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“Recoleta, please,” we instructed the taxi driver. “Oh,” he replied, you must mean the ‘village’.”

Some “village.” Recoleta is the upscale neighborhood of northern Buenos Aires, a few blocks of shops emblazoned with logos like Louis Vuitton, Dior, Givenchy and Versace, rows of Parisian town house architecture, and of a string of more than a dozen sidewalk cafes lined up on the main street facing a park and cemetery.

My wife and I recently had a few opportunities to relax, eat long lunches and observe the great class divide separating rich and poor among the 17 million population of Buenos Aires. There isn’t much of a middle class in Argentina; taxes, inflation and currency problems never really gave it a chance.

Midsummer (theirs, not ours) in the polluted fumes of Argentina’s capital can be pretty insufferable without the breezy hills of Recoleta and the 150-year-old banyan tree that shades many of its cafes.

Summer (seasons are reversed “down south”) temperatures were pushing 100 degrees and humidity was hovering around 85 percent — maybe worse than in a real Florida heat wave.

Buenos Aires is one place where the almighty American dollar is still “almighty.” A Recoleta cafe lunch with legendary Argentine beef, local beer, mineral water and a homemade peach brandy, even though it’s in the high-rent district, will seldom reach $10 a head. With the weak dollar, the same meal in today’s Europe would cost more like $50 each.

The sights wouldn’t necessarily be the same, either. Argentine women may be, arguably, the most beautiful in the world. Must be an exotic mixture of southern European and Latin American Indian blood. The most fashionable are drawn to Recoleta; many in short Baby Doll dresses, spike heels and oversized sunglasses. Some, regardless of age, prefer skin-tight jeans with their spikes.

Gratefully for us cafe-sitting voyeurs, the styles in Recoleta are anywhere between ten and 30 years behind what we’d whistle at on Fifth Avenue, if the wolf whistle was still P.C. in New York City.

What really grabs me, though, is Recoleta’s banyan tree. I’ve been watching it grow for half a century. Now, it needs an ample number of two-by-fours to support its huge boughs, thicker than an adult torso. It’s a relief that most of the cafes are shrouded by beach umbrellas to prevent banyan seeds from splashing into our food and drink.

There’s enough competition for our leftovers, anyway. Bold pigeons patrol between tables, hoping to pick up a few scraps. Waiters scare off the most aggressive birds by clapping their hands or slamming their trays against the tables. Never seen a waitress in a Recoleta cafe, by the way; wait staff seems to be entirely male-dominated all over Buenos Aires.

Also wandering between Recoleta tables are armies of child beggars and ragged flower girls hoping to pick up a peso or two from the drinking class. Usually, the waiters chase them away, just like the pigeons. One exception: a shoeshine boy/beggar offers his services for a dollar while you eat.

One beggar, somewhat of a Recoleta fixture, roams outside the cafes, dressed as a clown and making wistful melodies with an accordion. The strains of his mournful music lends an unreal atmosphere to Recoleta’s cafe life, especially when he’s joined in a chorus of “La Vie En Rose” by an Edith Piaf wannabe or even a couple of passionate tango dancers.

I’ve often wondered what the neighbors across the street will say about Recoleta’s boisterous cafe life? Nothing; they’re all dead, safely entombed in fancy mausoleums.

About 200 feet from cafe row is the 12-acre Recoleta Cemetery, a.k.a. “The City of the Dead,” final resting place for some 6,000 of Argentina’s rich and famous. One who went down in infamy 55 years ago is former “B”-actress and presidential spouse, “Evita” Peron, patron saint of Argentina’s poor.

What remains of her cancer-riddled cadaver is three stories down in a nuclear bomb-proof family mausoleum. A map at the cemetery entrance shows you how to find your favorite sculptured mausoleum.

My personal “honey” is a teenage girl who died twice just over a century ago. An illness supposedly got her the initial interment in Recoleta. She woke up, clawed her way out of her coffin, only to “re-die” of a heart attack. But that was all across the street. Reminds me of the Key West bar room slogan: “Hog’s breath is better than no breath at all.”

Politicians: They Say One Thing, Do Another

I’ve wondered a lot about the fact that the political class in this country is so obtuse. Here’s more evidence:

The continual bickering about gas and oil taxes accents the policy confusion or maybe cynicism and greed of our politicians.

They say they want lower gas prices but don’t want more production to increase supply. The last oil refinery was built 40 years ago.

They say they want oil self-sufficiency, but they’ve declared the big domestic sources of oil that would take the place of foreign imports off limits. Cuba and China can drill within 50 miles of our shores but ‘we’ can’t!

