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Commissioner Roberta Lopez announced Monday that she would be stepping down from her seat on the Archer City Commission.

First elected to the commission in 2002, Lopez did not seek re-election in 2006.  But she did find herself back on the city commission after being elected again in 2008.  Most recently, Lopez left her mark on the city with the Aug. 2 opening of the Archer Community Center, a project she has championed since 2003.

Lopez was born in Archer but moved away at the age of 17, she said.  In 2000, she moved back to Archer along with her husband.  After organizing several clean-ups and senior and youth events in Archer, she tossed her hat in the ring, seeking election to the commission in 2002.

It was after that election that she first saw the inside of the old Archer High School gymnasium, which was built in 1937.

“My first thought was, how do I get this place restored and turned into a multi-purpose center,” she explained.

Organizing efforts to fund restoration of the dilapidated building was a major reason she decided not to seek re-election in 2006.

All of that work paid off as Lopez led the charge to raise more than $900,000 through donations and grants.  The opening held earlier this month drew hundreds of area residents, dignitaries and elected officials to celebrate with the Archer community.

Lopez sees that restoration as the pinnacle of her success with the City, but it isn’t the end of her work on the center.

“My commitment remains steadfast and strong and I will continue to work with the City and the Development Committee to make the Archer Community Center a total success,” she said.

Lopez has also long championed the cause of wastewater infrastructure in Archer.

“We should applaud our new commissioners and the city manager for getting on board and seeing the need for the sewer system,” said Lopez.  “We have started the process and it is my hope that we will continue.”

While on the commission, Lopez had been selected by her colleagues to serve as vice-mayor and mayor of the City of Archer.

Lopez said her involvement as an elected official has been an eye-opening experience.

“I have grown in many ways and learned that putting the community first is of vital importance in today’s environment.

“It has been a challenge and an honor working with the citizens of Archer while accomplishing many goals that benefited the people,” said Lopez.

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The use of deadly force against a man allegedly shooting at officers in the May 18 incident was appropriate a Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) report states.

Released last week, the report is the culmination of an investigation into actions of High Springs Police Sergeant Charles Harper who responded to a distress call at High Springs Community School earlier this year.

Harper discharged his weapon after an armed 63-year-old Robert Nodine fired several shots from a handgun, police say.  Nodine was ultimately taken down by gunfire from law enforcement officers.

The reported concluded that the actions of Harper “constituted a lawful use of deadly force in legitimate self-defense of others.”

An internal investigation by the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) also cleared Harper of any wrongdoing in the incident.

In a letter to Harper, HSPD Chief James Troiano wrote, “Your actions on that day demonstrated to me heroism and valour beyond the normal call of duty as you risked your life to stop the actions of a man determined to cause harm to himself and others.  Let the record reflect, not only did this man arm himself with a loaded revolver, he fired four rounds at you, two of which struck the tree you were using for cover.”

He also wrote to Harper, “You are truly a hero and a shining example for all serving in our law enforcement profession.”

Responding to the school on May 18 when a 9-1-1 call was made around 12:51 p.m. were both Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) deputies and HSPD officers.

Police say Nodine became irate while at the school, and while being escorted off the campus the grandfather was reportedly able to arm himself.

Nodine challenged a deputy and a police officer, according to reports.  The incident escalated and police opened fire on Nodine who was the only person injured in the exchange of fire.

The shooting occurred in a breezeway into the elementary school office.  Meanwhile, the school was in lockdown for much of that afternoon as deputies restricted access to and from school grounds.

Most of the school’s children had already been released because of an abbreviated Wednesday schedule.  But some 170 students remained on campus for after-school activities when the shooting occurred.

Harper was placed on administrative leave, but returned to work in the week following the incident.

Nodine was initially taken to an area hospital for treatment, but was later booked into the Alachua County Jail.

He remains in jail on a $700,000 bond and is facing five felonies including attempted homicide, possession and firing of a weapon on school property and trespassing.

He entered a plea of not guilty on Aug. 9 and is awaiting trial.

Troiano said Harper and Deputy Brian Phillips are to be formally honored at an upcoming High Springs City Commission meeting.

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Armed robber targets Oxycodone pills

CVS_RobberThe robber was caught on video as he approached the CVS store’s pharmacy counter, brandishing a gun and demanding Oxycodone pills.

The CVS Pharmacy in Alachua was the scene of a robbery involving over 200 Oxycodone pills.  At about 9 p.m. last Wednesday, a man entered the store, approached the pharmacy, displayed a black semi-automatic pistol and demanded the pills.  The robber was reported to have said, “Don’t make me use it,” referring to the gun.

