We’ve taken a look at the most-read stories of the year on sfgn.com and we’re giving our readers recaps and, where needed, updates on some of The Gazette’s most tantalizing articles.
Bomb Threat On Wilton Drive
By John Hayden
When Brian Koller allegedly walked into Wilton Dentistry carrying a package he said was a bomb, fear and panic could have easily set in. Instead, the staff inside quickly worked to get patients and staff out of the building. Within moments, everyone was safe and Wilton Manors Police, along with Fort Lauderdale’s SWAT Team and Bomb Squad surrounded the building.
The Gazette was the only media outlet inside the perimeter and had first-hand reporting of events on our social media. Neighboring businesses and apartments were evacuated and an hours-long standoff ensued. The suspect refused to speak by phone and posted notes on the front door, and police launched a robot with a camera to read them.
Negotiations dragged on until sunset. Once the suspect was completely in the dark (power had been cut earlier in the day), a smoke grenade was launched inside and Koller was taken into custody.
The bomb squad got a good look at the device and said, though it looked real at a glance, it was not an active device.
Koller is charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, criminal mischief of over $1,000, and manufacturing/possessing/selling/delivering/displaying and/or using a weapon of mass destruction. He is being held on a $50,000 bond.
Local Man Subdues Grenade-Wielding Customer
By John Hayden
Heroes are all around us. Sometimes they’re having a drink next to us at a bar. That was the case at Corner Pub on Andrews back in August.
A man carrying a grenade walked into the bar and declared he had the weapon. He was clearly agitated and possibly in an altered state of mind. Former Marine Darryl Marksberry, also known as Darryl Darling, was there and quickly went from patron to protector. His military training kicked in. He distracted the man by talking with him about shared military experiences. This allowed everyone else in the bar to get to safety.
Moments later, Darling was able to get the man outside and subdue him until police arrived. The suspect was arrested and taken in for evaluation.
“It’s overwhelming and it actually means a lot to me,” Darling told SFGN at the time. “Every day I try to live my life to make a small difference in someone else’s world and to me this was a small act.”
The Wilton Manors City Commission recognized and honored all involved. Darling was given the Civilian Service Award, along with Corner Pub owners Anthony and Shannon Henne plus bartender Joseph Shakespeare. WMPD officers David Turner, Jason Nobles, and Nicole Kline were given the Exceptional Duty Award.
West Point Mum On Fate of Overdosed Cadets
By John McDonald
There are still little details about the West Point cadets who overdosed during a Spring Break party in Wilton Manors.
The incident took place on March 10, 2022 as emergency crews responded to a drug overdose call at 811 NW 29th Court. Six people, some revealed to be cadets in the U.S. Military Academy, were hospitalized after, reportedly, using fentanyl-laced cocaine.
One day later, authorities arrested Axel Giovany Casseus, 22, at the Hollywood Beach Marriott on one felony count of cocaine trafficking. Casseus pleaded not guilty and the case was taken over by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The Army Times reported Casseus was indicted on May 5 on two counts of distribution of a controlled substance. If convicted, he faces 20 years to life in prison and a $1 million fine.
Meanwhile, West Point declined to comment on the status of the cadets, referring inquiries to the academy’s Freedom of Information Act process.
Casseus allegedly met two cadets in Fort Lauderdale Beach and completed the transaction in Wilton Manors. Broward Property Appraiser records show the rental house is owned by Aventura-based Happy Terrace LCC. The entity is an active Florida business registered to a consulting firm with ties to France.
Economic Development Manager Leaves, At-Risk Businesses To Follow?
By John McDonald
In the summer Wilton Manors presented a plan to keep businesses from leaving the city. Problem is, the guy who came up with the plan left.
In October, Economic Development Manager Kim Allonce resigned after two years on the job. Commissioner Chris Caputo praised Allonce’s collaboration efforts.