They want substitutes for oil and gas. So what’s their solution? They subsidize the hell out of corn, a vital food crop so it can be used for ethanol production. What happens? Corn prices rise through the roof, making food and other commercial corn by-products unavailable, therefore raising prices. Farmers, the only source of corn we have quickly figure out they can make more money and plant more corn causing shortages in our other food stuffs.

With a non-food plant available in Brazil available to make ethanol, we (our

Congress) refuses to reduce tariffs on them. Where’s Alice?

With prices going up and inflation rapidly rising, what have our major political parties foisted on us now? Three candidates hell bent on raising our taxes.

They want Americans to reduce oil usage to cut greenhouse gases, but they protest higher oil prices that reduce the demand. Which begs the question, why are a small group of self proclaimed environmentalists making policy for the whole nation? I thought that the Congress made the country’s policies for the citizens? I thought the usual way to gain political ends was to buy a bunch of congressmen/women? Do the environmentalists have that much money or is the Congress cheaper now?

They want oil companies to invest, but they are ready to take away those profits from that investment.

Maybe it’s time to apply mental, ethical and criminal standard tests for congressional candidates. Perhaps we ought to start with county government!

Maybe Mark Twain was right when he called them “Our only native criminal class.”

D. W. Plezia

Spring Hill

Statewide Bust Bags Pot Grow Houses

TAMPA – A statewide crackdown by authorities on marijuana grow houses led to two arrests Thursday in Pinellas and Hernando counties.

The initiative, dubbed “Operation D-Day,” involved the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement.

Paul Michael O’Hanlon, 63, of 704 Robin Ave., Palm Harbor, was arrested at 10:30 a.m. after authorities discovered 276 marijuana plants in his house, the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office said.

O’Hanlon was cooperative and consented to the search when detectives knocked on his door, the sheriff’s office said. Once inside, detectives found a marijuana grow operation in the garage, which was divided into four rooms.

O’Hanlon was charged with manufacturing marijuana. He was being held in Pinellas County Jail on $5,000 bail.

In Brooksville, Ruben Cabrera, 48, was arrested after Hernando County sheriff’s deputies served a search warrant on a house at 26208 Pine Hill Drive and found 123 marijuana plants and about 8 pounds of loose pot.

Cabrera was charged with grand theft, possession of marijuana over 20 grams, and trespass of a utility device. He was taken to Hernando County Jail with bail set at $20,500.

Hernando deputies served a second warrant at a house on 26136 Blackjack St. in Brooksville. Seized were 352 plants, about 29 pound of loose marijuana and various equipment.

The house had a hidden underground room accessible by a trap door, detectives said. No one was home at the time of the seizure.

The pot busts were coordinated through the South Florida High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, which enhances efforts of law enforcement agencies statewide.

Also Thursday, state lawmakers approved the Marijuana Grow House Eradication Act, which enhances penalties for people growing pot in homes. The legislation, which awaits approval from Gov. Charlie Crist, was sponsored by Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, and Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Ft. Myers.

“Grow houses are creating serious threats to our neighborhoods and communities,” State Attorney General Bill McCollum said in a news release. “Not only is the new form of the drug much more potent, the grow houses often invite violence from rival operators.”

Once signed, the new law would make it a second-degree felony to grow 25 or more plants. It targets for-profit growers who exceed the state’s current threshold of 300 plants.

The legislation would also make it a third-degree felony to own a house for the purpose of cultivating, packaging and distributing marijuana and a first-degree felony to grow 25 or more plants in a home with children present.

Reporter Ray Reyes can be reached at (813) 259-7920 or rreyes@tampatrib.com.

Bayflite’s Chief Nurse: ‘School For The Rest Of Your Life’

His job is to walk that fine line between life and death. So Will Schroeder does everything he can to make sure the balance will tip on the side of life.

Schroeder is the Bayflite chief flight nurse at Community Hospital of New Port Richey.

Community is one of four bases of Bayfront Medical Center’s emergency aeromedical program. Bayflite transports trauma patients by helicopter to the closest available trauma center.

Last year, Bayflite flew almost 4,000 patients to trauma centers.

In addition to Community Hospital, Bayflite has bases in Hillsborough, Hernando and Sarasota counties.

Recently, in his gray flight suit, Schroeder sat in Bayflite’s tiny headquarters at the hospital. He was free to talk, Schroeder said, but warned he might be called away by an emergency at any time.

A small black radio on which the call would come rested on the table in front of him, a few inches away.

