. And that unity is being turned toward the living.

It’s too late for Alton Mills, but not for his younger brother. His family is eyeing a safer place for him to be. Stewart is eyeing his every move, calling him frequently, hoping the growing unity will take root.

“There is always hope,” Stewart said. “That’s my lil’ cousin.”

Sap to syrup at Sunset Farms

This story appeared April 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


At 6:30 a.m., the first rays of sunlight have lit up Sunset View Farm, and the birds have just begun their early morning song.

This is when Chuck Tarleton starts his workday during sugaring season. Trudging from his house to the sugaring shack at 159 Gardner Road, he starts a small fire in the evaporator that transforms sap into maple syrup.

“It has to run all day,”  he said.

By one in the afternoon, there will be a completed batch of syrup sitting on the counter and plenty more simmering. While the steam and most of the heat escape through a hole in the roof, the air in the one-room workshop stays thick with the syrup’s woodsy, sweet smell.

Mr. Tarleton is still feeding the fire, listening to talk news to pass the time.

“You can load it, and give it 10 minutes while you do something inside,” said Mr. Tarleton’s wife Livvy.  “He’s been out here all day though.”

The Tarletons have run Sunset View Farms for 34 years, but only started making syrup five years ago when a family friend suggested they give it a try, hoping to get a chance to make a batch himself.

The operation started with a pan in the driveway and a few taps, according to Ms. Tarleton.

That season they were experimenting, figuring out how to do it, and deciding if they enjoyed it.

From there, it grew to the 200 tap production people get a glimpse of as they drive by the old-fashioned buckets tacked to the farm’s prominent maple trees.

“We never make any money … It’s just kind of for fun,” said Ms. Tarleton.

Last year, the Tarletons packaged 32 gallons of syrup — a small operation by New England standards.

“It was just enough for us, gifts and to keep the stand stocked all summer,” Ms. Tarleton noted.

This season, she said they are hoping for just 15 gallons because of an unusually late start.

“It’s been a horrible year,”  she added.  “It’s been too cold for the sap to run.”

In a typical year, the sap starts running from the maple trees in mid to late March.

The season begins when the nights are still just below freezing, and the days are a sunny, 40 to 50 degrees.

According to the Tarletons, the trees have to reset every night before sap runs in the morning.

Each year the sap starts clear, but by season’s end it turns to a rusty amber color. It takes nearly 40 gallons of sap to create one gallon of syrup.

The Tarleton’s will have to collect 600 gallons of sap to produce the syrup they hope to stock. So far, they are about two thirds of the way there — with an estimated one week to go.

Monday was a perfect day for collecting at the farm. Without visiting all of their taps, the trees produced 110 gallons.

“Our arms got tired,”  she said.

Unlike larger operations, at Sunset View Farm all the sap is collected by hand by the Tarletons and a neighbor who allows them to tap her property as well. Deep in the woods, sap is collected by plastic tubing that looks like an IV draining the tree. At the end of the tubes is a white, five gallon bucket.

Each day, at around 4 p.m.,  the selected sites and dumps the buckets are emptied into a 65-gallon tank carted around on a tractor. It can take up to an hour to fill the tank up by hand.

Once this is done, the sap is brought back to the shack and poured into an even larger tank perched on a shelf behind the sugar shack and that’s where it sits until Mr. Tarleton releases a valve and pours it into the evaporator to be boiled.

The sap – which starts out as a slightly sweet liquid – is then boiled at 212 degrees and sinks to the bottom of the vat. It is then drained into a second heating area where it is brought up to 219 degrees, seven degrees warmer than the boiling point of water.

In that pan, the sap officially becomes syrup. From there, it is strained and packaged to be sold at the farmstand throughout the spring.

“It’s good, fresh syrup,”  said Ms. Tarleton

Family dog found hung from tree

The article appeared April 17, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


Allyson Clark knew something was wrong when she heard her daughters’ screams.

“As a mother, you know your children’s screams,” she said. “A scream like that meant urgency now.”

Without stopping to put on shoes, she ran outside where she said she found, Snoopy, the family’s pet beagle, hanging four feet off the ground from a tree in their backyard. The 14-week old puppy was dead.

“I want to see justice,” she said. “That’s all I care about.”

Police, as well as the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the local animal control officer, are investigating the dog’s death. Lieutenant David Walsh said police responded to the call at 6:51 p.m. on Monday.

He declined to comment further.

Snoopy had only been a part of the Clark’s family for four weeks before the tragic incident. Ms. Clark said the dog was a birthday present for her 20-year-old daughter Brittany.

