Top Stories of the Year 2019

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Ken Brock walks from Keystone Heights to Idaho for WWP

KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – Ken Brock shared the last few steps of a remarkable 2,650-mile journey from Keystone Heights to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho with his six grandchildren.

"We made it!" Brock said as a group of fans stood in the rain to welcome him six days ahead of his self-imposed deadline of July 4.

"It's been a journey. It's been a long time. There have been a lot of ups and downs. The support has been amazing. I couldn't have done it without everyone."

It was a walk to bring support and attention to post-traumatic stress disorder programs at Wounded Warrior Project.

It became an expedition of self-awareness.

His trip started on Feb. 1 from Amvets Post 86 in Keystone Heights. He walked through two deadly weekends of tornadoes in Alabama, historic flooding in the Midwest, a snafu by the Veterans Administration, snow, rain, fatigue and bears.

He never lost sight of the finish line: join his son, daughter and grandchildren for the Fourth of July parade in Northwest Idaho.

“When I first started out planning this, I had no clue what I was doing or what I was getting myself into,” Brock said. “It’s a journey that spanned over 2,650 miles, but it’s a journey I’ll never forget: the people that touched my heart along the way, the different outlook that I got – before I left and what I’ve got now. America is beautiful. It really is.”

Each step seemed an endless road for the Army veteran. Cars and trucks left blasts of wind and sandy spray in their wakes. His solitude often was interrupted by a honking horn or a stereo so loud it blurs his vision.

But Brock keeps walking. And walking.

His 100-pound supply cart, which carried his support dog, Pam, was struck by a tractor-trailer that skidded off the road in Scribner, Nebraska. The town’s fire department rallied to his rescue by fixing his cart and ordering parts to be replaced in the next town.

When he got to St. Joseph, Mo., on April 12, he was met by deputy sheriff Jeff Wilson, who escorted Brock to the town’s high school. Waiting on the baseball field were school children and a television crew. Everyone wanted to hear his story.

After that, he rounded up Pam, and the students suddenly started walking with him. If for only a few hundred yards in a 2,650-mile journey, they wanted to be part of Brock’s voyage.

“It was an honor to have the entire town rally around me,” he said. “I told them how this 53-year-old came up with the crazy idea to walk.”

Sheriff deputies and state patrolmen seem to be waiting for Brock at every state, county and city line. Apparently, they’ve created their own message hotline to make sure everyone’s keeping an eye on Brock and he pushes along back roads and busy highways.

“When I got to the Nebraska state line, there was a deputy [Sgt. Jonathan Kirkendall of the Richardson County Sheriff’s Office] waiting there to welcome me to the state,” Brock said. “It’s like that everywhere I go.”

His journey was sidetracked by the VA when it demanded that he return to Central Florida for a routine checkup. He rented a car and drove from Wanblee, South Dakota in May and attended his 15-minute checkup. Brock also was invited to make a quick stop at WWP headquarters in Jacksonville before returning to his trip. His brother, Terry, drove him back to South Dakota, and he resumed his walk from the exact spot where he was interrupted.

After pushing hard to average 10 miles a day in the first month, Brock was logging more than 30 in the final five weeks.

A caravan of nine police cars met Brock 1.5 miles from town. Led by Brock's son, Kootenai County Sheriff deputy Arek Brock, the escort led the 54-year-old veteran to a city park where other family members were waiting.

He walked in the parade at Coeur d’Alene. He was celebrated as a hero when he got home to Keystone Heights. By then, U.S. Con. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) already had read a proclamation honoring Brock into the congressional record.

Brock said his walking days were done when he got to Idaho. Since then, however, he’s starting to feel the itch again.

“I have to be doing something,” Brock said. “I’m not going to fall back into that trap of sitting around.”

The next destination: Maine.

Donald Davidson gets the death penalty

Sexual predator kills Middleburg mother, rapes her 10-year-old daughter

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Donald Davidson arrived on Florida’s Death Row on Sept. 25, seven days after Judge Don Lester sentenced the sexual predator for one of the county’s most-disturbing murders.