“We’ve attracted quality developers and the right sort of mixed-use projects to the city as well as having increased the overall number of active businesses in the city. There have been over 200 new businesses in 2022 already,” Caputo said.
Meanwhile, some businesses are departing. Earlier this month, Lotus Chinese Kitchen announced plans to move to Fort Lauderdale, ending a 47-year run in Wilton Manors.
Lotus owner John Yang told the New Pelican he was unable to secure a long-term lease with the property owner.
The five-point plan Allonce introduced, titled “Stay In Wilton,” was an aid package for businesses impacted by direct displacement such as eminent domain, building sale, redevelopment or rezoning. Lotus was one of 16 at-risk businesses in the East Village identified in the report.
Mayor Scott Newton voiced opposition to the plan, saying those businesses should have made a rainy day fund realizing the area was not a permanent place.
Wilton Manors Victim Advocate Remembered As Devoted Public Servant
By John McDonald
The Wilton Manors police family suffered a big loss in February with the passing of criminal intelligence specialist Alberto Carrillo.
Carrillo, who also served as the victim advocate in the WMPD, died following a brave bout with throat cancer. He was 52.
Beloved by many and known for his calming presence and reassuring smile, Carrillo is survived by his partner of 20 years, Brian Percival. The two met at a birthday party on New York’s Fire Island, became smitten with each other and were married in 2016.
“He was more than my husband,” Percival said. “He was my best friend, my calm in any chaos and the greatest man I have ever known. I will miss him deeply every day for the rest of my life.”
Police Chief Gary Blocker described Carrillo’s work as the definition of selflessness.
“He made everybody better human beings and was the definition of what it means to be a public servant,” Blocker said.
Longtime community activist Michael Rajner recalled Carrillo’s compassion in the face of a domestic violence incident and suggested an annual service award be given in his honor.
“He was one of the most amazing people the city has ever had,” Rajner said.
State Requests DNA Samples from Wilton Manors Man in DUI Manslaughter Case
By Christiana Lilly
It’s been almost two years since a 22-year-old man was killed in a DUI crash, but not much movement has been made in the case.
Anesty Meléndez Ruiz died when riding along with David Humphreys, 58, who was driving almost double the speed limit in the early morning hours of Feb. 6, 2021 in Fort Lauderdale.
Humphreys, a Wilton Manors resident, lost control of the car and the “vehicle ‘exploded’ into numerous parts upon impact,” according to the police report. Meléndez Ruiz was taken to Broward General Hospital and pronounced dead. Humphreys’ blood alcohol content was .238%, almost three times the legal limit in Florida.
While the case against Humphreys is still pending, according to court records, a judge approved a request by the state on Dec. 15, 2022 to get a DNA swab of Humphrey’s to compare to DNA evidence in the case.
Humphreys was not arrested until June 2022 and was charged with nine counts, including DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. He pleaded not guilty and his attorney claims that Humphreys was in a coma for 30 days after the accident and no longer drives, as he requires a cane and a walking boot to walk since the accident.
Meléndez Ruiz was buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where his family lives.
Vacation Rentals: Plenty of Talk, Little Action
By John McDonald
Vacation rentals were a much-debated topic in Wilton Manors during the year with ultimately little change to existing regulations.
At issue, primarily, were nuisance houses hosting wild and loud parties that disturb neighbors and trash the property. Many residents continued to voice opposition to the proliferation of short-term rentals at commission meetings and one incident garnered national media attention when six West Point cadets overdosed on fentanyl-laced cocaine at an Airbnb.
On the other hand, tourism and hospitality advocates expressed concern that government overreach would hurt their businesses and clarification was sought on definitions of hotels, motels, guest houses, and bed and breakfasts.
Enforcement of the vacation rentals goes to code compliance, a unit of the police department. Owners are required to register their property with the city, securing a license with the community development services department.
New registration fees are $500 and renewals are $300. Registrations expire after Sept. 30 every year.
