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Memorable Stories in Jan.-June 2022

Posted 12/28/22

As we head into 2023, it’s important to take a moment to look back at the important and memorable stories of 2022.We enjoyed championships and returned to normal activities – often in …

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Memorable Stories in Jan.-June 2022


As we head into 2023, it’s important to take a moment to look back at the important and memorable stories of 2022.
We enjoyed championships and returned to normal activities – often in record numbers. We continued to search for solutions to helping those who are fighting methamphetamine and fentanyl addictions, helping the families affected by drug abuse and putting the people who peddle the poison in jail.
We survived another election cycle, the threat of two tropical cyclones and another year of never-ending construction on Blanding Boulevard in Middleburg.
But most of all, we learned to adapt to an ever-changing world. Here are a few of the stories that got our attention in 2022:


Man buys Hell House land to preserve Lynyrd Skynyrd's legacy

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Adam Hartle remembered riding his jet ski along Peter’s Creek not long ago and making an impromptu stop at a vacant lot with a rickety dock.
He strolled among the moss-draped oaks and tried to imagine what it must have been like to be there more than 40 years ago when the thundering sounds of Lynyrd Skynyrd used to echo from what was known as the Mudcrutch Farm through the swampy wilderness.
When he returned months later, he saw tractor-trailer loads of lumber stacked on newly-paved streets and the basic outline of new homes being created by cinder blocks.
The more the land was being transformed into the Edgewater Landing subdivision, the more determined he became to keep the lot where Hell House served as a crude rehearsal studio like it was back in the early 1970s – raw and unforgiving.
“It’s nature, and it’s history,” Hartle said. “The band did so many good things here, I don’t think Jacksonville gives Skynyrd enough credit. I didn’t want to see some house go up here, become some lady’s back yard and see them tear up the dock. I didn’t want to see the history get torn up.”
So he bought it.
His plans for the .6-acre lot are simple: he’s going to leave it alone.

Grumpy’s vows to rebuild and reopen following devastating fire

MIDDLEBURG – Portions of the drop ceiling, mixed with water from a Clay County Fire Rescue hose, laid clumped on the floor like a child’s paper mache project 12 hours after a fire raged through Grumpy’s in Middleburg on Jan. 19.
Light fixtures dangled from the walls and ceiling. Except for some blue plastic trays that melted on a shelf and hung like stalactites, the rest of Grumpy’s was cloaked in complete blackness. And uncertainty.
Since the restaurant closed nearly six hours earlier, nobody was injured. It also meant the fire was able to ravage the building before an employee at a neighboring store smelled smoke.
Hoard said the fire will strengthen his resolve to re-open – and to reconnect with a loyal and friendly group of customers.
“We will open back up. Some places can’t make this,” Hoard said. “We are going to survive. We are going to make it back up. And I know the community will be behind us. I don’t know how long this process is going to take us right now, but we’ll be back.”
The owner said he expects as many as 80% of his former employees to be back, too. Many were transferred to other Grumpy’s locations, while Hoard worked to help the rest find new jobs.
Hoard said the grand re-opening will be on Jan. 3.

Green Cove preschool teacher earns regional honor

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Not only is Marisol Buitrago a teacher at Green Cove Springs Head Start Center, but when education recently became a challenge by COVID-19, she reverted to also teaching at the Early Learning Coalition of North Florida’s Preschool.
Now her work was recognized when she was selected as the Teacher of the Year.
Buitrago has been teaching preschool for 25 years. Since the beginning of the year, she has worked as the lead teacher in the classroom due to the center being short-staffed. Buitrago takes pride in students’ growth, she said.
Buitrago said her duties are about 90% in the classroom. After teaching in the morning and afternoon, she handles administrative tasks later in the day.
“I work a bit more, but I’m not worried about it,” she added. “I have a passion for these kids. I love them and I want to see them do well in school and make sure they have the tools they need.”
The center has 45 children. Buitrago called the award a surprise and she credited the center’s staff.
Joan Whitson, the coalition’s Outreach Manager, said Buitrago’s actions inspired her students to dream and do more.
“These two teachers are clearly leaders and are so deserving of this award and recognition,” Whitson said of Buitrago and the coalition’s Infant/Toddler Teacher of the Year, Amy Finkley.


