HAWTHORNE – A 16-year-old student was arrested Friday, Sept. 20, after bringing a gun to Hawthorne High School and Middle School.

At 7:42 a.m., the Alachua Sheriff’s Office received a call about a young man driving a maroon Chevy Impala that had pulled out and fired a gun on Southeast 152nd Street, according to reports.

Deputies responded to the call by searching the area, but were unable to find the vehicle or the young man.

Deputy Joshua Mitchell, the school resource officer, was waiting for the school bell to ring when he noticed the Chevy Impala sitting in the parking lot of Hawthorne High School and Middle School.

When more deputies got to the school, Mitchell confronted the 16-year-old suspect when he got out of the car to put a white gym bag in the trunk, according to reports.

Law enforcement identified the gun in the gym bag as a .380 caliber semi-automatic handgun.

The police discovered the suspect was a sophomore at the school. According to reports, the boy did not intend to use the gun while at school.

The suspect was arrested and taken to the Juvenile Resource Center where he was charged with possession of a firearm on school grounds, possession of a firearm by a minor and discharge of a firearm in public.

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W - FloodARCHER – A deluge of controversy surrounds the City of Archer as the town debates how to address the issue of flooding near the retention pond in Holly Hills.

Holly Hills is prone to flooding because of its bowl-like shape. The city secured a grant in 2010 to renovate the nearby retention pond to help with the overflowing water, but some citizens in Archer want the city to do more to prevent floods from heavy rainfall.

“I really thought that this would fix the problem once and for all,” said Roberta Lopez, former mayor and city commissioner of Archer, in an email to the city manager. Lopez has been outspoken about getting the city to take action over the flooding.

The grant to fix up the retention pond was meant to help out with small rain events, and was never meant to be a solution for heavy rainfall, said City Manager Al Grieshaber.

“If Mrs. Lopez was led to believe otherwise, she was misled,” he said. “The City of Archer, at the present time, cannot eradicate flooding in heavy accumulation rainfall events,” he wrote in an email to Lopez. There was a 35 percent increase in rainfall this year, Grieshaber said. He quoted a statement from the engineers who worked on the pond, stating that complete mitigation of the flooding cannot and would not be achieved with the project. The grant came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The most recent major flood in Holly Hills happened last month. “When you see the pictures, you’re not going to believe it,” Lopez said of the flood.  

Lopez started a petition to get the city to have engineers look at the retention pond to make sure it is working as intended. Alachua County recommended sending engineers to examine the pond, Lopez said. She spoke to Leslie McLendon, a planner for growth management with the county.

 McLendon said she was trying to offer suggestions, but it was not an official recommendation. She also suggested a silt buildup might be something to check for.

Blockage in the drain for the retention pond might be part of the problem, Lopez indicated in an email to City Commissioner Gabe Green.

“If you go over in that area and look you will see the drain in the retention pond on the east side, and you may see a lot of dirt in the bottom of it,” she wrote. However, retention ponds do not have drains, replied Grieshaber.

“Unfortunately, you have a gross misunderstanding of retention ponds or basins,” he wrote. “There are no drains in retention ponds, only inlets to allow the water to flow in to the basin and outlets or overflow pipes to channel the water from one retention area to another.”

“The operative word is retention,” he added. “The water is retained so it can naturally percolate into the ground.”

At the Sept. 9 commission meeting, the mayor, city manager, city commissioners and citizens discussed how to protect Holly Hills from flooding. There was agreement among the commissioners and city manager that there was a problem, but there were different ideas on how to solve it.

Archer needs to look outside the retention pond and find other solutions, Grieshaber said. He presented a plan to get grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy the homes in the affected area. FEMA would purchase the homes at a fair market value, but nobody would be forced to sell their house. The houses that are bought would be demolished, turning the property into empty space. Even if some residents held out and didn’t sell their homes, the extra space from the newly empty lots would provide more surface area for the water, lessening the severity of the floods, Grieshaber said. Due to the geographical limitations of the area, the retention pond cannot ever completely mitigate the flooding, he said.

Lopez opposed the FEMA solution. The city needs to do something now to help the people of Holly Hills, she said.

Commissioner Fletcher Hope urged the city to internally examine the issue.

“I think we need to act on this,” he said. “We have some liability.

Commissioner Doug Jones disagreed about trying to solve the problem internally.

“Leave it to the engineers,” he said. “It’s not going to be solved in a city commission meeting.” He suggested the city let experts find a solution, rather than the commissioners trying to make one themselves.

The city will have the retention pond inspected for silt buildup and other problems as a short-term answer, but for the long-term, Grieshaber said the city will be sending out letters to the residents of Holly Hills to gage whether there will be support for the FEMA plan.

The focus should be on an immediate solution, not a long-term plan like the buyout idea, Lopez said.

