Gail Nichols

Lakeland vet sentenced to jail for cruelty to her horses

Gail Nichols

Gail Nichols

A longtime Lakeland veterinarian convicted earlier this year of animal cruelty for mistreating her horses was sentenced to 90 days in jail earlier this week and can no longer treat animals.

Circuit Court Judge Wayne Durden also sentenced Gail Nichols to 10 years of probation for four animal cruelty convictions, which centered around a lack of treatment of her miniature horses. Some of the horses were forced to be euthanized, while others suffered lifelong injuries due to Nichols’ failure to care for the animals.

“She knew exactly what was going on,” Assistant State Attorney Jessica Fisher said as she described some of the injuries to Durden. “She took an oath as a vet and there was a lack of simple, basic care.”

Nichols, 68, was convicted by a jury on June 6. Following her conviction, her sentence was decided solely by the judge.

Before the sentence, She read a statement to Durden, describing her two decades of veterinary work and her love of animals. Her lawyer told Durden she had medical issues in jail, including dietary concerns that weren’t being met.

But Fisher called Richard Scheck, a Polk Sheriff’s Office food service administrator, to testify that the jail accommodated her required dietary needs.

Scheck contradicted Nichols’ claims, telling Durden that to fit her diet turkey wraps with shredded cheese were prepared on a daily basis. Fisher also called Danette Horton, president of Hope Equine Rescue, to describe the conditions of the some of the horses that survived.

Horton said the rescue service has done everything it can to save one of the horse’s named Xena, a mare who recently had a foal. But because of a lack of care, Xena’s hooves became overgrown and her mouth and teeth suffered. She will likely be euthanized in the coming months.

“She never followed up on the horses and allowed them to suffer,” Fisher said.

Durden listened to both sides before making a decision.

As part of the sentence, Durden said Nichols cannot own or care for any animals once she is out of jail.

State Attorney Brian Haas thanks Assistant State Attorney Jessica Fisher and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for their work on the case.

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Dustin Halstead

Judge orders Lakeland man to begin serving sentence following appeals court decision

 

Dustin Halstead

Dustin Halstead

A 26-year-old Lakeland man convicted of killing a construction worker in a hit-and-run crash on South Florida Avenue was sent to prison Tuesday days after an appeals court ruled against him.

Dustin Halstead was found guilty of vehicular homicide in 2018, but Circuit Judge Kevin Abdoney, spurred by the 2nd District Court of Appeals, had allowed Halstead to post bail as appeal judges considered the motion.

In July, the appeals court rejected the appeal and affirmed his conviction, resulting in Abdoney ordering him on Tuesday to begin serving his 11-year sentence for vehicular homicide and leaving the scene of a crash.

Assistant State Attorneys Jennifer Swenson and Kris Heaton prosecuted the case.

Halstead killed Shelby Kenneth Shull on July 23, 2014 when he veered off the road into a construction zone, knocked over construction cones and slammed into the man. His body was thrown 80 feet.

The investigation lasted months before a tip led police to Halstead. His girlfriend, who is now Halstead’s wife, called Lakeland police after seeing a newspaper article about the fatality. She told detectives at the time that she did not know or see what had been hit, but that Halstead had hit something in the area about the time of the crash.

Police investigated further. Through DNA evidence, Shull’s blood was found on the hood of Halstead’s Jeep.

Years later, Halstead faced a jury.

During the one-week trial, Swenson showed jurors receipts from three different bars Halstead had visited leading up to the crash. Jurors heard that after he left a bar in Dixieland, Halstead was driving south on South Florida Avenue when he dropped a cigarette, reached down to pick it up, then ran off the road near Easton Drive and struck the worker. Jurors took about two hours to convict Halstead.

State Attorney Brian Haas thanks Lakeland Police Department detectives for their work on the case.

 

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Assistant State Attorney Monica Smith

Superhero-loving prosecutor fights for justice

 

Assistant State Attorney Monica Smith

Assistant State Attorney Monica Smith

Monica Smith was 16 credit hours short of receiving her doctorate in clinical psychology when she dropped out, took the LSAT and enrolled in Florida Coastal School of Law.
Smith had learned much during training for family custody disputes and ways to evaluate sex offenders, but she faced tedious therapy classes to earn a degree. She shelved that, figuring her candid personality was better suited for the courtroom than in a social care setting.  The move has paid off.

Since 2016, Smith has thrived as an assistant state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit.
“She believes in what she’s doing, has a great presence in the courtroom and connects with the jury,” said her supervisor, Assistant State Attorney Ashley McCarthy.
Smith started working misdemeanor cases and worked her way up to the Special Victims Unit where she currently prosecutes some of the hardest, most emotionally charged cases involving children who have been sexually assaulted.
The cases can be difficult to prosecute with victims often afraid to come forward with information about their assaults.
Smith said in the courtroom she’s their voice.
“They need someone on their side,” Smith said of victims.
She develops a rapport with the victims, helps them prepare for testimony, then sees the case to the end.
“It can be cathartic for them to testify sometimes,” Smith said of the victims.
The idea of protecting the innocent isn’t new for Smith. The Largo native grew up playing superheroes with her twin brother and an older brother 11-months her senior.
Her twin played Spider Man, while the older brother was Superman. Smith portrayed Batman, who in the comic book dedicates his life to fighting criminals.
She still likes the superhero. The walls in her office are adorned with the Caped Crusader, while a large Batman blanket is draped over her office chair.
“I like the concept of fighting for justice,” Smith said.
During the past year in the Special Victims Unit, Smith has faced tough trials. In a child pornography case, she teamed with Polk County Sheriff’s detectives to learn the intricacies of how the criminal hid certain pornographic pictures and methods he used to overwrite documents.
In that case, she gained a conviction. More recently, she prosecuted a case against a Lakeland man who sexually assaulted a child. A 6-member jury took an hour to convict the man.
Smith isn’t always working.
She paints to relax, using different mediums. Many of her oil paintings hung in the office of her late mother, who worked as a pediatrician for 35 years in Largo. She also enjoys kickboxing, soccer, softball and flag football.
But her job is her passion.
And McCarthy recognizes that.
“She has the potential to be one of the best trial attorneys in the office,” she said.

 

Assistant State Attorney Monica Smith recently questions a witness during court.

Assistant State Attorney Monica Smith recently questions a witness during court.

 

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Christopher Ray Queen

Sebring man convicted of possessing hundreds of child pornographic images

 

Christopher Ray Queen

Christopher Ray Queen

State Attorney Brian Haas announces the conviction of a Sebring man for hundreds of counts of possession of child pornography.

The case began in 2017, when an online company sent a tip to the FBI about a user visiting child pornography sites and downloading child pornography.  The FBI tracked the IP address to Christopher Ray Queen’s home and began a deeper inquiry with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office. Months later, the HCSO executed a search warrant, found that Queen was in possession of at least one thousand child pornographic images and arrested him.

Assistant State Attorney Richard Castillo said it was one of the more disturbing cases he’s worked, describing numerous graphic images of young children found on Queen’s computer.

On July 30, following a trial before Circuit Judge Peter Estrada, Queen was convicted, as charged, of 300 counts of possession of child pornography.  Queen, 51, faces up to life in prison for the conviction.

Each felony count carries the potential of five years in prison.  A status hearing to set sentencing is set for September 23.

State Attorney Haas is grateful for the hard work and dedication of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, the FBI and Assistant State Attorney Richard Castillo.