School District vows to defend itself after elementary student attempts suicide

FLEMING ISLAND – The Clay County School District disputed allegations made against its staff in a recent lawsuit filed in the U.S. Federal Court for the Middle District of Florida that a sixth-grade student attempted suicide in the girls’ bathroom at Paterson Elementary.
The 54-page document was delivered to the District on Feb. 4. It alleged a guidance counselor and other school officials were to blame after the girl attempted suicide at the school on Jan. 5.
Lawyers representing the girl’s parents said their rights were violated because the school didn’t alert them of their daughter’s apparent mental issues. According to the suit, the girl said she went to the counselor because she felt she was being bullied.
The suit also contended the school told the parents the reason the girl tried to hang herself was “because of her gender identity issue” and she believed her parents would be angry because of their Catholic beliefs. The parents said the school failed to tell them of their daughter’s issues, and they said the school counselor may have contributed to the confusion by calling her boy names.
Without offering details, the District denied the allegations and said it would present its facts in the courtroom.
“Clay County District Schools has performed a thorough and complete investigation into this matter as it was presented to us and has determined that the allegations made by this out-of-state organization are completely false, fabricated, and appear to be intended solely for the purpose of inciting the public,” the District told Clay Today.

Keystone Heights’ Rena Reddish wins Clay County Spelling Bee

LAKE ASBURY— A Keystone Heights Junior-Senior High seventh grader correctly spelled “dicey” and “trivia” after 13 rounds to become Clay County’s 2022 spelling champion.
At the Lake Asbury Junior High’s auditorium, 33 students from 33 middle and elementary schools took center stage for the Clay County Spelling Bee. Successfully maneuvering words like “kaddish” and “vambrace,” Rena Reddish was the last student left standing.
The first round shed 11 contestants on words like “herbalist,” “embroidery” and “faltered.” Round two was more dangerous, eliminating 12 students on tough words such as “quatrains,” “kimchi” and “Jains.” Five of the remaining 10 exited round four due to the following words: “Arapahoe,” Quasimoto,” “ziggurat,” “Yom Kippur” and “Allee.”
Lake Asbury Junior’s Riya Patel finished second, while Fleming Island Elementary’s Brighton Cisneros was third.

Newly-created Bartram Trail Troop promotes 35 to Eagle Scout

FLEMING ISLAND – Twenty-six boys and seven girls earned their Eagle Scout badges during a ceremony at the Sacred Hearth Catholic Church from the newly-created Bartram Trail Troop.
Troops from Clay, Putnam and Bradford counties were combined to create the new Bartram Trail District. The annual recognition ceremony was a chance for every Eagle Scout to be individually honored.
The 35 new Eagles combined to provide more than 4,102 service hours to their community, and they collected $39,720.86 in materials.
The program started when Rick Kiefer was given the Coup Feather for being part of the Eagle Recognition ceremony for 40 years. Then, one by one, Scouts were called to the stage where the prestigious white neckerchief was placed around their necks. After that, each Scout was given a handmade woggle, letters of certificates from a host of dignitaries.


St. Johns Country Day School wins 11th girls' state soccer title in a row

DELAND – Despite suffering three regular-season losses, the St. Johns Country Day School girls' soccer team came back to beat Shorecrest Prep, 2-0, to win its 11th consecutive Class 2A state championship.
In the scoreless first half, St. Johns had numerous shots on goal including a missile from Kamryn Towers and a crossbar deflection from Lauren Mateo, but Shorecrest goalie Sonoma Kasica, just a sophomore, kept the Spartans off the scoreboard with astounding deflections and saves in front of her net.
After eight shots on goal in the first half, Kasica blanked the Spartans in the opening stanza before Pickett found her vulnerability.
Both of the Spartans’ goals came in the second half.

County inmates earn confidence, certifications by learning to cook

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – John got out of the Clay County Jail on March 15. After spending months incarcerated, he was eager to get to the Polk County correctional facility to take an important step in his life.
This time, however, John would be entering – and leaving – on the free side of the bars. No more striped jumpsuits. No more lockdowns. No more open showers. Freedom.
John is one of three at the jail who just completed a program called IN2WORK, which teaches inmates the necessary skills to gain meaningful employment in the food industry. The program is designed to provide inmates a bridge between a responsible future and away from the vicious cycle that usually ends up with another lengthy sentence as a repeat offender.
John set up a job interview while he was an inmate. He hopes to take the skills – and confidence – he learned in the program to help run the commissary at the Polk County Jail.
Another graduate, JuanDavid, has been offered a job in Miami to work in Aramark’s warehouse.
Justin, who wasn’t released until June, was eager to face a promising future.
The rigorous eight-week IN2WORK program is offered by Aramark, the company which has the food preparation contract at the jail. Aramark’s Maryanna McCray and Patty Atkinson, the Program Unit Supervisor at the jail, realized offering inmates a path to success would decrease their chances of getting in trouble again.