He was on his weekly 24-hour shift. He also works a 16-hour shift that rounds out his 40-hour work week.

Staff members have bedrooms in the Bayflite quarters in which they can rest between flights.

Each Bayflite crew consists of a nurse, paramedic and pilot. Schroeder is one of four Bayflite full-time and four part-time employees at the Community Hospital center.

When not in use, the Bayflite helicopter rests on part of the hospital’s western grounds.

Schroeder and his Bayflite colleagues provide more than just an airlift ambulance service. Crews have the training, equipment and experience to perform medical procedures in the field beyond the capabilities of those of standard ambulance crews.

According to the Bayflite Web site, flight nurses have to be certified as paramedics and hold a certification in emergency, flight registered or critical care nursing.

“This job is nothing but school for the rest of your life,” Schroeder smiled, explaining employees get annual training focusing on advanced skills and also are required to take continuing education courses.

With his direct gaze and unflappable manner, Schroeder appears to have the ideal temperament for his high-stress occupation.

“I come to this job knowing I do all I can for my patients,” he noted.

He started out as a Bayflite paramedic and was impressed with the high quality of medical service on the flights.

He went back to school and got a nursing degree from Hillsborough Community College, in Tampa.

The flights are short but intense. The human element is always present, Schroeder said.

“Because I have a short time with the patient, it doesn’t mean I don’t develop a relationship with them,” he noted. That relationship can be as simple but as important as explaining to the patient what is happening, he said.

Requests for Bayflite services must come from an emergency medical service, such as Pasco County Fire Rescue, Schroeder explained. “They call. We go.”

At 36, Schroeder, a resident of New Port Richey, is still unmarried, but he has a girlfriend. He explained the realities of his schedule when they first met.

He has no intention of changing the job he loves, he said.

“It is something to strive for,” he observed. “I’m very lucky to be where I am.”

McDowell Retires After 23 Years

BROOKSVILLE – When Frank McDowell took his first government job, his boss gave him three rules.
Follow the ordinance book and interpret the regulations as best you can.
Don’t take any gifts from anyone because if you do, they’ll think they own you and can get special favors.
Don’t lie, because if you do, you’re out the door.
Those words to work by came from Dick Radacky, who had hired McDowell as landfill foreman in Pasco County. Radacky would later come to Hernando County to work, serving as county administrator, among other positions.
McDowell brought the rules with him on April 29, 1985, when he began his first post in Hernando County as a commercial site plan coordinator. McDowell says the tenets, which he has passed on to every one of his new hires, have helped carry him through a nearly three-decade long career, including 11 years in what is often considered one of the least popular gigs in government: code enforcement director.
Tomorrow, McDowell retires after 28 years at the age of 56.
He says he feels confident that his staff and officers have helped him leave the county better than he found it.
“I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished,” McDowell said Monday, just before he started packing up the plethora of Tampa Bay Buccaneer, Florida Gator and Elvis memorabilia in his corner office of the government center’s first floor. “They do a great job, and a lot of times it’s not easy working for government.”
McDowell did the best a person could do in the job, striking a balance of firmness and equanimity, Radacky says.
“No matter what decision you make, you’ve ticked off somebody,” Radacky said. “He’ll stick to his guns. He won’t back down. But you also have to have an element of fairness to go along with that, and he is fair.”
Since he started, McDowell has seen nine county administrators, eight deputy administrators (serving in that role himself for a few months) and 26 county commissioners.
Current Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings was planning and zoning director in 1985 and McDowell’s first boss. Since then, Jennings said McDowell has become a go-to guy for administrators trying to deal with, as Jennings put it, “touchy issues.”
“You can always count on him to take whatever you gave him and follow through,” Jenning said. He cited an instance a few years ago when McDowell, at the request of then-administrator Gary Adams, helped fix management problems at the county landfill.
McDowell, a native of Atlantic City, N.J., said he is proud of his work in the 1990s on the county’s Development Review Committee, ensuring that projects were constructed according to county code. That committee gave way to the Commercial Compliance Review Committee, for which McDowell served as a moderator.
McDowell is also pleased with the progress of the county’s Animal Services department, which he said has come out of the “Stone Age” in recent years. He oversaw the construction of the new facility on Oliver Street in Brooksville, and he helped develop a mechanism for the department’s trucks that load large dogs to save staffers from strained backs.
There were challenges.
In the early 1990s, during a tough budget year, then-administrator Chuck Hetrick told McDowell that the code enforcement department would not be getting any funding and that McDowell would have to come up with ways for the department to be self-supporting.
So McDowell put in place a $25 administrative surcharge. Essentially, residents had to pay for notifications that, say, their property was overgrown or needed to be cleared of junk. If they didn’t, the county put a $300 lien on the property.
The money came in alright – some $17,000 in just a couple of months, McDowell recalls. But during a public hearing on the matter, infuriated residents packed the commission chambers to complain.
“They told us we were the Gestapo,” he said. The board told McDowell to undo the policy and to return the money that had been collected.
In 2005, McDowell found himself pitted against L.B. Richards, owner of a junk-strewn property on U.S. 19 north of Weeki Wachee known to locals as Hubcap City. It was a mess but also a well-known local landmark and, since it existed before the county’s zoning code was established in 1972, had been grandfathered in.
McDowell found evidence that Richards had expanded his operation, though, which gave him grounds to haul his junk away. Richards didn’t give up without a fight, going so far as following county workers to the landfill to retrieve the detritus they’d just taken from his property.
But the most trying experience came in 1994, when the Florida Department of Law Enforcement launched an investigation into the building department, which was under McDowell at the time, and allegations that McDowell had shown favoritism to local developers by speeding their permits through the system.
“You can go back as far back in my record as you want,” McDowell recalls telling investigators, “but you’re not going to find anything.”
“I knew in my heart I hadn’t done anything wrong,” he said. About six months later, FDLE cleared him of all wrongdoing.
Jennings said Code Enforcement Supervisor Mark Caskie, who McDowell groomed as his replacement, will serve as interim director. The position could be eliminated, though, as the county considers way to reorganize and become more efficient, Jennings said.
McDowell said he is most proud of his 25-year marriage to his wife Peg, and of their 30-year-old son Jeff, who specializes in video forensics at the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office and now has a daughter of his own.
The couple live in a sprawling rancher McDowell helped build on a two-and-a-half acre plot of land on Anderson Snow Road. Peg, a former law office manager, also is retired.
McDowell says he plans to do a lot of fishing and will continue to cook for community events on Bear’s Monster Grill, a gigantic mobile kitchen he built with Fire Chief Mike Nickerson. The McDowells also plan to travel, with plans to head to Hawaii later this year.
They will likely move in the next five years, McDowell said.
“Something smaller,” he said, then smiled and added,” but with some place I can store the grill that’s legal so I don’t get in trouble with code enforcement.”