Monday was the first time the family had left the pup alone in their backyard at 22 Western Avenue, a small, swampy road with four houses.

Ms. Clark was inside the house making a dinner of green beans, mashed potatoes and chicken when it happened. After mashing the potatoes, she said she noticed that Snoopy was unusually quiet and sent her 10-year-old daughter Katelyn to check on him.

When Katelyn when outside, she started screaming for her sister, Brittany, to help her untangle the the dog. When Brittany came out, she started screaming “he’s dead,” according to their mother.

This all happened at approximately 3:40 p.m., according to police reports.

“It happened in broad daylight,” Ms. Clark said.

Ms. Clark said the dog was hanged using the rope from a birdfeeder in their yard. So many knots were tied around the dog’s collar that she said they had to cut it to take him down.

“We had buried him,” she said. “We didn’t want to leave him  hanging there.”

However, later in the evening, she said she became concerned about whether the person would attack another family’s pet or a person. At 6:51, she called the police to report Snoopy’s death.

The dog was exhumed Wednesday morning as part of the investigation, she said.

The family is now on a quest to find out what happened to their beloved dog.

“I can’t think of anyone who would be vindictive to us,” she said. “We’ve never done anything to harm anyone.”

Ms. Clark created a flyer about the incident that she planned to distribute to all of her neighbors, offering a $100 reward for information.

Before that could happen, her husband, Peter, posted it to Facebook where it went viral.

“I never expected that would happen,” she said. “I can’t believe it.”

People in the community, outraged by Snoopy’s death, started to contribute to the reward fund. As of yesterday afternoon the reward has reached $500.

“The mailman stopped and gave me $50 in cash,” she said. “A man I just wave hello to everyday,”

Another person left a small stuffed animal in her mailbox.

While the family is touched by the support from the greater Winchendon community, they are still feeling the loss of their pet—and security—acutely.

“We are afraid in our own home,” Ms. Clark said.

According to Ms. Clark, following news of the Snoopy’s death, one of her neighbors approached her and said she had seen a man in the woods around their home several times, sometimes at night.

Ms. Clark has taken several security measures to try to keep her family of three daughters and one son safer, including removing the outside handle of their screen door, not letting her daughters go outside alone, and using their security system.

The family is also considering installing security cameras around the house.

“We’re not sleeping well,” she said. “I keep waking up to check the windows and locks.”

She added that her 10-year-old is having nightmares and has asked her parents about moving.

People with information about the alleged attack should call Det. Kevin Wolski at 978-297-1212.

People can also email information to the family at if they are not comfortable talking to police.

Ms. Clark said she still plans to post the flyer throughout town and will be talking to her neighbors about the incident.

“I’m not going to stop until I know what happened to him,” she said.

Gardner Rare Coin Shop robbed

This story appeared on January 21, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


A worker at Gardner Rare Coin Shop, 25 Pleasant St., was left with a bloodied face after two armed robbers reportedly fled the scene with an undetermined amount of cash.

A little before 2 p.m., two males wearing ski masks entered the store and pointed handguns at two on duty workers, demanding that they hand over money, according to a press release from the Gardner Police Department.

According to officials, the suspects fled the scene after taking an undetermined amount of cash and a Canadian 1 once gold coin valued at $1,200.

During the exchange, one worker was allegedly assaulted. He was treated on scene by Wood’s ambulance.

According to officials, the first male suspect is about 6 foot 1 inch with a slender build. He was observed wearing black pants, a black hoodie and dark colored shoes. The second suspect was described as 5 foot 11 inches with a slender build, wearing blue jeans, a black hoodie and dark shoes.

A “thorough and intense” investigation was initiated by the Gardner Police Department’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation with the support of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Scene Services. The investigation will include a review of available surveillance footage from the time of the incident.

Six $100 bills were found outside of the storefront at approximately 2:15 p.m. by two bystanders who chose not to be identified. Officers were informed of the money and collected it. It is unknown at this time whether or not the money is connected to the robbery.

Police are currently asking for the public’s help in finding a smaller model, blue, four-door sedan the suspects were seen leaving the scene in. According to an official statement, the vehicle was parked on Pleasant Street “in close proximity to where the crime occurred” before the robbery was reported.

Anyone with additional information should call the Gardner Police Station at 978-632-5600.

Frigid temperatures an added hardship for homeless

This article appeared January 9, 2014 in The Gardner News. 

Nyoka Norine Blanchard, 27, told officials she was freezing to death when she called Our Father’s House at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday night asking for help.

