Latest appeal in Orange Park woman’s death deniedBy Joshua TorresTALLAHASSEE – The First District Court of Appeal issued a clarification on the latest appeal of a Ponte Vedra Man …
Latest appeal in Orange Park woman’s death denied
By Joshua Torres
TALLAHASSEE – The First District Court of Appeal issued a clarification on the latest appeal of a Ponte Vedra Man convicted of the 2011 manslaughter of an Orange Park woman.
Evan Cook Wilhelm was seeking a rehearing of his appeal in June regarding the death of 20-year-old Ashley Cowie.
According to the investigation, Wilhelm and Cowie were attending a fraternity party at Florida State University. Wilhelm was drinking when he fired a loaded AK-47 and struck Cowie in the chest, killing her.
Wilhelm was convicted in 2012 of manslaughter, possession of a firearm on school property and culpable negligence with injury.
Wilhelm pleaded no contest to the charges. The court sentenced Wilhelm to 20 years in prison and 10 years of probation.
In his appeal, Wilhelm claimed he had ineffective assistance of counsel during the plea and sentencing process.
The court’s clarification affirmed a previous decision but substituted their original opinion.
In the judgment, Wilhelm claimed that his counsel did not advise him of a plea deal from the state that would have offered him a 10 year prison sentence. He claimed counsel failed to give him advice on the plea offer and did not take advantage of a Florida Statute that would have allowed him to be tried as a youthful offender rather than an adult.
Two of his attorneys, including his father Bob Wilhelm, testified that he was never advised of a plea offer. However, Wilhelm’s other two attorneys testified that he was told of the plea deal. The two attorneys stated that they visited Wilhelm in jail and told him of the offer but that he rejected it. According to their testimony, Wilhelm did not want to take an offer that included more two or three years in prison.
The testimony of the two attorneys was used in denying the post-conviction motion. The appeal court upheld this decision.
The same attorneys testified that they considered the youthful offender sentence but miscalculated his age. However, they contended that the trial judge was known for giving lengthy prison sentences. They also stated that Wilhelm did not want to enter a plea in front of this judge. The trial court stated, “that the failure to explore sentencing under the Youthful Offender Act would simply not have made any difference in the outcome.” The appeal court affirmed this decision.
Wilhelm’s final motion claimed that his sentence was an illegal general sentence. In the original written judgment, it showed that count two, possession of a firearm on school property, was overlooked when it was read aloud. The trial court did not address this count at sentencing.
The written judgment was wrong, and a new written judgment was submitted showing the sentence for this count as being time-served. The appeals court affirmed this and ruled that the sentence for the manslaughter charge was legal.
Wilhelm is currently serving his 20-year sentence at Wakulla Correctional Institution in Crawfordville, Florida.
Elderly bank robber has court appearance
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The State Attorney’s Office has filed an information against an elderly Fort White man who robbed an Orange Park area bank on July 23.
Noel Arthur Johnson, 75, appeared in a Clay County courtroom on Aug. 20 as the document charging him with robbery was presented by Assistant State Attorney Cyrus Zomodrodian. He is charged with stealing $300 from the Bank of America at 29 Blanding Blvd. near the Orange Park Mall.
The Florida Highway Patrol arrested Johnson in Jacksonville after he fled the area in his vehicle.
Clay County Sheriff’s Office dispatchers received a 911 call from the bank around 10 a.m. on July 23 from a bank employee who said Johnson had handed a teller a threatening note and demanded money.
“He didn’t show a weapon, but he implied based on the note that he gave to the teller that he had a weapon with him,” CCSO information officer Keith Smith said at a press conference last month.
He fled down Interstate 295 until he was stopped at the I-295/I-10 intersection by a joint effort between the Florida Highway Patrol, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office and CCSO.
“It worked out good partnering with those [agencies] that are around us,” Smith said. “We had a good ending to this incident today. No injuries were reported, obviously you can imagine the tellers and the workers inside the bank are a little shook up.”
Once Johnson was arrested at the scene, paramedics arrived and performed a safety check after he reported feeling light headed and because of his age, police said.
“It was an older gentleman that was involved in this incident so for precautionary reasons they had rescue come around there and just check him out,” Smith said.
According to the CCSO report, $1,760 was recovered from the vehicle. After his arrest, police transported Johnson to the Clay County Jail where, at press time he remained, with bond set at $10,003.
Deputy in critical condition after motorcycle crash
ORANGE PARK – A 12-year veteran of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office is listed in critical condition at the Orange Park Medical Center after a Sunday morning traffic accident on Blanding Boulevard and the intersection of Camp Francis Johnson Road near Orange Park.
