Ronald Wagoner sits with his defense team.

Lakeland man convicted of 2016 fatal stabbing

 

Ronald Wagoner sits with his defense team.

Ronald Wagoner sits with his defense team.

Six jurors took three hours Thursday to convict a Lakeland man of fatally stabbing a man during a bonfire party outside his home.

Ronald Wagoner, 29, was found guilty of manslaughter with a weapon and tampering with a witness. Circuit Judge William “Bill” Sites will sentence Wagoner at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 25. He faces up to life in prison for the death of 32-year-old Gabriel Gamino.

During closing arguments, Assistant State Attorney Steve Alamia told jurors that DNA tests showed Gamino’s blood was on Wagoner’s shirt after the stabbing. He said there would have been even more blood on Wagoner, but he cleaned himself after stabbing Gamino. “If they cleaned themselves, they would have only had blood where they couldn’t clean, and you can’t clean blood off a shirt.”

Wagoner “never seemed curious about what happened”, was evasive when questioned by detectives from the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and contradicted himself numerous times.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Alamia, right, and Ben Hardin III prepare for trial.

Assistant State Attorney Steve Alamia, right, and Ben Hardin III prepare for trial.

Jurors learned that Wagoner threatened to kill his ex-girlfriend, a witness, if she told anyone about the stabbing.

Gamino was stabbed in the face and the shoulder area near his lungs on Nov. 18, 2016 outside his home in Lakeland on Country Place Road. After he was stabbed, he staggered from his home and collapsed down the street.

State Attorney Brian Haas thanks ASA Alamia and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office for their work on obtaining a conviction.

 

 

 

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Maurice Heyward

Lake Wales man convicted of attacking police officers

 

Maurice Heyward

Maurice Heyward

During a May 1 encounter with Lake Wales Police, Maurice Heyward, 40, became violent with officers, even causing one of the officers to fall into and damage one of the department’s Ford Explorers.  Prior to the incident, Heyward sped through a stop sign on his bicycle at Tillman Avenue and Second Street. When Heyward was pulled over, the officer smelled marijuana and asked for identification. The officer asked about the smell and Heyward became nervous, placing his hands in his pockets. Heyward then attempted to run away.  The officer grabbed his t-shirt, Heyward punched the officer in the arm, and a second officer arrived to help. That officer grabbed Heyward by his midsection in an attempt to bring him to the ground, but Heyward continued to fight, causing the second officer to fall into the car. Eventually, Heyward was subdued with a Taser.

Police found 1.6 grams of marijuana.

“I’m going to kill y’all,” Heyward yelled at the officers as they handcuffed him.

At a jury trial last week, Assistant State Attorney Joe Concepcion argued to the jury that Heyward should be found guilty of battery on a law enforcement officer, making threats and other related charges.  After deliberating for twenty minutes, the jury agreed, finding Heyward guilty as charged.

This was not Heyward’s first run-in with the law.  Heyward previously served 15 years in prison for three armed robberies.  Following his conviction in this case, Circuit Judge William Sites sentenced Heyward to five years in state prison.

 

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Prosecutor Paul Wallace stands in front of some boxes from previous murder cases.

Methodical and Meticulous: Homicide prosecutor recognized statewide as he builds cases through attention to detail

Listening to Homicide Director Paul Wallace, it’s easy to forget he’s put away some of the most cruel and brutal killers during the last 30 years.

He’s direct, kind-hearted, soft-spoken and has a knack for mentoring sharp attorneys in the most high-profile division at the State Attorney’s Office.

Wallace, 62, is also one of the most meticulous, well-prepared prosecutors in the state by presenting complex murder cases to jurors in a detailed-methodical way.

His record is nearly unrivaled.

Of the 78 first degree murder trials he’s had since 1983, 73 people have been found guilty. Ten of those have been sentenced to death.

Prosecutor Paul Wallace stands in front of some boxes from previous murder cases.

Prosecutor Paul Wallace stands in front of some boxes from previous murder cases.

The Haines City native was recognized for his work earlier this year. Florida’s 20 state attorneys voted to name Wallace prosecutor of the year. He received the award, named after the late Gene Berry, at a ceremony in July. His former colleague in the homicide division, the late John Aguero, received the award in 1990.

Wallace sits back in his chair in his office as he describes some of the most gruesome murders this county has seen.