The temperature had dropped to a mere 7 degrees, and the wind made it feel even colder inside of the abandoned factory she and two other homeless individuals — Paul Henry Flagg, 35, and Donald Ketola, 38 — had holed up in on Mill Street.

Labeled with a no trespassing sign, the building was so decrepit, so unstable Gardner police would not even walk inside when they arrived at 6:15 p.m., according to Police Chief Neil Erickson. Instead, they called from the door for anyone inside the building to come out.
At first, no one came.

Officers then called Our Father’s House, a homeless shelter in Fitchburg, that works with communities as far west as Orange. Outreach coordinator Kevin MacLean, who had talked to the three individuals earlier that night, gave the officers Flagg’s cell phone number, according to police reports.

After 45 minutes of negotiations, officers coaxed the three out.

Flagg kept telling officers “he did not want to get in trouble,” Officer Joseph Wolski later indicated. Mr. Flagg asked that he and Ms. Blanchard be placed into protective custody.

If the three were sober, they would have been brought straight to Our Father’s House at 199 Summer St. in Fitchburg to spend the night, however, they were “highly intoxicated,” Chief Erickson said. Instead, the three were arrested for trespassing, and brought to the police station to be booked.

“They spent the night with us,” said the chief, “where they stayed warm and were fed.”

Mr. MacLean praised the police department’s actions the next day.

“It kept them alive,” he said. “Last night was cold and three people drinking in an abandoned building wouldn’t have woken up this morning.”

Ms. Blanchard was right to be afraid of the cold. Since the deep-freeze started on Sunday, the Associate Press has reported 21 deaths related to the cold. Several of the deaths were homeless people who either refused shelter or didn’t make it in time.

What to do with the homeless when the mercury drops to potentially fatal temperatures is a problem that plagues cities throughout the United States.

Springfield reported that many of their shelters were full Tuesday night, with some facilities offering to let people sleep on the floor. In Chicago, authorities opened up emergency shelters this past week to give people somewhere to stay warm.

In Gardner, police estimate there are about 10 homeless individuals and Mr. MacLean believes the number could be double. Officials in nearby Winchendon estimate there are 22 to 25 homeless people in town. Neither Gardner nor Winchendon have a shelter available within their limits.

In the city, it would take the mayor declaring a state of emergency to open one up for a night, according to Gardner Emergency Management Director Paul Topolski.

“The shelter would have to benefit the community at large, not a few individuals,” Mr. Topolski said.

In extreme weather, the Gardner CAC has a partnership with the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, which allows homeless individuals to come in, and fill out brief paperwork in order to obtain a hotel room for the night.

It’s a great program, according to CAC Program Director Karen Sharpe, but Tuesday night’s freeze was not quite cold enough.

“We didn’t get a fax letting us know we could use the program,” said Sharpe. There was no email either.

That leaves Gardner’s homeless population – as well as the surrounding communities – with three choices: find a place on the streets to spend the night, get arrested or find a way to get to Our Father’s House.

Of those three choices connecting people to Our Father’s – a 28-bed facility that helped 950 individuals last winter – is the best option, according to Chief Erickson.

“These arrests are not a preferred way to get the homeless off the street,” he said. “The preferred option is getting them to the shelter.”

Homeless individuals can get to Our Father’s via the Montachusett Regional Transit Authority bus, which costs $1.50 or police and Mr. MacLean have been known to give people a ride.

Mr. MacLean knows the areas homeless population well. He spends at least two days a week in Gardner going to “homeless hotspots” to see if there is anyway he can do to help, he said. He leaves a business card at almost every place he goes.

With many of the individuals he helps, including the three people arrested on Tuesday, Mr. MacLean often has a history that goes back years.

“It’s so sad,” Mr. MacLean added.  “Two of them are very able-bodied, hard workers. I got them an apartment and a job a couple years ago.”

Three weeks ago, when making his rounds, Mr. MacLean found the trio in an abandoned building. He said they were near death. Police and ambulance were called, and they were taken to Heywood hospital for treatment, according to Mr. MacLean. They then refused shelter, and returned to the streets.

Following Tuesday’s arrests, Ms. Blanchard, Mr. Flagg and Mr. Ketola were arraigned in Gardner District Court. All three were released on two months of administrative probation.

As long as it stays cold, incidents like Tuesdays will continue to happen, according to Mr. MacLean.

These incidents “are more common when it is cold,” he said.

Councillor partial owner of abandoned building, back taxes owed on property

This article appeared on October 3, 2014 in The Gardner News. 


A private company of which City Councillor Scott Graves is listed as a manager currently owes the city approximately $5,500 in unpaid taxes, according to city records.