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286 or lmarrero@hernandotoday.com.

Dress Code For Schools Draws Heat

BROOKSVILLE – Members of the Hernando County School Board may have a lawsuit on their hands if a unified dress policy passes without an “opt-out” policy for parents who don’t want their children to participate.

A day after board members voiced general approval for a proposed districtwide “uniform code” for the 2008-09 school year at a workshop Tuesday – which will require students at the majority of the district’s schools to adhere to general guidelines such as neutral solid-color pants, shirts or shorts and polo-style shirts – at least one local parent is threatening legal action.

Hernando Beach resident Larry Scott, a member of the School Advisory Council at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, said he does not agree with the policy of forcing children to conform to “someone else’s idea of proper clothing.”

He said he thinks such a measure intrudes on parents’ rights to decide what’s appropriate for their children, and inhibits students’ freedom of expression.

“The family unit is the oldest family structure that society knows of, and there’s a reason it’s endured,” he said. “They’re intruding on the proper duty of the parent.”

While the issue must still pass an official vote at a future school board meeting, the move marks the first time some of Hernando County’s schools have implemented specific dress guidelines.

Those that already have board-approved “uniform codes” include Brooksville, Chocachatti, Moton, Pine Grove, Spring Hill and Suncoast elementary schools, the elementary grades at Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, and Parrott Middle School.

Those with uniform codes seeking approval are the middle school grades at Challenger, all grades at Explorer K-8 and J.D. Floyd K-8, Deltona, Eastside and Westside elementary schools and Fox Chapel, Parrott and West Hernando middle schools, all of which currently do not require strict dress guidelines.

Springstead High School also has future dress guidelines in the works.

But the right to an equal education is guaranteed by the state constitution, regardless of dress, said Scott, who has one child at Challenger and another at Nature Coast Technical High School.

Since the counties to the north and south of Hernando do not have unified dress policies, any “arbitrary barrier” to a child’s attendance at school would have to be defended in court, Scott said.

“If I have to file suit, there would be several grounds I do this on, not just one,” he said, pointing toward students where a uniform may be against their religious beliefs or other personal standards.

“The more you take choices away from children and force conformity, the more you diminish their creativity and individuality, which are qualities the world really needs right now,” Scott added. “We need good minds that think outside the box.”

