Stealing space 

John Glenn crowded many other stories out of the papers last week just as he amiably crowded his six crew members (and the dozens of nameless shuttle astronauts who preceded him) out of his story. Who in America wasn't aware of the launch? Five people, at least: the five Cessna pilots who caused the launch's only delay by bumbling into the long-protected airspace at Cape Canaveral.

FSU engineering prof/physician Norm Thagard, veteran of five shuttles, got face time as ABC-TV analyst, his first such use since his Mir- adventure (and pre-adventure, namely his embarrassed acknowledgement at a Kazakhstan press conference that, as a good team player, he would join the cosmonauts' good-luck bonding ritual of peeing on a tire).

Unsettling settlement

In the midst of the Billy Graham crusade in Tampa, the St. Pete Time's front page was given to an interview with Scientology's David Miscavige, billed as the first ever for the head honcho of the secretive religion. Are there e-meters in the Times boardroom? Five days later, the church abruptly settled its four-year-old lawsuit with Clearwater over the release of investigative police records on the church. It was the first time in 15 years that the local docket has been free of city-Scientology litigation. The church also announced a Nov. 21 start for Scientologizing two more blocks of downtown Clearwater, with its new headquarters and parking garages.

Stuff you might have missed ...

• The New York Post says Lawrence Taylor might actually have been set up on the cocaine-buying charge in St. Pete Beach: He tested clean three days after the bust; the crime scene was his female associate's room, not LT's; police tape has LT initially refusing to buy; and the fact that LT went immediately to drug treatment was not because he had lapsed but because he was on probation for tax evasion and had a choice of rehab or prison.

• As if Floridians don't have a tough enough time, the operators of Orlando International Airport, without warning, chose last weekend for reconfiguring the B-side parking garage and changed all the "level" and "row" numbers. More than the usual number of returning passengers wandered around like zombies, looking for their wheels.

• Bartow circuit judge J. Michael Hunter sent a woman to jail for 30 days for giving her 10-year-old granddaughter a sign-language "I love you" before the girl started testifying against a man about sexual abuse. Hunter thought the woman was coaching, like Joe Torre from the dugout.

• Okaloosa County investigators found $16,000 (maybe as much as $38,000) missing from Niceville High's local account (football games, bake sales, etc.). They claim to have found almost nonsensical (e.g., 9,000 violations) accounting procedures.

• Robert Madison, Jr., 53, just released from a short stay at the Orlando jail (with part-time at Lakeside Alternatives, a get-it-together facility), stayed clean for exactly 12 minutes before he stole a Ford SUV, hit a car at a Jaguar-Rolls dealership (just missing a Bentley and two rows of Jags), and terrorized scrambling pedestrians at Church Street Station.

• Latest fool for a client: Robert Lee Weaver, 24, acted as his own lawyer defending himself of bank robbery charges in Panama City. Guilty. Jury deliberated 15 whole minutes.

• Winn-Dixie Stores issued two recalls in eight days of its house-brand franks. Hot-dog makers don't like to tell you exactly what's in them, but W-D says in this batch were some "Listeria monocytogenes."

• Florida folklore enthusiast Charlie Carlson told the Orlando Sentinel that four of his relatives from the 19th century happen to be buried underneath a stretch of I-4 near Lake Monroe on which 44 accidents have occurred since 1994, injuring 65 people.

• Tampa DJ's in the news: WFLZ morning hosts M.J. Kelli and B.J. Harris got sued for allegedly breaking the answering machine code of an Oklahoma woman and broadcasting her messages. She is running for judge, and a 1990 photo of her topless had been circulating, leading to a Leno/morning-zoo frenzy. And WSSR co-hosts remained ignorant of the Treasury Dept. media blitz explaining the new $20 bill; they sincerely, helpfully warned that the old 20s would be worthless as of Sept. 24. They said they had been hoaxed by their competition (M.J. and B.J.?).

• An ad for a gay dating service made it into the South Lake High newspaper in the diversity-defying town of Groveland. Parents went nuts.

• A Jacksonville judge finalized the $1 million June jury-verdict for the family of smoker Ronald Maddox, against Brown & Williamson, even though an appeals court (apparently unaware that the trial was over) ruled in July that the it should be moved to Palm Beach. (Since John Glenn was not crowding out the news in June, the appeals judges should have seen the newspaper stories about the verdict.)

• Zero tolerance: A 17-year-old Pinellas County honor student was drummed out of East Lake High for a semester after taking a sip of office-party sangria on an internship with an interior decorator.

• Prosecutors in Orlando said 2,100 mostly devout Christians had been bilked of $11 million in a Ponzi scheme disguised as a missionary ministry that would return 600 percent on their investments. (The Good Book says don't be greedy, but rather, be sure and look for returns 20 times the Dow.)

• Kissimmee first-grade teacher Sharon Peisecki, 22, about 60 days out of the dock in her career, was fired for masking-taping the mouths of three students who talked too much. She also said the taping was not intended as discipline. (Well, that pretty much leaves only "kink.")

• Fires in the news: A St. Pete YaYa's Flame-Broiled Chicken restaurant became a YaYa's Flame-Broiled Restaurant. Also, the 13-year-old Hollywood, Fla., lifer-in-the-making, already with 35 robberies under his belt, sneaked out of school with his buds and set fire to a random house, but got singed a bit on the arms and legs before escaping.

• And Mr. Eldon "Sonny" Green passed away in St. Pete, the result of an attempted Molotov-cocktailing of the house of an enemy. He did manage a small fire on the roof but unfortunately set a larger fire on his own self.

Copyright 1998 by Chuck Shepherd. All rights reserved. Chuck Shepherd, who lives in St. Petersburg, also writes the syndicated newspaper column News of the Weird.

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