The pharmacist handed the pills to the robber, who then fled on foot.  The robber was described as a white male, approximately 25 – 30 years of age wearing a dark blue or black long sleeve Under Armour type shirt, black athletic shorts and a red Florida State baseball cap. He also is believed to have a tattoo around his left ankle and wore white or grey sneakers.

The Alachua Police Department (APD) set up a perimeter around the area, and with assistance from an APD K-9 and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office air support, conducted a search.  The robber was not located and was believed to have fled in a waiting vehicle.

Oxycodone is a schedule II narcotic analgesic also marketed as Tylox, Percodan and OxyContin. Although pill theft is a nationwide problem, APD spokesman Officer Jesse Sandusky said the robbery was the first of its kind in Alachua.

Local authorities are continuing the investigation and believe there may be a connection to a similar incident in Lake City, which occurred about three weeks ago.  Sandusky noted that about three hours before the robbery in Alachua, there was an attempted robbery at a CVS in Lake City.  That robbery was unsuccessful, but the robber fit the same description as the robber in the Alachua incident.

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Cooling off in the scorching summer heat

SplashParkParents and youngsters alike find a welcome respite from soaring temperatures at Alachua’s splash park.  Rhiannon Pollard and her children, Liam and Rowan, are regular visitors to the popular cooling off spot.

With near triple digit temperatures scorching the area, it’s no wonder Alachua’s splash park has become a cooling haven for droves of parents and their young children.

On many hot summer days, scores of children can be seen splashing through the various water features at the park.

“There are some times when we see 75 to a 100 people down here at the splash park,” said Ronnie Foust who does maintenance at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex in the city of Alachua.

Foust said the splash park has been bustling with activity all summer long. “From nine in the morning until seven at night, there’ll be people down here playing.”

Cool summer activities on a budget are especially tough to come by these days.  Consider that a single-day pass to Universal Orlando’s water park is $33 plus tax, and admission to either of Disney’s water parks starts at $41 and climbs quickly.

For families looking for fun ways to beat the heat without hanging the plastic in their wallets out to melt, there are plenty of places to check out right here in Alachua County.

The splash park at the Hal Brady Recreation Complex is an easy pick for those looking to get out of the house without overheating, overspending or overdriving.  Just a minute’s drive from downtown Alachua at 14300 NW 146th Terrace, admission to the splash park comes at a cheap price – free.

High Springs mother Rhiannon Pollard has been a fan of the splash park for about a year.  Tuesday afternoon, Pollard brought her 10-month-old son, Liam, and two-year-old daughter, Rowan, to cool off.

“We like coming here because it’s nearby and it’s something a little different than just getting in a pool, and most of the children here are also really young,” Pollard said.

Some people cooling off in the park traveled from further away.  Williston resident Amber Thornton came along with friend and Micanopy resident Angle Chauncey.  Thornton brought her son, Jaxon, and Chauncey brought her daughter, Lilly, to cool off in the splash park.  The two women said Tuesday was their first time at the park, which they heard about through word-of-mouth.

The park features a water tent, water dumping bucket brigade, water bars and water jets of many kinds including water spouts, bubblers, geysers and fountains.

Surrounding all the action is ample grass and a few picnic tables shaded by trees, beyond the range of any splashing or spraying. A high chain-link fence with a childproof gate encloses the entire area.

The splash park is open seven days a week in the summer from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but hours may vary if someone reserves it.

The splash park was built about three years ago.  City of Alachua Grants Specialist Diane Morgan said the City hopes to expand the size of the spray park to roughly double the pad and features.  Morgan is currently preparing a grant application for the 2012/13 year that, if approved, would fund that expansion.

If there is a craving for a pool to jump into, one can be found at the Westside Recreation Center in Gainesville.

Commonly referred to as Westside Park, the center is located at 1001 NW 34th Street.  The facility features the 50-meter H. Spurgeon Cherry pool, diving boards and diving towers, a “splash pad” and an “aqua slide.”

Through Sunday, the park opens daily at noon.  Starting Monday, Aug. 22, the park will open at 3 p.m. on the weekdays.

Admission for adults is $3.65, and $2.35 for children ages 3 to 17 and for seniors 55 and up.

Gainesville is also home to two other public pools; the Northeast Pool, at 1100 NE 14th Street, and Mickle Pool, at 1717 SE 15th Street.  All three pools in Gainesville are staffed with lifeguards.