Clay County Agriculture Fair starts a thrill-packed 11-day run

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The signs were up; the cleaning crews had washed food vendor trailers; and, workers in hard hats put the finishing touches on the 42 rides sprawled across the midway.
The work, however, didn’t stop until the doors closed on the final day of the Clay Country Agricultural Fair.
“We have planned. We have prepared. We are ready,” said the fair’s executive director Tasha Hyder. “We are ready to open the gates.”
That officially happened at 2 p.m. on March 31. Later that night, rapper Nelly kicked off seven days of concerts inside the Cattleman’s Arena. Other headlining acts booked for this year include Sublime with Rome, Quiet Riot, Warrant, Lorrie Morgan, Rodney Atkins, Tracy Byrd, Walker Montgomery and Shenandoah.
Fairgoers focused more on the variety, and often curious, selections of carnival fare, rides that seem to get faster and taller every year and several exhibits that put the county’s rich agriculture and livestock past – and future – on display.
What many didn’t understand is the coordinated effort by several organizations to make it all work.
“We have an incident management team – fire rescue, fair association, sheriff’s office and emergency management – that is managing this event as we go to make sure it’s safe for our folks,” said county emergency manager John Ward.
A new protocol involved dividing the fairgrounds into 10 zones. Posts designating a zone area made it easier to identify the location of a problem, it served as a place for misplaced family members to reunite.


House of horrors: Bones found near home where couple were bound for days

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – From the start, Aubrey Lamar Lumpkin provided the Clay County Sheriff’s Office with an assortment of confessions, confusion and possible contradictions. He admitted to tying up a couple in their 70s for more than two days on Heath Road and he told detectives he killed someone and buried them nearby. Both confessions proved true when the couple was rescued and investigators unearthed the bones of a woman three days later. It started on April 12 after he called 911 to first tell dispatchers “I’m a piece of S***” and that he’d done some “horrible things.” He then said he needed medical assistance for an elderly couple. What deputies and fire rescue found was troubling. They found a couple in their 70s with their feet, hands and mouths bound by duct tape. According to the arrest report, the couple was suffering from being “extremely dehydrated, covered in feces, malnourished and suffering from infections and lesions from being bound for more than 48 hours.” “We began a search of the property. (Friday) we have uncovered what we believe may potentially be human remains,” Sheriff Michelle Cook said. “I cannot tell you how long those remains have been there. Been there for a while. We do not know who the person is at this time. So, the investigation for us is really now beginning as we attempt to identify the remains and follow this investigation to a logical conclusion. In the wooded area behind the house was behind the house.” Lumpkin has been in the Clay County Jail since with a $400,009 bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for Jan. 9.

Reinhold Foundation honors James Boys Ministry with its top award

ORANGE PARK – Just a few seconds into Sandra Staudt-Killea’s description of (of the 2022) winner of the Paul E. Reinhold Community Service Award, Gray Chandler’s eyes widened as he turned toward another volunteer with the James Boys Ministry with a surprised look. “When they started talking about the bikes, we’re the only ones with the bike ministry in the whole county,” Chandler said. “When they started talking about the ramps and helping people’s homes, that’s when I really said, ‘Really? Really? Really?’ It was an incredible feeling.” And one that earned the nonprofit the top award of $15,000. For the 28th consecutive year, the Paul and Klare Reinhold Foundation honored many of Clay County’s leading nonprofit groups by doling out a total of $100,000 to 47 organizations Tuesday at the Thrasher-Horne Center. The group of 48 retirees from Orange Park United Methodist Church spends the year refurbishing bicycles for the J.P. Hall Christmas Children’s Charity, as well as making wheelchair ramps and home repairs and working with Clay County Habitat for Humanity. Seeing a child ride away on a bicycle or an elderly person being able to move freely into and around their home was the only payoff the group wanted.

