For the past 12 years, the Independent News has met many fascinating characters that led to some of our best articles. It was difficult to only pick a dozen, but these individuals still come up in conversations when we discuss our favorite stories.
Pensacola native who was part of the Army Rangers unit involved in the 1993 Somali firefight that was featured in the movie “Black Hawk Down.” (Independent News, Jan. 11, 2002)
The Pensacola policeman was very matter-of-fact as he talked to the IN about that fateful Oct. 3, 1993 when his unit got caught in a firefight in Mogadishu, Somalia as they were part of an operation to capture warlord Omar Salad Elmi. Blackburn, then 19, was shot at as he was attempting to fast-rope from his Black Hawk helicopter and plummeted 80 feet, fracturing his skull, three vertebra, nine ribs, collarbone, left hip and right arm–in three places. Casey Jones, the sergeant who arranged Blackburn’s evacuation from the battle zone, later died that day along with 17 other American soldiers. Another 73 were wounded in action. HYPERLINK “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Mogadishu_%281993%29″ \l “cite_note-21″ The story of Blackburn and his unit was told by Mark Bowden in his bestseller “Black Hawk Down,” which Ridley made into a movie with the same name. In the film, Private First Class Blackburn was played by Orlando Bloom in one of his first films.
Civil rights leader who founded Movement for Change and served as its president until his death in 2010 (Independent News, Oct. 13, 2005)
He was a lion for the oppressed, disenfranchised and voiceless. He was also hard-headed, outspoken and fearless. The IN misses him. Boyd first approached the IN in the fall of 2005 with the story of African-American trucker Robert Boggan, who died under mysterious circumstances in the Escambia County Jail. The death would become the first of three at the facility in less than ten months. It eventually lead to the defeat of Sheriff Ron McNesby and a Department of Justice investigation into the Escambia County Jail. Boyd led marches on the jail and organized rallies against taser abuse and police brutality. His Center for Social Justice was a safe haven for people who could get no one to listen to their plight. Boyd not only listened, but also used his resources and connections to help. His passing has left a tremendous hole in this community.
The alleged dirty tricks supporter of George Touart who was arrested for trespassing on an opponent’s property. (Independent News, May 6, 2010)
The IN first broke on Rick’s Blog the story of Mark Clabaugh, a George Touart supporter, being arrested for allegedly attempting to break into the home of Karen Sindel, Touart’s opponent for Escambia County commissioner. Clabaugh was a prolific writer on area blogs and a long-time Quint Studer basher. When Clabaugh was caught by Sindel on her Star Lake property with a camera and peeking into her windows, he allegedly told her that he was the “anti-Quint Studer.” Touart admitted to the press that he was aware that Clabaugh was going to Sindel’s home, but said that he had tried to talk him out of it. The incident propelled Sindel’s campaign into a second place finish in the Republican primary. Touart finished a distant fourth. Clabaugh pled no contest to trespassing and his adjudication was withheld. He was given six months probation and ordered to have no contact with Sindel.
The man cleared of any charges of bribing former Escambia County Commissioner W.D. Childers. (Independent News, May 18, 2006)
In his garage, Joe Elliott showed the IN 45 boxes containing court transcripts, depositions, Escambia County board meeting records, letters, deeds, receipts, his notes and other records related to the county’s infamous $6.2 million purchase of the abandoned soccer complex and former Stalnaker car dealership–the purchase that led to removal of four county commissioners. Elliott and his wife, Georgann, had been cleared of charges of bribing former commissioners W.D. Childers and Willie Junior. Childers was convicted of bribery and unlawful compensation, due in large part to Junior’s testimony. Junior was later found dead under a Pensacola house. The death was ruled a suicide. Elliott was emphatic that he never bribed either commissioner and that his original proposal was a good deal for the county. He blasted county officials for taking a $1.1 million loss when they sold the property.
WILLIE E. GARY
Superstar attorney who represented Joe Anderson in his lawsuit against the Pensacola News Journal. (Independent News, April 6, 2001)
When Joe Anderson, owner of the state’s largest road contractor, Anderson Columbia, decided to sue Gannett and the News Journal for $1.5 billion over a serious of articles published in 1998 and 1999 that he considered defamatory and malicious, he called in the giant killer, Willie E, Gary. The South Florida attorney was fresh off a $240 million judgment against Walt Disney, Co. and had been profiled on “60 Minutes” as one of the most feared attorneys in the country. When the libel claims were dismissed, Gary amended the suit, claiming a “false light” invasion of Anderson’s privacy. A jury ruled against the News Journal at trial in December 2003, awarding Anderson $18.28 million. The Florida Supreme Court later affirmed a lower appellate court’s decision setting aside the verdict, ruling that “false light” invasion-of-privacy claims will not be recognized in Florida.
The Eunice, La. native who introduced the IN to a town tied to the offshore drilling and the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig. (Independent News, May 20, 2010)
Eleven men died with the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010. The ex-wife of one those workers, Blair Manuel, taught local attorney Ryan Hatler when Ryan was in elementary school. The IN wanted a story on the personal side of the tragedy, the side that would be quickly forgotten once oil hit Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. Small towns are hard to get to know, and the paper only had three days to do the article. Ryan’s mom, Lynne, agreed to be our guide. If she liked me, then we would get the interview with Becky Manuel. On a humid Saturday morning after a six-hour drive, I was eating hot, fresh Boudin with crackers and Coke with Lynne Hatler, who has one of the quickest wits I’ve met. It was tales of the Billings case that won her over. The resulting story, “Fighting for Papa Bear,” may be the best cover story the IN has ever published.