However, he said he would be content with the policy if the district creates an “opt-out” clause, allowing parents to sign a form stating that their child will not participate in the uniform policy.

He said his daughter would be OK with being part of a small minority of children not participating in the dress policy.

“She’s OK with it. She wants to wear what she chooses, and in the (style) and color that she chooses,” Scott said. “She’s a smart kid and capable of making those choices.”

Currently, all schools have dress codes in their student code of conduct, most of which primarily outline decency standards such as hemline length.

Administrators at the workshop agreed that a more uniform code would help eliminate distractions and keep the focus on academics.

Some parents agree.

“I tend to be a little biased because I have a son who hasn’t experienced middle school yet,” said Brooksville resident Mary Scaglione, whose child is currently in fifth grade at Challenger. “He’s been in uniforms his entire school career, so this will be no different.”

Her son previously attended a private school where he was required to stick to a red, white or blue shirt, while the current dress policy for elementary school grades at Challenger has allowed him to wear any color polo shirt he chooses.

“I’m sure it’s going to be difficult for those children who have had the freedom, if you will, of (adhering to) a dress code, but it will probably be a little easier on the ones going into sixth grade.”

For the most part, the dress guidelines require solid-color slacks, skirts, Capri (pants) or shorts, with solid-color collared shirts.

However, rules vary by school, with some schools requiring specific colors. Each code has been previously approved by each school’s SAC committee.

A date has not yet been set for final school board approval, but Scott said he’ll be watching.

“If they don’t create an opt-out provision, I will be testing it,” he said. “It would be good if the school board considered what I’m pointing out here, and looked at other counties with opt-out provisions and avoided (potential) expensive court costs.”

School board attorney Paul Carland was not available for comment at press time.

Reporter Linnea Brown can be reached at 352-544-5289 or lbrown@hernandotoday.com.

Office Manager Wants To Bring ‘Fresh Blood’ To Fire Board

SPRING HILL – A 28-year-old accounting office manager says she is ready to help the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District fight for its independence.

So Amy Brosnan has filed to run for one of the fire board’s three open seats – the one currently held by Robert Giammarco, who has said he believes the district won’t be able to break its connection to the county.

But Brosnan said her bid “isn’t about running against (Giammarco).”

“It’s about running for something I believe in and the community should believe in as well,” she said. “I believe in the people of Spring Hill, and that this fire department is right for them.”

Born in Freeport, N.Y., Brosnan moved with her family to Spring Hill at the age of six. She graduated from Central High School in 1996 and earned an associates degree from the University of South Florida. Grandfathers on either side of the family served as volunteer chiefs back in New York, Brosnan said. She says she makes up for a lack of firefighting experience with budgeting skills gleaned from her time at Jobi Accounting and Tax Services in Spring Hill.

“We’ll see if we can save taxpayers money and still keep the elite services they’re used to,” Brosnan said.

Brosnan said she grew up in a house on Roble Avenue in Spring Hill and has lived there for the last two years or so. The house is still owned by her parents, Cathy and Paul Brosnan, who moved to Weeki Wachee about three years ago. Amy Brosnan said she lived with them in Weeki Wachee for a year when they first moved.

Paul Brosnan, like his daughter Amy, frequents Spring Hill fire board meetings and has been an outspoken advocate for independence and critic of the county.

The referendum that will give Spring Hill residents the chance to decide if the district should continue to be a county-dependent entity, or strike out on its own with only state oversight, is to go before voters Election Day, Nov. 4.

Giammarco was appointed by the county commission in May of last year when it was discovered that then-commissioner Margaret Perreira’s term ended in 2006 and that there should have been an election the previous November. Giammarco has angered his colleagues on the board as well as firefighters and residents and has been accused of being a “gopher” for the county.

He has been particularly attentive to the district’s finances, and critics have said he’s done so to a point that could compromise public safety. Giammarco has refuted those claims, saying there are ways to save tax dollars.

Reached Monday, Giammarco said he was surprised to hear that Brosnan planned to run but welcomed the addition of another voice that could, he said, bring in “a breath of fresh air.”

Two other seats, held by commissioners Charles Raborn and George Biro, also are up for grabs this year. No one had filed to run for either seat as of Monday afternoon.

The qualifying deadline is May 19.

Reporter Tony Marrero can be reached at 352-544-5286 or lmarrero@hernandotoday.com.

The Legacy Of Michael Stegner

SPRING HILL –
SPRING HILL – Like so many people before him, one day in Michael Stegner’s life forever altered his reputation.

