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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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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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WaldoPDWaldo Police Officer Tim Logan checks speeds of passing vehicles along State Road 24 Tuesday morning.  The department recently won $44,000 to spend on new equipment.

The Waldo Police Department (WPD) was a big winner in the latest ‘Click it or Ticket’ challenge, taking home points totaling $44,000 to be used toward equipment.

In a recent awards ceremony in Orlando, WPD was recognized for its efforts in traffic safety.  The small department, with just five officers, took first place in the Championship class. Hallandale Beach took second place and Biscayne Park went home with third.

WPD Chief Mike Szabo said the winnings are important in providing equipment for his department.  With a budget of about $480,000, a $44,000 influx of funds for equipment has a significant impact.

“The types of equipment we buy with these points is the kind of stuff a small department like ours couldn’t afford,” he said.  “We were able to buy a roadside message board with points won in the previous campaign.”

With the $44,000 WPD will be able to spend this year, Szabo said he plans to purchase a lighted directional sign, additional in-car video cameras, portable breath test machines, flashlights, emergency lights and more.

“We try to buy equipment that will help us alert motorists to speed zone changes and school zones,” said Szabo.  “Unfortunately, too many drivers are distracted and aren’t paying attention to the roadway.”

Although Waldo has a reputation as strictly enforcing the speed limits, Szabo said his department is often mischaracterized.  AAA Auto Club South has labeled Waldo as a speed trap and has even purchased billboards to warn motorists as they enter the city.

“People are going from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and they aren’t necessarily aware of their surroundings,” said Szabo.  “What we’ve tried to do is to alert motorists about speed changes by placing visual stimulants and warnings that the State wouldn’t.”

“If this were about money, we could sit outside and write tickets all day long for people traveling 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, but we’re not doing that,” Szabo said, adding that his officers don’t generally write more than a dozen tickets in a 12-hour shift.

Whether some motorists like it or not, Szabo said his department would continue participating in campaigns like ‘Click it or Ticket.’  “Statistics show that a strong law enforcement presence in a community deters crimes of all types,” said Szabo.

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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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Lefkowitzes signed over ownership of cats last week

catsOn June 7, nearly 700 cats were seized from Haven Acres cat sanctuary in High Springs.  Alachua County Animal Services will be conducting adoptions for about 620 cats on Aug. 27 and 28.

The hundreds of furry and fluffy cats and kittens seized from a High Springs sanctuary in June will soon be available for adoption, Alachua County Animal Services Director David Flagler said.   The seizure caught the attention of national news media, resulting in a slew of stories about the felines and Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary, which was reported to have been keeping the cats in poor conditions.

Alachua County Animal Services seized 697 cats on June 7, from Haven Acres.  The removal was the largest of its type in county history and required the assistance 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.

Now that ownership of the cats has been transferred to the County, Flagler said his office is planning an upcoming adoption event to place them in new homes.

Of the original 697 cats taken from the sanctuary, he said about 620 remain. More than 70 of the felines died or were euthanized after veterinary staff determined they were beyond treatment, he said.

An adoption event is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 27 and 28 at the warehouse where they are being kept.  Flagler said his office is working with other agencies to potentially handle some of the cats. “Arrangements are being made to disperse the animals that do not find a home at the adoption event.”

Before being adopted into a new home, Flagler said the cats will meet Alachua County Animal Services adoption standards, unless special arrangements are made.  Those standards include each pet having all of its vaccinations, a microchip and being spayed or neutered.

More firm plans on the adoption event will be available in the coming days on the Alachua County Animal Services Web site at www.alachuapets.com, Flagler said.

In July, Alachua County revoked a special exception permit that allowed Haven Acres Cat Sanctuary to operate.

In a June interview, Alachua County Code Enforcement Director Rick Wolf said, “The basis for requesting revocation is because of failure to comply with numerous conditions.”

One such violation was the keeping of nearly 700 cats, well beyond the 200-cat limit placed on the facility.

Pennie and Steve Lefkowitz, who operated Haven Acres, apparently did not publicly object to the revocation.

Wolf said occasional odor complaints from neighboring homeowners in the Edgemoor neighborhood would prompt a closer look.  But after he and other code enforcement officers visited the site in February, Wolf said his office was unable to substantiate complaints that would have violated the odor management plan.

The feline population at the sanctuary reportedly ballooned between February and June, in part because organizations from as far away as Orlando were sending cats to the sanctuary according to Flagler.

Flagler estimates the cost to the County for the seizure operation and caring for the felines will be about $35,000.  Most of that cost accounts for the overtime involved with operating two separate animal shelters.  He said the operation has cost the HSUS an estimated $400,000.

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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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Alachua to continue four-day work week

It came with a unanimous approval Monday as commissioners gave the go ahead to keep official City hours Monday through Thursday from 7:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.  The move came as Deputy City Clerk Alan Henderson delivered a report to the commission that the four-day work week instituted last year has resulted in a measurable savings.

Last year, commissioners voted 4-1 to move the city from a standard Monday through Friday work week to a four-day schedule in an effort to save money.

With about three-quarters of the year under the new schedule, Henderson said the City had saved nearly $18,000 in utility costs alone.  Also saved was an estimated 1,188 gallons of fuel.

Although he originally opposed the four-day work week, Vice-Mayor Ben Boukari, Jr. went along Monday with a motion from Commissioner Robert Wilford to continue the hours.

“I was somebody who voted against this last year and have not heard much citizen complaints about the hours,” Boukari said.  “I am aware of those, who have been in contact through utilities and other places, that have seen a benefit to our citizens and residents with the times being later and earlier to be able to serve our citizens.”

Though he was in favor of continuing the four-day work week, Boukari said he wanted a review of savings to continue each year.

Commissioner Gary Hardacre said, in his observations, the extra day off didn’t result in unattended emergencies.

“I haven’t had any citizens comment in the negative on this…From what I’ve seen, emergencies coming up in the off days are still being taken care of,” he said.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to continue the four-day work week with a review of savings to be delivered again in August 2012.

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