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An off-road vehicle was stolen from Polaris of Gainesville last week, Alachua police say.  The dealer, which specializes in motorcycles, recreational and all-terrain vehicles, is located in Alachua at 12556 NW U.S. Highway 441.

The burglary reportedly occurred around 5 a.m. on Thursday, August 11, but not reported to police until 11 a.m.

Alachua Police Department (APD) Spokesman Jesse Sandusky said a Polaris Razor off-road vehicle was stolen in addition to a homemade trailer.

The Razor is valued at some $15,000 and is one of only five of its kind in Florida, according to the dealership.  It’s described as an army tan special edition model with an army start printed on the hood.

Police say the vehicle and trailer were taken through a large hole cut out of the chain link fence surrounding the dealership.  Burglary tools were also found at the scene, according to reports.

“Thefts of large equipment are not something we frequently see,” Sandusky said.  “We’ve had maybe four or five over the last year.”

He said business and individuals can protect against burglaries and thefts using an alarm system that alerts police and installing video cameras.

APD does not currently have any suspects in the Polaris burglary, but Sandusky is encouraging anyone with information related to the theft to contact 386-462-1396 or remain anonymous by calling Crime Stoppers at 352-372-7867.

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LefkowitzesSteve Lefkowitz, Pennie Lefkowitz

More than two months after 697 cats were seized from Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary near High Springs, sheriff deputies arrested the owners of the facility.

Pennie, 59, and Steve Lefkowitz, 65, were arrested Monday night on 47 animal cruelty charges related to the couple’s sanctuary. Alachua County Animal Services Director David Flagler said 46 of the charges were related to cats, and one of the charges was for a rooster also kept on the property.

Initiated by Animal Services, the massive seizure of felines at Haven Acres occurred on June 7 and required the help of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which both took lead roles in the operation.

State Attorney’s Office spokesman Spencer Mann said the Lefkowitzes were released on their own recognizance less than two hours after turning themselves in as had been prearranged.

Charges against them read like an encyclopedia of feline ailments and unsanitary conditions.  Detailed in each of the third degree felony charges is a specific ailing cat, its physical conditions, a profile of its medical status and an analysis of the environment in which it was found on June 7.

Among the health concerns called out in the 14-page charging document were muscle atrophy, fleas, ear mites, missing and abscessed teeth, emaciation, dehydration, feline leukemia virus, alopecia, feline immunodeficiency virus, severe upper respiratory infection, ocular discharge, nasal discharge and several others.

The living conditions of several cats were described as filthy.  Several of the charges stated, “This cat was found in the infirmary, that contained 39 cages with 73 cats contained within them; the room had a strong ammonia smell that made it difficult to breathe; the cages and crates were filthy with mucous and dried blood and diarrhea splattered on the walls; the litter boxes were full and overflowing and there were feces on the cage floors, some feces containing maggots; the water bowls were low and dirty with food, fur and litter in them.”

Of the original 697 cats taken from the sanctuary, Flagler said 626 remain.  More than 70 of the felines died or were euthanized after veterinary staff determined they were beyond treatment, he said.

The Lefkowitzes, whose eight-acre enclave at 21023 NW 168th Lane is surrounded by the City of High Springs, had used their property as a sanctuary for more than 400 cats and other animals since 2002.  The county’s permitting of the sanctuary even resulted in a lawsuit filed several years ago by the City of High Springs.

The Lefkowitzes were granted a special exception for a private animal shelter in August 2007 by the Alachua Board of County Commissioners, to which the City of High Springs quickly filed an appeal, resulting in an ensuing lawsuit with the couple.

Many complaints had been made over the years by neighbors and High Springs city officials.

Neighbors complained of a strong odor emanating from the property.  For several years, city officials warned Alachua County officials that they worried the ‘sanctuary’ could be a public health threat.

City officials also expressed their concerns over the couple’s practice of burying deceased cats on their property.

Over the years, the living conditions of the cats have been reported as questionable by some.  The Lefkowitzes, however, refuted claims that the cats lived in unsanitary conditions, saying litter boxes were changed regularly and their cages were appropriate housing.

In November 2009, High Springs and Alachua County Commissioners agreed on stipulations that would lessen the impact the cat sanctuary has on its neighbors, still allow Haven Acres to operate, and settle the lawsuit High Springs had filed against Alachua County for permitting the sanctuary around a residential neighborhood.