“We have got to take care of our citizens,” she said.

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HIGH SPRINGS – A lawsuit brought against the City of High Springs by a former employee about a year ago has reached a conclusion.

Former High Springs City Planner Christian Popoli will receive $117,000 from the city’s insurance company, Public Risk Insurance Agency, as a result of a unanimous vote by commissioners to settle a wrongful termination of employment case out-of-court. The case had been brought by Popoli against the city in September 2012. The decision to settle was made formally near the end of the regular commission meeting on Thursday, Sept. 12.

The settlement comes after a year during which time the insurance company lost their bid to have the case dismissed and subsequent mediation ended with no resolution between the two parties.

Popoli’s original suit alleges he was terminated as a result of “blowing the whistle” on unlawful activities and the failure of the city to produce public records for Popoli and his attorney. An amended complaint, filed last June, alleged further violations of the Florida Whistle-blower’s Act and public records laws by the city and listed specific instances in which his attorney said he had been subjected to intimidation tactics. The amended complaint also requested compensatory damages, reasonable front pay, lost wages and benefits, including, but not limited to compensatory time and other remuneration, and attorneys fees and costs pursuant to Florida law.

“Before filing suit, Popoli offered to settle for $146,000 plus attorney’s fees, which at that time were approximately $2,000,” said Popoli’s attorney, Linda Rice Chapman. “Had they settled the case at that time, the city would have saved all of the fees and costs involved in defending Popoli’s claims,” she said. “The insurance company’s attorney’s fees are being recovered through increased insurance premiums presently and in the future.”

By the time the final negotiation began last month, Popoli’s attorney fees had skyrocketed to $214,000, which did not include $10,000 to $15,000 more in telephone calls and emails required to finalize the negotiation.

“Most of these fees can be attributed to the city’s failure to provide records and the extensive discovery requested of Mr. Popoli by the city’s insurance counsel,” Chapman said.

“We firmly believe the insurance company decided to settle after 16 months of arguing back and forth when they received the discovery documents we prepared explaining who we would call to testify and what they would say on the stand. At that point, they may have realized there was a good chance they would lose the case and would have to pay significantly more than $117,000 to Mr. Popoli.” Despite being crippled by a lack of resources, Chapman said she continued with the case for as long as she did because she has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

“My belief from the beginning has been that Christian was most definitely wronged in this case,” she said. “This is a man who was a model employee. His performance was so exemplary that the city honored him by selecting him as ‘Employee of the Year’ in 2008. Witnesses, including respected citizens, city employees and all of the city managers he worked under were lining up to testify for him. If the city didn’t finally agree with us, why would they pay us $117,000 to go away?”

The commission vote was the final step required to approve the settlement.

As to why the city decided to settle the case, Mayor Sue Weller said, “Speaking for myself, I voted to settle the Popoli case because we knew there was liability on at least one issue,” she said, referring to the claims of public records violations, “and in my experience with employment cases, jury trials are usually more sympathetic to the employee. If we had gone to trial and lost, the city could have ended up paying a lot more than the amount being paid by the insurance company.”

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W - waterdogs DSC 1378HIGH SPRINGS – Spanning from Miami to California, the Irish Water Dogs, a network of outdoors enthusiasts, is now headquartered in High Springs.

The headquarters was moved from Jacksonville to High Springs about two months ago, and the organization held an open-house event on Saturday, Sept. 7, celebrating the official opening of the branch that came to town in February.

Irish Water Dogs organizes kayaking trips and other nature excursions. The group was founded by David McDaid about seven years ago as a commercial venture. The nonprofit division, Irish Water Dog Warriors, was created later specifically for connecting veterans with the outdoors.

“The quiet that nature provides, the stillness,” said Water Dog kayaker and army vet Clinton Williams, “it’s a very grounding experience.”

The open house went on from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with snacks and beer brewed by the Jacksonville chapter master.

Appalachian music filled the room as the three-piece band from Jacksonville, Streak of Lean, played in the corner while people mingled.

As the chapter grows, founder David McDaid hopes to bring in more local musicians for the gatherings.

F.E. Lam, a detention officer for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, got involved with the Irish Water Dog Warriors about two months ago. Lam, who served in the army for 21 years, said he has seen the Warriors program improve the mood of the veterans that go.

“I’ve seen a lot of positive changes,” he said.

McDaid said the trips to the rivers and springs are therapeutic for the former service members. People with post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues benefit from the outings.

Japa Magyer, videographer for the Irish Water Dogs, said the trips help the veterans bond with each other, loosen up and be more open.

“When they get there, they’re kind of uptight,” he said. They start relaxing as the day goes on, he added.

High Springs Mayor Sue Weller came to the event at about 3:30 to support the group and call out the winners of the raffle.

