A month-by-month look back at some of the top stories in the Bradenton Herald in 2014.
Thousands of commuters and other motorists were snarled in traffic jams Jan. 27, when a mishap on Interstate 75 left several holes -- including two the size of manhole covers -- in the overpass at University Parkway.
The first reports of falling debris came in about 11:43 a.m. Tampa-based Soroa Freight driver Jorge Luis Abelenda, 41, was towing a trailer carrying a steel piling collar used in construction south on I-75 when it bounced out of the trailer, smashing holes in the pavement, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.
After several hours, crews were able to reopen one of three southbound lanes of the interstate. But the incident at one of the area's busiest interchanges raised awareness and concern about whether the interchange would be able to handle traffic associated with The Mall at University Town Center (which in January was still under construction) and the 2017 World Rowing Championship at nearby Benderson Park.
The Manatee County Sheriff's Office and other agencies raided Napier's Log Cabin Horse and Animal Sanctuary in East Manatee on Feb. 5, culminating an investigation of reported animal abuse and fraud by the owners of the facility -- and sparking intense scrutiny of the county government's Animal Services department.
Investigators executed search warrants at the animal rescue, which for years has operated under a closed-door policy. Those closed doors raised questions of its selling animals sick or older than claimed. An investigation was launched Dec. 9 after an anonymous complaint.
Many of the rumors were confirmed.
"Truly, in my 33-year career, I have never, never seen anything as horrible," said sheriff's Capt. Lorenzo Waiters.
Eventually, authorities filed numerous animal abuse and fraud charges against shelter owners, Alan and Sheree Napier. The case is scheduled to go to trial in 2015.
Meanwhile, county government has made numerous changes at Animal Services, including hiring former public safety director Bill Hutchison as interim director.
Great white sharks are rarely seen in the Gulf of Mexi
co, but then fisherman Jimmy Campbell and his father Wayde, aboard the Trista Lynn stopped close to the three-mile green buoy west of Bean Point, the northernmost point of Anna Maria Island, to catch bait.
"There were a lot of bait schools around," said Jimmy Campbell, who is well known for his success in local fishing tournaments. "As we're going around the bait schools, a big shark came up, almost examining us, curious about what we were doing."
Campbell's dad has been fishing commercially for nearly 50 years and never heard of a great white sighting that close to shore.
"At first we thought, 'Hey, that's a great white,' but didn't really believe it," Jimmy Campbell said. "Then it sort of rolled on its side and we knew right then it was definitely a great white, not a mako or other big shark."
The large shark, which Campbell estimated at between 12 and 14 feet, hung around the boat for a few minutes as all aboard stared in awe. The lingering allowed Campbell to get a picture and another angler to get a video.
Although rare, great whites are not completely unusual in the Gulf of Mexico, especially when the water is cooler. The day the Campbells were fishing, the water temperature was 68 degrees.
Braden River High School senior Sam Woolf, buoyed by the "Woolf Pack" locally and across the nation, finished in fifth place on "American Idol," kickstarting what might become a successful career for the singer-songwriter.
An obvious favorite of the celebrity judges, Woolf captured the imagination of a cross-section of area fans, especially teenage girls who took to social media to rally votes for their "Idol."
Since the competition, Woolf has performed several times in the Bradenton area, graduated from high school, and in December, released his first EP recording.
Maybe it was public pressure or maybe it was good financial news from the state, but Manatee County Schools Superintendent Rick Mills in early May dropped plans to sell McKelvey Park, after floating its sale as one to close the school district's budget deficit.
"I will not pursue selling any portion of McKelvey Park," Mills said. "I cannot say that the need to revisit the issue will not surface at some time in the future. That will depend on the future financial needs of the school district."
The repercussions of a possible sale, which drew the ire of many West Bradenton residents, extended beyond the plot of green space along Manatee Avenue West adjacent to Miller Elementary School.
Less than a week after Mills' announcement, the district professional standards investigator, Troy Pumphrey, began looking into allegations that school board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner, who had opposed the sale, had made inappropriate sexual remarks to staff and faculty during a meeting at Miller Elementary.
Miner told the Bradenton Herald he was sitting in on a meeting of staff at the school when a woman said that the Miller Elementary neighborhood didn't need another retail shopping strip, which McKelvey Park could become if sold to a developer.
"I said that I agreed with her and that his part of the community needed another strip mall like Dolly Parton needed a third breast," Miner recalled.
Miner, who later apologized to anyone at the meeting who might have been offended, said he believed the investigation was in retaliation to his opposing the sale of the park.
The school district never took any action against Miner, who later in the year demanded that Mills fire Pumphrey for misstating one of his qualifications on his resume when he applied for and was hired for the investigator job. Pumphrey still works for the district.