Bushwood LLC failed to pay their 2014 taxes, valued at $5,492.35, on their property at 158 Rear Main St. in Gardner, according to the tax collector’s office.

They are also late on their first payment, valued at more than $3,000,  for 2015.

The private company is jointly managed by  Dean LaPrade of Westminster, James P. Lampert of Wayland and Councillor Graves.

When reached via phone, Mr. LaPrade said he was “not really sure” how the company fell behind on their taxes. He also said they were “in the process of selling it.”

Mr. LaPrade hung up before further questions could be asked.

Despite multiple attempts Councillor Graves could not be reached for comment prior to press time, and a phone number for Mr. Lampert was not listed.

Officials at the tax collectors office said the amount owed isn’t “unusual” and that it is not uncommon for people to be three to four months overdue.

Gardner has a “99 percent” collection rate and residents are required to pay interest on overdue taxes, according to Director Charline Daigle. She said the back taxes would have to be more than two years old before the city would consider taking the tax title.

The building in question is located behind the Main Street storefronts on the 100 block.

The old factory building has recently fallen into disrepair.

A few years ago, a construction company and boxing gym rented space in the property, according to Massachusetts Land Records. It’s assessed to be in “very poor” condition.

When the businesses moved out, the heat was turned down and the pipes broke leaving the structure without sprinkler systems, according to Fire Chief Richard Ares.

“We were having all kinds of problems with it for awhile (when it was vacant),” said Chief Ares.

During that period, officials reported mattresses in the building and other signs that homeless individuals had found shelter there. Deputy Chief John Bernard said there were people caught back there during that period.

In June 2013, Bushwood LLC was ordered to secure the building, which they did, according to Chief Ares. The security measures appear to be maintained, and officials said the complaints have died down.

The property is part of the city’s 20 year urban renewal plan.

Officials hope to build a road that will snake around the new police station and then continue to the Levi Heywood Memorial Library. The area would then be able to be redeveloped as a new section of the downtown.

Director of Community Planning and Development Trevor Beauregard confirmed the city would like to see something done with the property.

However, “we don’t have any current plan,” he said.

He added that the city would not be able to pursue anything unless they had site control,  “which we don’t have.”

Sen. Warren talks about substance abuse, mental health at local hospital

This article appeared on August 22, 2015 in The Gardner News. 

Mass. Senator Elizabeth Warren vowed to fight for improved mental health and substance abuse care during a visit to Heywood Hospital on Thursday afternoon.

“I’m here to learn as much as I can,” she told a small crowd of health care providers, media and officials, “so I can go back to Washington and be a more effective advocate on your behalf.”

As part of her “Fighting for Massachusetts” trip around the state, Sen. Warren visited Heywood Hospital at the request of Sen. Jen Flanagan, D–Leominster, who told her “you need to see what’s happening here.” The pair, along with Heywood officials and Rep. Jon Zlotnik, D–Gardner, toured the facility before a public meeting at 1 p.m.

Sen. Warren said the work at Heywood — which she called a “terrific facility” with “terrific people”  — gives her hope for the future of healthcare, if properly funded.

“I want to see people have access to high quality healthcare,” said Sen. Warren.

Both Sen. Warrand and Sen. Flanagan praised steps the new substance abuse recovery law Sen. Flanagan wrote as well as the new behavioral and mental health facility Heywood plans to open in Petersham.

However, they both said there’s more work to do, pointing to the distance people travel to facilities, lack of beds and treatment affordability as key issues.

They also agreed something needs to be done at the federal level, noting state borders mean very little to someone in a health crisis.

“We need to look to the federal delegation to make a very fragmented and broken system whole,” said Sen. Flanagan, adding later that Sen. Warren is up for the challenge.

“She’s a true honest voice for our families, the working people,” she said.

As for Sen. Warren, she plans to be a “good partner” in the fight. She opened up her speech on Thursday with an example of her persistence, referencing her fight with congressional leadership to be able to sit on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. As a freshmen on capitol hill she was initially told that she could sit on more than one A-list committee.

She was clear there will be a cost to addressing mental health and substance abuse issues, saying more money will be required to fund research and create programs. Some funds, she said, could be reallocated through prison reform and tax revenue.

“We need to walk straight up to (the issue) and say we are not putting in enough money,” Sen. Warren said. “Shame on all of us if we are not willing to step up.”

After her visit, Sen. Warren visited the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Today, she will visit the Newburyport non-profit Opportunity Works which provides employment services and other support for people with disabilities on the North Shore and in the Merrimack Valley. She will also make a stop in Gloucester.