He’s surrounded by boxes of old cases that have haunted Polk County residents. The boxes are filled with reports on death penalty cases, such as  Nelson Serrano, who was sentenced to death in 2007 for four execution-style slayings at a Bartow manufacturing plant, and Leon Davis, the Lake Wales man convicted of fatally shooting two clerks at a convenience store near Lake Alfred then a week later dousing two Lake Wales insurance agency clerks with gasoline and setting them on fire during a robbery.

His most recent murder case involving Cheyanne Jessie was one of the most heart wrenching. Jurors recommended the death penalty for Jessie earlier this summer for the fatal stabbing and shooting of her 6-year-old daughter and 50-year-old father.

“We had never had a case where someone just took a gun and put it to their child’s head,” Wallace said.

While Wallace has devoted his career to the State Attorney’s Office, outside of the office he’s just as focused on his church.

“Much like his calling to be a prosecutor, Paul had a calling to help those less fortunate than him through mission trips,” State Attorney Brian Haas said during the presentation ceremony. “He has been to Central and South America and East Africa. From building churches, schools, teaching educational programs and spreading the word of God, Paul does it all.”

 

Mentor to the SAO

Wallace’s experience not only helps in the courtroom, but he’s also able to share knowledge he’s gleaned from previous cases with younger colleagues.

Assistant State Attorney Kristie Ducharme, who worked on the Jessie case with Wallace, said he has taught her the ability to be patient and unrattled during a trial.

Her passion for a conviction can often be on display for jurors, which can lead her into trouble if a judge says something with which she disagrees.

Wallace has taught her to be more subdued.

“He’s taught me patience inside and out,” Ducharme said. “He’s cool and has confidence and faith that the right thing will happen.”

She described Wallace as a “confidence builder who makes you feel really good about what you’re doing.”

The Jessie case Ducharme’s first since coming back from maternity leave. Nervous, Wallace motivated her during the weeks-long trial.

She said Wallace’s skills are many, but in addition to patience, Ducharme said Wallace’s attention to detail and organizational skills are second to none.

Assistant State Attorney Mark Levine agree

d that Wallace’s dedication and commitment to his craft are traits he has admired since he started.

“He knows cases inside and out,” Levine said. “We all continue to learn from him.”

 

Closing arguments

Wallace graduated from Haines City High School in 1974. He attended Polk Community College then Stetson where he earned a business administration degree. He then entered Stetson Law School.

“I was worried I may not make it,” Wallace said.

During school, he enjoyed criminal law, deciding to become a prosecutor over a defense attorney because he “couldn’t make a living arguing for somebody who is guilty.”

Law degree in hand, he started working at the State Attorney’s Office in 1979 under then-state attorney Quillian Yancey. He worked for decades under State Attorney Jerry Hill before working for State Attorney Haas.

In December 2014, Wallace retired. He planned to spend more time with his grandchildren, take more mission trips with his wife, Karen, and hike in the Swiss Alps with her.

But Wallace never actually left.

“He was so dedicated to his cases, the families of the victims and our partners in law enforcement, that Paul continued working as a volunteer, handling a case load equal to that of our other full-time first-degree murder prosecutors,” State Attorney Haas said during the award presentation.

In August 2018, former homicide director Hope Pattey was appointed to the bench, leaving a big vacancy in the division.

After State Attorney Haas and Wallace met, the longtime prosecutor agreed to return. Within 10 months after he took the position, Wallace had obtained three unanimous death penalty recommendations.

What does he want to do before he retires again?

Continue to mentor younger assistant state attorneys, preparing them for tough cases and retrials in the spotlight against seasoned defense lawyers.

He will toil away on keeping some of most savage, evil killers behind bars. Some of the cases just haven’t gone away even though they are decades old. In the coming months, Wallace is expected to argue that Paul Beasley Johnson should be sentenced to die. It’s the fourth time Johnson, 70, will face the death penalty. He  was already sentenced to die in 1981 for killing three people, including a Polk County Sheriff’s deputy. Most recently, he was resentenced in 2014 on an  11-1 jury recommendation, but since then the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Florida Supreme Court should set aside death sentences of those who didn’t have a unanimous jury recommendation after 2002.

Wallace said retirement will be for good the next time.

He’ll focus even more on mission trips through his church, Victory Church in Lakeland. He plans to spend a month in Bolivia on a mission trip, several months in a Kenyan village, hike the Swiss Alps and spend a month in Jerusalem.

 

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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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