“The Irish Water Dogs – their mission is something that really blends in with what High Springs is all about,” she said. “It’s not just fun and games. It can be used to soothe the soul,” she said of the program.

At about 4 p.m., the winners of the raffle were called. There were 20 winners, with the prize ranging from gift baskets, cash, shirts and even a rifle.

Over 100 people showed up for the open house, McDaid estimated. The turnout shows how interested the citizens of High Springs are in the organization, Weller said.

McDaid plans to grow the High Springs chapter, capitalizing on the unique geography and natural beauty of the area.

Anybody interested in joining a trip can check in with the High Springs chapter for information on upcoming gatherings. The Warriors division of the Irish Water Dogs meets on the first Sunday of every month. Each chapter is sustained largely by that community, and individuals or businesses can donate or sponsor their chapter, McDaid said.

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ALACHUA – Daily insulin injections can be a hassle for people with diabetes. Those who dislike needles might have a reason to rejoice, though. In about four years, one company from Alachua hopes to market a new way to deliver injectable drugs such as insulin that doesn't require daily needle injections.

Prometheon Pharma, based out of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator, is developing a patch capable of delivering a wide range of medicine through the skin, similar to a nicotine or estrogen patch.

“I think it has a potential to completely change people’s lives,” said Dr. Stephen Hsu, founder and CEO of Prometheon.

Prometheon aims to make their extended-wear Topiconpatches capable of delivering a consistent dosage of medication for up to seven days. Somebody could put it on one Sunday and change it the next, Hsu said. It would also be more efficient for delivering medication that is metabolized by the liver, he said. When somebody takes oral medication, a significant fraction of the drug could be eliminated by the liver before the drug has a chance to enter the bloodstream. About 40 to 50 percent of insulin normally produced by the pancreas of healthy people is immediately metabolized by the liver.

Hsu believes the patch has a diverse potential beyond delivering just injectable drugs. It could be used to deliver vaccines, chemotherapy or anti-depressants, for instance.  

“We don’t know what the limit of what we can do is,” he said, pointing to gene therapy as one other possible application.

“When you’re depressed, it takes you two hours to get out of bed and brush your teeth, let alone take your drugs,” Hsu said. By making treatment easy and convenient, he believes more people will take and benefit from their medications.

Non-compliance with taking prescribed medication is a huge problem in healthcare, he said. For people with diabetes, only about 60 percent of prescribed injections are actually done, he said.

“It’s inconvenient, it’s painful, it's easy to forget” Hsu said. “People hate needle injections. The convenience of a simple patch will lead to higher compliance.”

Prometheon decided to tackle insulin as the first application of the patch.

“We have this huge global epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” Hsu said, making the choice of which drug to first utilize the patch for obvious.

Unlike injectable insulin, the TopiconDM insulin patch would not need to be refrigerated, improving access to the medicine in developing countries without reliable electricity or refrigeration. The medicine is stored on the patch as a solid, but melts into a gel only when warmed by the wearer’s body temperature. Hsu is working on a heat-resistant patch for use in much warmer climates.

The company is making every effort to make all Topicon patches biodegradable and eco-friendly, he said. Any remaining medicine in the patch can be rinsed off with hot water in the sink so that the drug-free patch can be safely discarded.

“There are stories of children who pick their parents' discarded patches out of the garbage,” Hsu said. “The children imitate their parents and put the patch on, and then they die.”  

The problem in the past with getting a patch like this to work has been that the molecules for most medications are too large to be absorbed through the skin, he said. Hsu said he has found a way to make it work, but cannot go into detail while the patent is still pending.

Prometheon has already tested the Topicon DM patch on diabetic rats with success, he said. The next step is using pigs. Because it is a delivery device for already FDA-approved drugs and generics, the regulatory approval process will be much shorter than it is for bringing a new drug on the market.

Hsu plans on the patch being on the market in early 2018. He believes the improved access to affordable vital drugs and convenience of the product will bring about a healthier world.

“Ultimately, that translates into better quality of life,” he said.         

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W - grapes DSC 1420LACROSSE – Lofting through the air, the aroma of fermenting grapes fills a vineyard just north of Gainesville near Lacrosse. The sweet fruit falls off the vines and gets mashed into the ground by the boots and shoes of visitors.

The Loftus Family Farm has a vineyard that spans 14 rows, each about 420 feet in length. When the grapes come in season, the farm is open for anybody to come and pick them at the price of $1 per pound. From about the beginning of August to the end of September, people come from all over the county to harvest the fresh produce.

“These are coming along nicely,” said owner Don Loftus, as he walked through the vineyard to examine the grapes.

Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy them. Sometimes, wasps find fermenting grapes with holes in them and go for the nectar. Intoxicated from the alcohol content of the juice, the wasps will fall down and flail around. “We have drunk wasps sometimes,” Loftus said.