The 19-year-old mother of a child suffering from a rare brain condition was ridiculed and branded a criminal before all the facts about her son’s medical condition were known.(Independent News, April 3, 2008)
For 18 months, the IN had daily radio show on the NewsRadio 1620 AM called “IN Your Head Radio.” Producer Sena Maddison booked all the guests and was attracted to a news story of a teenage mother being arrested after her four-year-old son was brought to a local emergency room weighing 10 pounds. Erin Markes was branded by Nancy Grace on national television as the worse mother in America. The child suffered from Miller-Dieker Syndrome, a form of lissencephaly. Maddison found Dianna Fitzgerald, founder of the National Lissencephaly Network, who defended Markes and helped the IN explain what really happened. The radio show got the first on-air interview with Markes and helped tell her story. The State Attorney’s Office eventually dropped the charges. The boy died in hospice care two weeks later. Markes has remarried and has a healthy baby. Nancy Grace never apologized.
Seventeen-year-old Pensacola girl who was kidnapped, drugged, raped and almost sold as a sex slave. (Independent News, June 7, 2007)
An Outtakes column caught the attention of Brad Dennis of the KlaasKids Foundation who brought Shauna Newell to the IN offices. The articulate, intelligent teenager told the staff about being drugged at friend’s house and waking up tied to bed where she was repeatedly raped. The “friend” was an adult, and the man posing as the girl’s father was part of a sex slave operation. Thanks to news reports generated by Dennis and Newell’s parents, the kidnappers released her after four days, dumping her at a convenience store. Sheriff Ron McNesby didn’t take Newell’s story seriously, but the national media did. Both the CBS Early Show and NBC Today featured Newell. A documentary still runs late night at least once a month on MSNBC, garnering the Escambia Sheriff’s Office dozens of angry calls and emails.
Former Mobile County Commissioner indicted for murder of his girlfriend, once considered a possible candidate for Alabama Lt. Governor.(Independent News, June 19, 2008)
In 2008, Mobile was on a hot streak. Its wins included a $3.7 billion steel plant, $600 million in port upgrades and $700 million in downtown development. The smooth-talking Nodine was a frequent visitor to Pensacola, hawking a potential $40 billion tanker deal, teaching Escambia County how to do economic development and apparently partying with his girlfriend on Pensacola Beach. Last year, his world fell apart. His county truck was seen driving away on May 9 from the condominium of his mistress, who was found dead from a gunshot. Nodine was charged with her murder. His wife divorced him and he was impeached from office. Nodine’s murder trial ended in a mistrial and the Baldwin County prosecutor hasn’t made a decision on whether the former commissioner will be retried. Nodine is in federal prison serving a 15-month sentence on a federal gun charge in a separate case.
ARI SOLOTOFF Former Pensacola Symphony Orchestra executive director, who at age 24 orchestrated a facelift for the once-sagging Symphony and spearheaded the drive to refurbish the Saenger Theatre. (Independent News, Jan. 6, 2005)
He was young and energetic and his enthusiasm woke up the cultural arts. The renovation of the Saenger Theatre is part of his legacy. Solotoff left Pensacola in June 2005 to become the senior director of marketing and development at the Louisville Orchestra. In April 2010 he was appointed by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association (POA) to the newly-created position of chief of staff and director of planning. Prior to that, he was the executive director of the Portland Symphony, Maine’s largest performing arts organization, for four years. Under his leadership, the Portland Symphony received the 2010 Maine Association of Nonprofits Governor’s Award for Nonprofit Excellence.
Grandmother of Alex (age 13) and Derek (age 12) King, the boys who killed their father (her son) and set their home on fire to cover the evidence. (Independent News, Feb. 7, 2003)
The 66-year-old grandmother walked unannounced into the Independent News offices dressed in a black turtleneck, red plaid jumper and matching red dress shoes with black tips. Mrs. Tracy was carrying photos of her grandsons who had been convicted months before of killing her son, Terry. She was out to set the story straight and see that Ricky Chavis, a former friend of her son and who had been accused of molesting Alex, was convicted of being an accessory after the fact to her son’s murder and evidence tampering. Chavis was convicted and given the maximum sentence of 30 years. Both Alex and Derek are out of prison. Alex was arrested in February for violation of right of way, leaving the scene of a crash, and violation of a driver’s license restriction following an early morning crash in Pensacola.
WILLIAM YOUNG, III
The aquarium guy whose dream fell apart when he misstated his support from elected officials and his treasurer ran off with his funds.(Independent News, July 22, 2010)
Bill Young had a dream of building a world-class aquarium and research center on the site of the soon-to-be demolished Main Street Sewage Treatment Plant. He believed that the old tanks that once stored sewage could be converted to hold marine life. He had beautiful drawings and made presentations to civic groups around town. The only problems were that the Emerald Coast Utility Authority wasn’t too excited about the idea because they planned to sell the property for millions, and Young had no money to buy the facility. That didn’t stop Young from getting petitions signed and he even succeeded in getting the ECUA board to delay the demolition to raise money for a feasibility study. Then it was discovered that he didn’t have the support of Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio and others that he claimed. Young couldn’t produce the signed petitions and had to admit a supporter has absconded with some of his organization’s funds. ECUA rescinded its delay and is reviewing bids for the tanks’ demolition.
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