There's no greater symbol of personal freedoms than the American flag, which is why a Bradenton homeowner painted one across his 100-year-old house -- to protest what he said amounted to harassment by city code enforcement officials.
In late February, the city received a complaint about a live Christmas tree that had been placed on the family home of Brent Greer at 3102 Riverview Drive.
The tree had fallen over, and Greer complied with a code enforcement officer's request to remove the tree, which was followed up by code enforcement in early May. It was during that visit that Greer said the situation became unacceptable.
That's when he told me, 'We aren't done,'" said Greer. "He said he had other issues. And keep in mind, this was said during the post-inspection for the tree. I asked what the issues were, and he said he forgot his list."
Among the issues that were cited to Greer were that his house was not painted sufficiently to "city standards," and that there were children's toys in the yard.
Greer and his wife are the adoptive parents of seven children and also serve as foster parents. "So there are up to 10 or 11 children in the house at a time," Greer said. "Of course there are toys on the lawn."
But Bradenton Code Compliance Manager Volker Reiss said city code violations found at the house were many and substantial, including mold, mildew and bare wood showing on the structure, chipped and peeling paint, an accumulation of trash, exposed wires and decaying supporting members of a balcony railing.
Greer acknowledged that due to the age of his home, there are issues that he needs to stay on top of, but denied that his home looked dilapidated prior to painting. He said he understood the need for code enforcement, but believed the city should focus more on abandoned properties that are blighting neighborhoods, "rather than my family home.".
After several businesses and other volunteers stepped forward to help the Greer family bring their home up to code, the city in August closed its case against the family.
Two men were charged with murder after Teira'le Rawks, a 17-year-old student at Riverview High School in Sarasota, was shot to death in the parking lot of a Bradenton movie theater on July 28.
Rawls was found dead about 10 minutes after she was shot in the Carmike Royal Palm 20 theater's parking lot, 5126 26th St. E., near U.S. 301 at State Road 70, according to the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
In arrest warrant affidavits, detectives detailed how they developed their case against the two suspects, Jasper Dudley, 19 and Frank Brice, 20:
Rawls, her sister and two male friends had gone to the parking lot for a party, but when they realized the party-goers were from Bradenton, they decided to leave. Her sister told detectives that as they were approaching the south exit of the parking lot, shots were heard, and she turned to see her his sister bleeding from the head and collapsed in the back seat.
They continued to drive south on U.S. 301 in an attempt to reach Sarasota Memorial Hospital, but on the way they spotted an ambulance and a Florida Highway Patrol vehicle on the side of the road and stopped for help.
Rawls was already dead.
Detectives said that after interviewing witnesses, they determined that Dudley and Brice had fired the shots that killed Rawls, perhaps in response to someone else in the parking lot firing a gun.
Family and friends remembered Rawls fondly.
"When we think of Teira'le, I know we can only ever think of her beautiful smile and all the moments we shared with her," said Sabrina Charlotte, a friend.
According to court records, Brice is scheduled to stand trial on second-degree murder and weapons charges Feb. 23.
Dudley is scheduled to stand trial on identical charges April 27.
If convicted of second-degree murder, they could be sentenced up to life in prison.
In the wake of tensions in Ferguson, Mo., after a police officer killed Michael Brown, law enforcement in Manatee County defended their use of surplus military gear.
Brown, 18, was shot to death by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 in the St. Louis suburb. Riots erupted and police officers responded in armored vehicles through the streets of the town, launching tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, residents and even the media.
In Manatee County, law enforcement is armed and trained with an arsenal that includes assault rifles, armored vehicles, submachine guns, tear gas, rubber bullets, grenades and grenade launchers. Much of the equipment was acquired under a U.S. Department of Defense program to allow local and state law enforcement to use the gear in anti-drug and anti-terrorism operations and to increase officer safety.
"We have an armored vehicle because when we go to a high-risk situation, search-warrant execution, I am not going to put my personnel in danger if they can approach this situation in an armored vehicle before exposing themselves," said Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube. "I learned a long time ago that the bad guys have bigger guns than we do. We try to arm ourselves to have the same amount of force -- if not more."
At the end of July, the Manatee County School District announced there was additional money in the budget and the district would begin exploring options to provide private, armed security officers in the district's elementary schools.
The district's middle and high schools each have a school resource officer, a trained law enforcement official, either through the Manatee County Sheriff's Office or the local police force. Elementary schools used to share school resource officers, but they were stripped away through budget cuts.