Davidson’s life will end behind bars, far away from a public that was repulsed by his actions of Dec. 1, 2014, when he cut his GPS monitor from his ankle, entered a home in Middleburg to strangle 37-year-old Roseann Welsh and rape and kidnap her 10-year-old daughter.

The State Attorney’s Office found more relief than satisfaction after being steadfast in its conviction that Davidson must die for his actions.

“He deserves to be on Death Row,” said State Attorney Melissa Nelson. “Whenever we make the decision about capital cases, I believe, we all believe, every murder is not the same as the next murder. Some are heavily mitigated; some are very aggravated. This was the worst of the worst. That’s what the highest court in the land said the death penalty is reserved for. We all feel this defendant was the worst of the worst.”

L.E. Hutton was the lead prosecutor for the state. His case seemed like a slam-dunk. Davidson admitted to most of his crimes. He pled guilty to avoid a trial with the hope of earning some leniency with a life sentence.

Hutton never flinched. He remained committed and unapologetic. Nothing, he thought, could explain Davidson’s actions horrific deeds.

“He offered to plead guilty for a mandatory life sentence. It was rejected. That wasn’t an option,” Hutton said. “I have two daughters the same age as the victims in this case. Obviously, I have a wife. I cannot imagine coming home one day from work and being presented with this situation and try to deal with it.

“My thought was, this is what this guy deserves. This is what the law says. This is what the facts demand. He deserved the death penalty.”

Davidson, a registered sexual predator, showed little emotion when Lester said: “the appropriate sentence is death” during his sentencing on Nov. 13.

Davidson’s defense painted a picture of a man who was surrounded by other sex offenders, being abused for years by an older cousin, having mental issues created by his upbringing, drug abuse and a low IQ.

Welsh’s aunt and uncle, Kim and Michael Hajaistron, drove from Tampa for the sentencing. They also were in the courtroom when Davidson pleaded guilty in May, and they spoke on behalf of their niece during the sentencing phase.

“There’s closure because he can’t do this to anyone else,” Michael Hajaistron said. “We have a hole in our heart that will never heal. We might have an ugly scar that will form over a really long time but it's never going to go away.”

Neither the aunt nor uncle spoke of Davidson by name.

Tiffany Lagasse fought tears when she heard the verdict. Davidson attacked her in 2010 while she was pregnant. He served time for attempting to strangle her, but he was released 72 days before he murdered Welsh.

Lagasse was relieved Davidson would soon be joining 341 other inmates on Florida’s Death Row.

“He won’t be allowed out to hurt anyone else’s families. He finally felt today what he did to all of us,” she said. “There was no choice, and he couldn’t change his fate of what he got just like he did to every one of us. He didn’t give any of his victims a choice. There’s no fixing pure evil, and that’s what he is.”

Clay County School District creates its own police department

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis first floated the idea of the school district creating its own police department during a school board workshop in January.

That put into motion a plan that pitted the school board against the sheriff’s office, and it ended with a force of 47 school police officers patrolling the hallways at the county’s schools.

“Every option does lend to hire a police chief and to start to file the paperwork [to create a law enforcement agency] just in case there ever arises a need to do so,” Davis said ahead of the board’s 4-1 vote to push forward with its own force.

Schools had been protected by deputies from the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Green Cove Springs and Orange Park police departments. CCSO charged about $100,000 for each officer.

That set up a contentious back-and-forth between Sheriff Darryl Daniels and the school board.

Daniels was at the February meeting, but he didn’t speak. He did, however, said he didn’t not believe the school board put much thought into the decision with a Facebook post.

“I don’t think the Clay County School Board thought this through,” Daniels’ post reads. “There’s an investigative side to law enforcement that they’re not thinking about. The jurisdiction will belong to the school board police department, with coverage being needed 24 hours a day.”

In the same social media post, he said CCSO won’t allow the school board to fail.

“That said, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office won’t let the school board fail, because allowing them to fail will be all of us failing our children,” the post reads. “We will do anything we can to help. We will continue to be here for the school board and especially for our community, as we are every day.”