It just happened to be his last.

Up until April 13, 2006, Stegner was just another sheriff’s deputy and, unless they crossed the law, he was just another cop in a squad car to the public.

But a year ago today, Stegner died off-duty when he crashed his department-issued car on Spring Hill Drive while driving drunk.

One day. One bad choice.

But there were also 10,215 days in Stegner’s life before that fateful night (his 28th birthday was the following Wednesday).

How did he spend those?

To get an idea, a Hernando Today reporter spent three hours talking with his parents, his family and friends.

The discussion obviously drew some tears, but there was far more laughter, hugs and good-natured ribbing as they conjured up the man who went by Mike, Mikey and Steggy.

Perhaps the best example of who Stegner was lies in the fact that he is in the center of every picture, surrounded by his friends.

“Mike wasn’t happy until everybody else was happy. That’s the truth,” said Louis Genovese, a patrol deputy and friend of Stegner’s from high school.

The fact he died with a blood-alcohol level twice the legal limit is not the proverbial elephant in the room. It’s acknowledged and lamented.

“But that shouldn’t be his legacy,” said property crimes Detective Dave Feger.

Before the question could be asked, Deputy Cliff Faulkingham chimed in:

“His legacy is turning friends into family.”

Tap dance lessons and football helmets

Stegner’s room has been kept largely the same, though he moved out years before his death.

It’s here that Mom, Peggy Stegner, begins to open up and introduce her son.

The closet is stuffed with pieces of Stegner’s life: His first communion suit, Boy Scout uniform, cap and gown, a fraternity paddle. He kept them here; Mom sees no reason to throw them away.

His formidable size even as a kid made him a natural fit for sports, but he also took jazz and tap dance class. One of his baseball coaches once yelled at him for practicing his steps in the outfield.

Stegner’s friends teased him for being a sissy until he wisely pointed out that all the girls were in the dance classes, too.

His younger sister, Michelle Eddy, can attest to her brother’s fierce competitive streak.

Even as a child, Stegner would “accidentally” tip over a board game if he was losing or peek at the Clue cards if Eddy went away for a minute.

That trait stuck with him for the rest of his life. He was so proud of his 60-inch flat-screen TV until his father outdid him with a 64-incher. Stegner excelled at video games, but even if he was crushing his opponent 75-0 in Madden he had to finish the game.

As Stegner and his sister grew up, Mom and Dad increasingly found themselves the nucleus of a growing circle of friends.

Much of that was by choice. They stayed heavily involved in their children’s lives and often volunteered to chaperone on what would be dubbed “field trips” to places like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights.

More frequently, though, Stegner’s pals used their house as a place to hang out. Gradually, “Mr. and Mrs. Stegner” became simply Mom and Dad.

In a curious parallel to their adult lives, the frequent sleepovers entailed staying up late at night playing video games, listening to music and holding ping pong tourneys.

Gabe Fahey describes his childhood friend as a “big teddy bear.”

Anthony Smith remembers Stegner’s hilarious off-the-cuff remarks and facial expressions.

Smith was hard-pressed to point to any one thing he misses the most about Stegner.

“It was just him,” he said. “He would walk in the room and light it up.”

Stretching the apron strings

Stegner’s room is dominated by a large entertainment center on top of which sits a scuffed-up football helmet from his college days when he played defensive tackle. It’s flanked by two replica die-cast police cruisers emblazoned with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office’s decal.

The room’s powder-blue walls still bear some of Stegner’s personal touches: a small metal sign warns “Beware of Attack Cop”; a cowboy hat autographed by big names in country music hangs from the bed post.

On the right side of the bed are four posed photos of Stegner on the gridiron wearing shoulder pads and a serious expression.

Here he is in Powell Middle School, Springstead High School (his senior year they won the championship), at Culvert-Stockton College in Missouri.

“He lost his baby face by this one,” Mom says wistfully.

Stegner had a slot at Florida State University, but he opted for the small Christian college because, “I want to play, not be a practice dummy.”

Dad, James Stegner, sees it a little differently. It was time for his son to dip his toes in the real world.

“I stretched those apron strings as far as they would go,” he said.

Between mother and son, Mom felt the pain of separation more keenly. She cried all 17 hours of the journey home, despite her husband’s best efforts to cheer her up.

She still remembers the twinge of betrayal when he called her up to chat then abruptly had to go because his friends were headed out the door.

“I thought, ‘He has friends?'” she said.

Stegner’s sister joined him later at the school and Stegner, ever protective, made it clear from day one to his football team that she was off limits.