Traffic deputy Ben Zirbel, 40, was on his agency motorcycle when it was struck by a truck that was towing a lawn trailer driven by Stephen M. Schioppa, 35, of Orange Park. The Florida Highway Patrol said Schioppa was in the left turn lane of the intersection heading northbound and attempting to turn on to Camp Francis Johnson while Zirbel was heading southbound. FHP said the front of Schioppa’s truck struck the right side of Zirbel’s chopper. Upon impact, police said, Zirbel’s motorcycle overturned and he was ejected.
Debris from the crash struck the driver’s side door of a 2012 Ford Mustang that was driven by Erin Taylor, 43, of Middleburg. FHP said Taylor was heading northbound on Blanding Boulevard and proceeded through the intersection during the crash.
FHP said neither Schioppa nor Taylor were injured in the crash that occurred at 10:55 a.m. and charges are pending.
January crash victim dies
KEYSTONE HEIGHTS – The Florida Highway Patrol reports that a Keystone Heights man has died from injuries he received in a January traffic crash.
FHP said 64-year-old Dennis Harrington of Keystone Heights died Aug. 15 after being in hospice care since the Jan. 4 crash in Alachua County.
FHP Harrington was heading south on CR 219A in a 2004 Ford Explorer when the crash occurred at 11 p.m. on Jan. 4 north of Northeast 35th Avenue. During the investigation, FHP found Harrington veered onto the roadway shoulder, struck a culvert and overturned the SUV.
Harrington was not discovered until hours after the crash when FHP responded to a call regarding a broken down vehicle. EMTs transferred him to Shands in Gainesville where he was later moved to a hospice.
Not guilty plea in 2017 vehicle death
JACKSONVILLE – A Clay County man pleaded guilty last week in a Jacksonville courtroom to charges of DUI manslaughter and leaving the scene of a crash involving death.
Joseph Wayne Wooten, 28, of Middleburg, entered the plea on Aug. 16 via camera while being held in the Duval County Pre-Trial Detention Center.
The Clay County Sheriff’s Office arrested Wooten on July 25 at 4:40 p.m. at Big Dawg Sports Grill at 1330 Blanding Blvd. where he worked using a warrant that was issued on June 19.
Assistant State Attorney John G. Kalinowski filed an information – a court document that serves much like an indictment – with circuit court on Aug. 6.
According to the arrest warrant, Wooten is responsible for the death of pedestrian Bradley Scott Kirk who was killed around 9:55 p.m. on April 20, 2017 on Beaver Street near the intersection of Celery Avenue in Jacksonville.
“The suspect’s vehicle was traveling eastbound on Beaver Street and according to a witness, struck the pedestrian, Mr. Bradley Kirk, from behind as he was walking in the grass beside the road,” states the warrant.
Police said witnesses told them Wooten was driving a 2006 Chevrolet Equinox SUV when he struck Kirk shortly after leaving a nearby bar where he had consumed “two pitchers of beer and two Fireball shots.”
According to police, anonymous tips to the First Coast Crime Stoppers hotline were instrumental in helping authorities identify Wooten as well as compile a timeline of events that led up to the hit and run crash.
Florida Highway Patrol investigators identified Wooten’s vehicle the day after the crash at a mobile home lot in the 10,000 block of Beaver Street, the address where the vehicle was registered.
“The vehicle had sustained damage to the front right and windshield consistent with the circumstances of the collision,” states the warrant.
During Wooten’s first interview with law enforcement on April 22, 2017, he admitted being impaired as he had consumed large amounts of alcohol in combination with the painkiller Lortab, an opioid that is comprised of hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen.
As part of their investigation, FHP matched Wooten’s DNA to items found in the SUV to verify he had driven the Chevrolet.
At press time, Wooten remained in the Jacksonville jail where his bond is set at $$175,006.
Caregiver charged with senior theft
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – A certified nursing assistant turned himself over to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office last week after learning there was a warrant for his arrest for grand theft and financial exploitation of an elderly person.
Police also charged Robert Charles Forch, 44, of Fleming Island, on Aug. 16 with one count of credit card fraud after conducting a lengthy investigation.
According to the arrest warrant, Forch made 10 fraudulent ATM card transactions for $8,500 from the VyStar Credit Union account owned by an 85-year-old he had been hired to care for. The investigation also found Forch made “several fraudulent charges” on the victim’s MasterCard at five retailers totaling $900.
Police said the victim first noticed the fraudulent charges in March 2018. Forch, an employee of a Jacksonville home healthcare staffing company, had been hired in December 2017 when the victim was released from long-term nursing care in the aftermath of a surgery he had the prior month.
As a caregiver, Forch helped the victim bathe, shop, cook and clean. He also drove the victim shopping and on one shopping trip, the victim told police he gave Forch his debit card PIN number to assist in shopping. However, he also told police that he never gave Forch permission to use the debit card “without him being present.”
At press time, Forch remained in the Clay County Jail where his bond is set at $52,509.