In that Oct. 25 meeting, the commission agreed to lower the age requirement for customers from 25 to 21 and granted registration exemptions to owners who live on property.
Origin of Church Fire Remains A Mystery
By John McDonald
In April when a fire engulfed a shuttered church in Wilton Manors several theories were tossed about as to its cause.
“I’ve heard it being said, ‘oh how convenient,’ said Roger Cruttenden, President of the Three Bridges Neighborhood Association.
Described by officials as the largest fire in Wilton Manors in two decades, the former Center for Spiritual Living, 1550 Northeast 26th St., went up in flames in the early morning hours of April 13. The church has been closed for years, and its owners, UDC Manors LLC, are unable to redevelop the 4.9-acre site.
In the Fort Lauderdale Fire Rescue investigation report, property manager Larry Baum stated he applied for a demolition permit with the City of Wilton Manors. Total loss from the fire was valued at $2,275,950.
Baum told investigators the single-story concrete and wood structure had been vacant for a year and boarded up due to “an ongoing issue with homeless persons living inside.”
Broward County Property Appraiser records show UDC Manors bought the property in 2014 from First Church of Religious Science for $3.2 million. A proposal to redevelop the property into a 100-unit condominium complex was thwarted by eastside residents. The investigation was turned over to the State Fire Marshal’s office and SFGN has requested a copy of their report.
Hearing Set For Man Accused of Pulling Gun at Wilton Manors Bar
By John McDonald
A trial date has been set for a man who pulled out a gun at a Wilton Manors bar this summer.
Kenneth Justesen has pleaded not guilty to three charges resulting from a June 25 incident outside Gym Bar, 2287 Wilton Dr. Police charged Justesen, 45, with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill, a felony and misdemeanor charges of use of a firearm under the influence of alcohol and improper exhibition of a firearm.
Witnesses said it started when Justesen lost his phone and began threatening people at the bar. In the arrest report, WMPD Sgt. Daniel Plunske stated video from witnesses showed Justesen confronting the victim outside the bar with a gun by his side, warning if the victim came any closer he would shoot.
Plunske located a loaded black Glock pistol on Justesen.
“The firearm was loaded and actively had one round in the chamber along with an additional 8 rounds in the magazine,” Plunske wrote.
A jury trial is scheduled for Feb. 7, 2023 at the Broward County Central Courthouse with Judge Melinda Brown presiding. Justesen is represented by attorney and Sunrise Commissioner Neil Kerch. The defendant lists an Oakland Park storage unit as his primary address. He is out of jail on a $2,500 bond.
If convicted, Justesen would lose his concealed carry permit and right to own guns. This is not Justesen’s first run-in with Wilton Manors police. In 2018, he was arrested for battery on an apartment complex maintenance worker, but charges were later dropped.
City Balks At Kiwanis Offer, Clubhouse Sold To Tennessee Woman
By John McDonald
Was it the deal that got away or a basic bluff?
Hard to speculate, but the long-running real estate negotiations between the City of Wilton Manors and the local chapter of Kiwanis International are over.
Broward Property Appraiser records show Kiwanis sold its riverside property at 2749 Northeast 14th Ave., to Lauren Massengale of Chattanooga, Tennessee on June 29, 2022. Massengale paid $883,100 for the 17,340 square foot property that includes a parking lot and two structures.
The Property Appraiser listed its just market value as $374,640 for 2023.
In March, Kiwanis offered the city its property in exchange for a scholarship program totaling $350,000 over seven years.
“We’ve been at this for over a year now,” Kiwanis President David Platz told the Gazette. “We’ve bent over backward, willing to work with them. Either do it or don’t.”
Resident Sal Torre warned the commission of “surprises lurking around the corner.” Torre said the aging clubhouse, built in 1959, would require costly upgrades to bring it up to ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) compliance.
Mayor Scott Newton said he was “baffled” the commission wasn’t jumping at the prospects of acquiring the property for half price.