“A girl couldn’t ask for a better brother,” Eddy said.

‘He was born to do the job’

When Stegner finished college, he earned certification through the police academy and sent in an application to the sheriff’s office. Growing up he had toyed briefly with becoming a pediatrician and even interned at a blood bank to get a feel for the medical field. But he came home one day and asked his Mom:

“How do you tell someone their child isn’t going to make it?”

That changed his mind about the profession, Peggy recalls.

His end goal was to be a detective like his father, but Jimmy asked him to hold off on that and try patrol for five years. Stegner began in District II, which covers a majority of Spring Hill.

Deputy Rob Santoro remembers Stegner as a rookie on the force.

“He was born to do the job,” he said. “He was an awesome cop.”

Stegner was a big guy with 22-inch arms. It wasn’t unusual for him to lift weights for an hour then head out for a three-mile run. Understandably, this often left him with a shortage of partners.

“You only worked out with Mike once,” said his longtime friend, an undercover detective who will be named “Bill” for this story.

Deputy Kenneth Devaney neatly sums it up: “He was a horse.”

A big size could hold an advantage for a deputy who wanted to defuse a situation with intimidation. But grandfather Eldon “Bud” Qualls never saw that side of Stegner.

“He was strong, but never a bully,” he said.

What Santoro witnessed was Stegner using his easy-going ways to establish a rapport with people.

“He was gifted in his ability to talk with people,” Santoro said.

Just as he was a magnet for friends in high school, Stegner’s charm built a new circle of companions at the sheriff’s office. By the time of his death, they were closer than brothers.

As Faulkingham said, a majority of the 25 people or so who came out to speak about Stegner didn’t know each other or the Stegner family before he joined the force.

That bond was forged during the odd hours that come along with a law enforcement schedule. Peggy Stegner was only too happy to accommodate her new sons, be it hot dogs and hamburgers at 2 a.m. or pancakes Sunday mornings.

Bill fell asleep in Stegner’s room so often that he was eventually given a permanent spot on the day bed in the computer room.

Off-duty, the deputies continued watching movies and playing video games. Devaney had the group in stitches when he told the story about a round of golf with Stegner.

Stegner swung his clubs like a baseball bat and consequently hit a house belonging to somebody that works in property and evidence at the sheriff’s office.

Stegner felt it was probably in his best interest to keep going.

“He said, ‘We don’t need this hole,'” Devaney said laughing, “and we just whizzed by with our hands over our faces.”

Karaoke was also popular. Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” and Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil went down to Georgia” were Stegner’s favorites.

If someone ran out of gas, one of the deputies would show up with a gallon jug. Everyone turned out for moving day.

“We were like brothers,” Devaney said.

Stegner’s end of watch

In the pre-dawn darkness of April 13, Stegner was returning home with some sandwiches he had just bought at the 7-Eleven on the corner of Spring Hill Drive and Kenlake Avenue.

He had spent much of the night drinking with some rookies on the force at a Hernando Beach restaurant. One of them accompanied him home and parked behind Stegner’s pickup, blocking it in. So Stegner opted for the Camry issued to him as a member of the selective enforcement unit. Besides, it was just a quick jaunt to the store.

At the “third” Pinehurst Drive, near Spring Hill Plaza, the light had just turned green and two tow trucks were picking up speed. Stegner crashed into the long, metal bed of the last tow truck. There were no skid marks. He died instantly.

It was standing room only at his funeral at St. Frances Cabrini, the largest church in Hernando County. The procession was so long that he hearse was pulling in the cemetery by the time the last car left the church parking lot.

The newspapers broke the news first.

Autopsy results revealed a blood-alcohol level of .223; Florida law presumes impairment at .08. The sheriff’s office kept mum, as per policy, until their investigation was closed.

All of the deputies and civilian friends with him that night said Stegner never appeared intoxicated that night. A Florida Highway Patrol trooper who knew Stegner coincidently saw him at the 7-Eleven, minutes before he died. That trooper also said Stegner did not seem drunk.

Looking back on a year

A year has not diminished the pain. Devaney thinks of his best bud four to five times a day and dreams about him several times a week.

The band of deputies planned to be the old guys at the office one day. They had a lengthy list of places they wanted to go together.

Bill still struggles with survivor’s guilt whenever they go to a sports game or tick another item off that list.

“I don’t know if I should feel happy. It’s what Mike would want I guess.” He pauses. “It’s bittersweet.”