It’s been a good season for the vineyard. Loftus had around 100 visitors last weekend. Some families go and pick a few pounds. Some come to get a bulk deal. There is one family of about five or six people that come nearly every weekend and pick over 100 pounds each visit, he said, to share with the extended family.

Loftus doesn’t use insecticides and sprays as few chemicals on the vineyard as possible. The visitors to the farm like knowing where their grapes come from and enjoy eating something without chemicals in it, he said.  

Three kinds of grapes grow at the farm. Supreme grapes, a common variety, the Delicious, a self-pollinating muscadine developed by the University of Florida and the Ison grape, good for making wine.

Loftus and his wife planted the seeds for the vineyard in 2004, but the payoff would come three years later, in 2007, when the Loftus Family Farm opened for the public. Even then, the vines wouldn’t be in full production until 2008. The harvest has gotten a little better each year, and now seem to be leveling off, Loftus said.

They started the vineyard as a retirement plan. Don Loftus gets a pension from the University of Florida, where he worked as a TV producer out of the education department, but the farm provides extra income.

“It definitely keeps me busy,” Loftus said.

With the season being so short, the window of opportunity for picking fresh grapes is narrowing. Most visitors only pick off the fruit at the beginning of the vineyard, so finding grapes there is harder, Loftus said. He recommends going toward the back, to the places the other visitors ignore. Walking toward the end of the vineyard, he pointed out clusters of dark-purple grapes.

A family at the entrance to the farm weighed their haul for that day. It came to about seven pounds. Patricia Ashley, her husband and two granddaughters, spent a part of their afternoon at the Loftus Family Farm. It was her granddaughters’ first time.

“It’s enjoyable to pick something fresh,” Ashley said.

The vineyard is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Appointments can be made for other days.

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W - RC Park option 1NEWBERRY – David Wallace became interested in remote-controlled vehicles last February with some of his fellow employees at the City of Newberry.

“It was just so engrossing, the hobby itself, the people you meet, all the different aspects—I just got overwhelmed with it,” said Wallace, lead operator for the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

But it turned out there was no place in Newberry for them to come together and race the remote control vehicles.

“We were looking for something local, because you either have to go to High Springs or Ocala,” said Jason McGehee, another remote control enthusiast and creator of an online forum for the city.

Wallace and the newly formed remote control club approached Richard Blalock, Newberry’s parks and recreation department director.

They discussed possible options for building a remote control track, and the space by the retention pond by Easton Newberry Sport Complex’s baseball fields seemed to be a good location.

Now that Easton just got its Community Olympic Development Program designation, the remote control track idea would be a great way to bring more people in, McGehee said.

“Richard pretty much said ‘Hey if there’s going to be a big interest I have no problem with it, but you are going to have to come up with your own funds,’” Gehee said.

Wallace took the reins and got the idea off the ground financially as he and his friends spent their weekends hauling dirt to build a temporary track. It took eight days in early May to finish.

After the track was put together, the group got in touch with Eric Canto of Hobbytown USA in Gainesville to invite the public to try out the track and gage how many people were interested. About 200 people came.

“I never knew that this hobby is as big as it is,” McGehee said.

About 10 to 15 people come out on Sundays to utilize the track and fly remote control planes and helicopters. The FaceBook page, Friends of the Newberry Remote Control Park, posts pictures and videos from the high-definition cameras attached to the planes or helicopters.

At first the remote control club used city equipment, since many participants worked for Newberry, but once the club aimed to have a permanent track as well as an official space for flying vehicles, it had to explore funding options.

Wallace received an email from the city’s utility director detailing an available grant of $50,000 that would be appropriate for the remote control park venture. There was no requirement to match the amount in the application process.

A resolution in favor of applying for the grant passed the city commission on Sept. 9.

In order to be eligible to apply for the grant, the interested party must have a functioning official board. The Newberry remote control park board includes President Eric Canto, long-time racer, and Tracy Carver, the vice president and treasurer. Miguel Marandez, secretary, Jason McGehee and Alan Wight, as a special consultant, are also members.

As for recruiting, McGehee and Wallace wanted another person on board who was “all about Newberry,” Wallace said.

“Whatever our goals are, we want to put Newberry out there first and foremost,” he said.

The board has an account set up to accept donations, and has already received some incoming money.

The permanent high-bank dirt oval racing track is now finished and open for practice runs. If all goes according to plan, the club will upkeep the old track by the retention pond as a rally course for beginners. There will also be an off-road track for club racing to provide for weekly or summer racing events.

A large outdoor flying facility is also part of the club’s vision for the remote control park, and Easton already has the space to accommodate indoor flying and racing in the gym.

“So basically Newberry will have everything for remote control except water,” Wallace said.

“But everything else, we’ve got covered,” he said.

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