The school board formally approved the plan in April shortly after the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement approved Clay’s request.

Former CCSO Lt. Kenneth Wagner was hired as the first police chief.

Daniels, Wagner and Davis eventually agreed to work together. The new police department was sworn in on Aug. 1 and on the job when the school doors opened on Aug. 13.

Wagner said his officers quickly created new bonds with students.

“So far, it’s been really great,” Wagner said. “We’ve already started building those partnerships with our students. We’re becoming mentors – we encourage people to look at our Facebook page because you can see it – and we’ve been actively engaged in every aspect of school to ensure the transition from the sheriff’s office to us goes well.”

The department’s Facebook page shows a department that's received notes of encouragement and appreciation from students, moments of “paying it forward” at drive-throughs and engagement at school sporting events.

When CCSO were posted at schools, they received the same type of support from the county.

Notable deaths in 2019

The year also brought grief and tears. Here are some of the notable residents who passed way.

• Police officer Sean Tuder, who graduated from Fleming Island High, was killed in the line of duty while serving an arrest warrant in Mobile, Alabama.

Tuder was shot while trying to arrest Marco Perez for breaking and entering.

Officer Tuder's family lives in Fleming Island and Middleburg. The family provided a handwritten statement that said: “Sean loved his family and this country. He is our hero and a patriot.”

Alabama prosecutors have since announced they will seek the death penalty against Perez.

• Orange Park City Councilman Ron Raymond died unexpectedly in October. Town Mayor Connie Thomas issued the following statement:

“The Town is deeply grieved to announce that Councilman Ron Raymond passed away unexpectedly yesterday evening. Ron was a trusted leader and cherished friend to so many in our community and this news comes as a heavy blow. The prayers and sympathies of our entire Town go out to Ron’s wife Karen and their family. Arrangements are pending at this time and flags in the Town are being lowered to half-[staff] in Ron’s honor.”

Eddie Henley was selected to replace Raymond. He will be sworn in during the council’s first meeting in 2020.

• Navy veteran Ned Broyles, who was 104 when he died in September on Fleming Island, was remembered for fighting with the Marines during battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

“I had no idea the seriousness of the operation we were headed into,” Broyles said. “We arrived off Iwo the day before [Pacific] D-Day on 18 February. I was carrying a rifle, sidearm, ammo, two canteens of water. We had to be self-sufficient. The mission was to guide aircraft for bombing.”

The battle at Iwo Jima lasted 24 days. It was an important early step in stopping Japan’s march across the Pacific.

From there to Okinawa, the bloodiest battles of the war. Counting Okinawans and Japanese, more than 200,000 died during a battled that lasted two months and three weeks.

• Lee Ledbetter’s legacy will be felt for decades, if not longer.

Ledbetter joined with three local doctors to create what’s now known as Orange Park Medical Center. Ledbetter, who died in July, was the hospital’s first CEO.

The hospital unveiled a plaque last week near the entrance to honor his service.

“This hospital really represents the legacy of Lee Ledbetter and that legacy is continued today by the 1,500-plus employees that serve our patients and serve our community every day – day in and day out, 24 hours a day,” said OPMC board member and longtime friend David King. “Yes, today we honor him with a plaque. However, we really honor him by continuing his legacy today and into the future.”

• Clay County Engineer Jeremy J. McKay, 45, died earlier this month after battling a form of Stage 4 stomach cancer for nearly 14 months.

McKay joined Clay County Fire and Rescue in 2006, and he was an engineer on Engine 24 near Green Cove Springs.

• Larry Junstrom, 70, was a founding member of Lynyrd Skynyrd and a longtime Clay County resident before he moved to Putnam County.

Junstrom, affectionately known as “LJ,” left Skynyrd to join Donnie Van Zant’s 38 Special, where he played bass guitar on all 12 of the group’s studio albums. He joined 38 Special in 1976 and was with the band until 2014 following wrist surgery.

Clay Today reporters Wesley LeBlanc, Nick Blank and Don Coble collaborated on a month-by-month look at the biggest stories in Clay County from 2019.

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