After contentious debates by the school board on the issue, officers from Sarasota Security Patrol began patrolling in 31 of the district's 33 elementary schools Sept. 17. The officers were in the schools without guns because the district was uncertain about whether statutes allowed private officers to carry guns on public campuses. The district sent a letter to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi asking for a ruling.
Superintendent Rick Mills canceled the contract with Sarasota Security Patrol on Oct. 1 in response to a Sunshine lawsuit filed against the district, saying the district did not properly advertise the meeting in which a panel evaluated the different companies that applied for the job. As part of settling the suit, the district canceled the contract.
The last day for officers was on Oct. 31. In mid-November, Bondi issued an opinion, saying having private, armed security officers would not be prohibited based on current statutes.
The school board, which now has two new members, has not taken up the issue again yet, but Mills has said he is working with local law enforcement to try to find a suitable solution.
Hundreds of shoppers filled The Mall at University Town Center on the morning of Oct. 17 to be among the first inside the new luxury mall, featuring more than 100 stores and restaurants.
"Let's go shopping," the crowd roared, led by Robert Taubman, chairman, president and chief executive officer of Taubman Centers, the mall's developer.
The Mall at UTC, off University Parkway at Cattlemen Road, is the only newly constructed enclosed mall to open in the United States this year and the first for Taubman in the United States since 2012. It is the centerpiece of what has quickly become one of the region's prime shopping, dining and entertainment hubs.
The mall features stunning LED light shows at night, with natural light peering through the 1,500-foot-long skylight during the day, and retailers from Apple to Z Gallerie.
"We know that people value convenience and are attracted to exciting and inviting spaces. Just look around you," said Taubman, who was joined by brother and Chief Operating Officer William Taubman, and father and founder Arthur Taubman on stage.
The mall was conceived more than 10 years ago at a Benderson Development Co. meeting when Nathan Benderson, then 85, had the Interstate 75 and University Parkway corner on his board's agenda, recalled Randy Benderson, now president of Benderson Development. Nathan Benderson died at age 94 in April 2012, months before the mall's groundbreaking.
"He wanted us to understand that University and 75 was much more special than any of us could have imagined," Benderson said. "He thought our community needed a premier shopping mall and there was no better place than right here."
The Manatee Hurricanes volleyball team began counting down the wins toward their first state championship as soon as they entered region play. That countdown ended Nov. 14 when they defeated nationally ranked Jupiter, 3-1, in the Class 8A championship match on Nov. 14.
"They fought for every point and realized that no matter what, as long as we took care of the ball, good things could happen for our team," said coach Tony Conthron. "I can't say enough for the team that was on the court, the team that was on our bench. ... This is a great group of girls."
Despite any odds that might have been stacked against them, the Hurricanes were determined to prevail.
"It wasn't just, 'Let's go to state.' It was, 'Let's win state.' There's a big difference," said team captain Jacqui Armer. "We did what we needed to do to get the job done."
The lives of three families -- and that of an entire church congregation -- were shattered Dec. 4 when Amber Avalos, Denise Potter and the Rev. James "Tripp" Battle were shot to death in Bradenton.
Avalos' husband, Andres "Andy" Avalos Jr., 33, who was arrested after a 51-hour manhunt, has been charged with first-degree murder. Prosecutors have yet not said whether they will seek the death penalty for Avalos, if he is convicted.
The first of two crime scenes in the case was found at Bayshore Baptist Church, on 14th Street West, where Manatee County Sheriff's Office detectives say Andres Avalos shot and killed the 31-year-old Battle, a married father of two and the church's pastor.
Responding deputies soon learned that there might be other victims at Avalos' home in Northwest Bradenton, which he shared with his wife and six children. There, they found the bodies of Amber Avalos, 33, and Potter, 46.
The sheriff's office said Amber Avalos had been hanged, beaten and shot; and that Potter, a neighbor who apparently had been visiting, had been shot to death.
Soon after, the sheriff's office said Avalos was a suspect in the three slayings, and that he should be considered armed and dangerous. That Thursday evening, deputies found Avalos' gold Chevrolet Suburban SUV in the parking lot of the Walmart Supercenter on State Road 64, near Interstate 75.
On Saturday afternoon, Avalos was captured at a mobile home park about two blocks from Bayshore Baptist Church.
In court documents, deputies said Avalos had first killed the two women, then took his 4-year-old son to daycare, before dropping off his vehicle at the Walmart.
He then took a taxi to Bayshore Baptist, where witnesses say he shot and killed Battle in a church courtyard.
Investigators have not revealed a motive for the slayings.
-- Herald staff writers Amaris Castillo, Marty Clear, Meghin Delaney, Jessica De Leon, Kate Irby, John Lembo, Charles Schelle and Mark Young contributed to this story.