Foster Parents Sued For Abuse

BROOKSVILLE – A year into their prison sentence for abusing their foster children, Arthur and Lori Allain are being sued by their former ward for a nine-figure sum.

John Joseph Edwards Jr. is also suing the Department of Children and Families’ private arm, claiming the agency’s caseworker failed to recognize the signs of neglect.

On Thursday, Edwards’ attorney, Gary Gossett, likened the conditions suffered by his client to a Nazi death camp. The lawsuit says Edwards underwent “physical and mental torture,” to include starvation, beatings, head shaving and “unlawful confinement.”

“You can’t just walk away from that kind of stuff,” Gossett said by phone from Sebring.

Gossett filed the lawsuit Monday and has yet to hear if the Allains have retained an attorney.

Arthur Allain is serving a 25-year prison sentence in Wakulla County in the Panhandle for aggravated child abuse; Lori Allain is serving the same sentence at Lowell Correctional Institute in Ocala.

A message left with a spokeswoman for Kids Central Inc. was not returned.

The Allains were arrested in 2004, when the sheriff’s office learned that DCF had taken custody of a malnourished girl. At 10 years old, the girl weighed only 29 pounds and her ribs were clearly visible.

Reports at the time said that her half-brother, Edwards, slipped food under her door two or three times a week. Further investigation revealed that she was locked in her room and had only a paint bucket as a toilet.

The Allains refuted the charges, saying the girl was already malnourished when they received her and that she had an eating disorder.

Her brother, who turned 18 in November, didn’t receive as much media attention, but Gossett said his treatment was just as shabby.

Without prior knowledge of the case, Gossett said he wouldn’t have believed Edwards when the victim first discussed what had happened to him.

“This is about basic human rights,” Gossett said.

As the Allains’ case wound its way through the judicial system, the spotlight also turned to DCF. Investigations were opened to determine how the abuse could have continued for so long if case workers were supposedly making monthly visits.

Gossett said the discovery portion leading up to a jury trial will determine when DCF turned over the case to Kids Central, the nonprofit company that serves the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando County.

The lawsuit specifically names Cathy Kelly as a caseworker who was allegedly negligent in her duties.

It’s Gossett’s hope that this lawsuit will bring attention to any other children in the foster care system who are undergoing similar treatment.

“The system failed at many levels,” he said.

Gossett would not specify how much the lawsuit seeks in damages, but stated it was a nine-figure sum.

Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or kmartin@hernandotoday.com.

Extreme Makeover For Old Brooksville Hospital

BROOKSVILLE – From sanitized medical wards to luxury retirement apartments – the transformation of the old Brooksville Regional Hospital continues.

People traveling down Ponce deLeon Boulevard will notice two bright yellow and black banners tied with string to two trees in the front of the once-bustling medical complex. Emblazoned on the banners are these words:

“The Grande Luxury Retirement Living, opening Fall 2008.”

Once completed, the complex will have 75 new apartments, geared toward independent living, dining and deli.

The banner boasts of The Grande’s central location near parks and medical services. Most of the construction has centered around the assisted living facility portion of the new complex, Bill Rain, with Metro Bay Development, said in a letter to Michael McHugh, director of the county’s office of business development. The first floor is already about 50 percent framed with rough plumbing completed, according to Rain.

County Commissioner Rose Rocco said she is encouraged by the speed of the construction. The sooner it gets done, the faster people will find jobs there and stimulate economic growth downtown, she said.

Rocco believes that once The Grande is open, it will spur other businesses to locate in the vicinity.

County commissioners sold the old Brooksville Regional Hospital last year for $1.1 million.

The investors planned to pump $10 million to $13 million to modernize the building. The facility will contain a mix of uses, including an assisted living facility, office and medical buildings and a restaurant. The developer plans to lease space in the building to county employees, alleviating some of the space crunch at the existing courthouse at 20 North Main St.

The contract includes a performance agreement that requires the buyer to provide regular updates on redevelopment of the downtown site and to provide security for one year’s estimated property taxes should the project not proceed in a timely manner.

The contract also states that 11,000 square feet of existing office and warehouse space will continue to be used by the county fire department and remain under county ownership, until the board determines it is no longer needed.

To assure the project moves forward, the investment group took out a performance bond, or line of credit, for $150,000 until the building is completed. County commissioners opted to sell the building rather than spend the estimated $15 million to $20 million it would cost to renovate the building and convert it into a new government center, which had been considered at one point.

For more information on the project and an artist’s rendering, visit www.thegrande.net

Reporter Michael D. Bates can be reached at 352-544-5290 or mbates@hernandotoday.com.