Animal Services was tipped off about the sanctuary in late May when a person wanting to drop off a cat at the sanctuary became concerned upon seeing the conditions of the animals there, Flagler said.

The tip prompted an investigation by Flagler’s office, which reportedly found medically neglected cats.

“We suspected the cat sanctuary had far more cats than we could take care of ourselves,” he said in a previous interview.

Officials conducting the operation first believed the number of cats to total about 500.  By the second day of the seizure, the final tally was 697 felines.  That’s more than triple the 200 cat limit Haven Acres was permitted by Alachua County to keep.

Ashley Mauceri, deputy manager of Animal Cruelty Investigations for The HSUS said in a previous interview, “Whether the sanctuary started with good intentions, it is now clear that it is unable to properly care for this number of animals, and we want to make sure they get the care and attention they need.”

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The native variety is both sweet and juicy

GrapesLoftusIt’s that time of year again when the dark purple and golden grapes of Florida are ripe for the picking, just in time to bring a refreshing quencher to the dog days of summer.  For a few short weeks each year, Florida’s native muscadine grapes adorn vines in the wild and in area farms and vineyards.

Saturday, Aug. 13 marks the official opening of grape picking season at the Loftus Family Farm in Alachua.  Other area u-pick grape operations are also underway as the fruits ripen.

Weather, as unpredictable as it is, has a significant impact on the health of grape vines and on how long it takes their fruit to ripen.

This year’s scorching temperatures seem to be accelerating that ripening process, especially on later season varieties of muscadines says Don Loftus, a local farmer and viticulturist.

“It appears that some of my Supreme grapes are already ripening although they aren’t typically ready until late August or early September,” he said.

On the other hand, cold weather can damage a vineyard.

“The winter freezes have killed about 25 to 30 of my vines,” said Loftus. “That’s about 10 percent of my crop, but we still have plenty more.”

Loftus got into the business of growing muscadine grapes about six years ago when he started planning for his retirement.  Since retiring from the University of Florida last summer, he has dedicated his time to the Loftus Family Farm, which includes the muscadine grape vineyard he has developed and grown from scratch.  Well into the throws of retirement, Loftus now realizes he left one full-time job for another, operating a vineyard and farm.

In 2004, Loftus first started converting the field that once grew persimmons, which were also negatively affected by North Florida’s winter weather patterns, into 1.5 acres of grapes.

The u-pick farm is one of a handful in the area and is open to the public.  The Loftus Family Farm specializes in the ‘Ison’ and ‘Supreme’ varieties of muscadine grapes, but is branching out into others as well.

This year, Loftus began adding a new variety, the ‘Delicious,’ a self-pollinating muscadine developed by the University of Florida.  He’s using the new variety to replace some of the vines lost to winter damage.  It will take a few years before the ‘Delicious’ will be ready for picking.  When they are, Loftus says, they hold promise as an excellent tasting fruit.

The ‘Delicious’ variety is also disease resistant and is among the top yielding muscadines.

Loftus said he plans to expand the vineyard by another half-acre, probably including golden muscadine varieties.  Loftus has his hands full meticulously attending to the 14 rows of grape vines, each several hundred feet long and none of which are sprayed with potentially dangerous chemicals and pesticides.

Indigenous to the southeast region of North America, muscadine grapes ripen in late summer.   Right about now seems to be a good time to pick grapes at the Loftus Family Farm where pickers will be welcomed for the official season opening on Saturday. Meanwhile, Loftus says thousands of pounds of the juicy dark purple and black grapes await eager pickers.

The vineyard has already become a popular spot among many people who are aware of the u-pick farm.  Loftus credits some of that success to the well-manicured rows of grapes and relaxing atmosphere at his family’s farm.  Loftus said many pickers like to eat the grapes as they are, some use them for producing wine and others for making jelly and sauces and freezing for later consumption. Florida’s $20 million-a-year grape industry is typically the second- or third-largest market for table grapes and wine in the country.

The Loftus Family Farm keeps it simple again this year, charging an even $1 per pound of grapes.

The address for the vineyard is 15585 NW 29 Street, Gainesville.  East of Alachua on NW 156th Avenue, the farm is at the midway point between State Road 121 and County Road 231.

Generally open from mid-August to early October, pickers are welcome on Saturdays from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. and on Sundays from 1 until 6 p.m.  Appointments are also available Monday through Friday for anyone wishing to arrange a picking party.

Additional photos, health benefits, directions to the vineyard and uses for muscadine grapes and other information are available at LoftusFamilyFarm.com

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