Keystone Heights boys’ weightlifting team wins Class 1A state championship

PORT ST JOE – For the second year in a row, the Keystone Heights boys’ weightlifting team returned to the Lake Region with the Class 1A state championship trophy, “If we all hit our lifts as planned, we should win,” said Lowery, the Florida weightlift coach of the year last year and now a three-time state champion coach (2015, 2021, 2022). “What we did was not expected. I thought we would do well, thought we would win, but what we did was unexpected.” Prophetic as he is, Lowery got three individual state champions; Ulysses Freed, Logan Williams and Mason Dicks on top of the team title; a resounding 55-17 win over West Nassau with Port St. Joe third at 16 points. “To tell me we were going to do that, with that score, no way, “ said Lowery. “The morning that we left here to head to Port St. Joe, the kids from the git-go were on, they had the right mentality to compete. When I went down the hall at the hotel 4:30 in the morning and they were all waiting on me, I knew they were ready to go.” In the Olympic Snatch competition, Keystone Heights won again decisively, 44-20, against South Sumter. Freed and Bryar Schenck were individual champions in the Olympic Snatch competition; with the Indians adding points with key top five finishers; Wyatt VanZant, fourth at 129; Ben Ulsch and Nate Tisdale at 169, fourth and fifth; Tyler Jenkins at 183, second to Schenck; Jayden Goodman, third at 199; Trey Jeffries, second at 219; Caleb Moncrief, third at 238 with Jackson Herman sixth, and, finally, Mason Dicks and Luke Snider, fourth and ninth at Unlimited. Reid Begue was eighth at 129 with Sam Ulsch seventh at 154. Lowery’s trio of champions in the Traditional competition included Freed, who returned to the team after two years of a COVID year and a torn labrum to get his gold; Williams, a senior who missed his state run last year with a rodeo injury and hit personal bests in all his lifts, and Dicks, who was sixth last year at 670 and jumped to 730 to win by 45 pounds.


Three able to provide information on deadly officer-involved shooting

ORANGE PARK – After each job was completed for their moving company, Adam German, Zachary Kellar and a co-worker had a ritual to stop at the Wawa on Blanding Boulevard to get a soft drink and a sandwich. That routine provided them with a clear view of the deadly officer-involved shooting on April 27. “It was really bizarre,” German said. “I was standing close enough I could hear the bullets whizzing and cracking.” The man was shot to death after the Orange Park Police Department answered a call for possible domestic violence. A man left in a PT Cruiser and led police on a car chase. Clay County Sheriff’s Office deputies eventually became involved in the chase as he sped toward Middleburg on Blanding Boulevard. The man turned right on Filmore Street onto a road behind the gas station, which allowed a deputy to perform a PIT maneuver. Seconds later, more than 20 rounds were fired. The man was pronounced dead at the scene. His identity hasn’t been released by the sheriff’s office or the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which assumed the lead role of the investigation immediately after the shooting. German and Kellar not only saw the incident, they heard it. They also got one of the clearest views of the PIT maneuver, shooting and aftermath – and they were able to record it on a cellphone. Clay Today obtained a copy of the recording. In it, deputies clearly yelled commands to the man to not move and show them his hands. Clay Today then forwarded the recording and audio of an interview with German and Kellar to the FDLE the day after the shooting. The agency then interviewed both men, German said. “The lead cop car was able to get up close to him and actually picked it up and spun him out,” German said. “The lead car cop got out the police officers behind and then got out and proceeded to pull their firearms saying, you know, yell, ‘Put up your hands! Let me see your hands! I heard that. I heard them yell at him. “And then they started opening fire.” “We witnessed this,” Kellar said. “I heard him (CCSO deputy) say, ‘Put your hands up. Don't move.’” “I don't know what the police knew if he had a firearm or not,” German said. “I don't know anything like that.”

Clay girls’ softball team balance graduation, state championship game

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – Clay High celebrated two graduation ceremonies – one for theentire senior class; another for the five seniors on the girls’ softball team. Four of five seniors opted to play in the Class 4A region softball tournament against West Florida instead of attending their graduation on the same night. Gabrielle Wiseman, Abigail Rutledge, Emalee Martin and Sydney Davis, plus senior teammate Kierstyn Mann, then took the stage at the Clay High football field to the end zone to toss their caps on Sunday two days after the Class of 2022 celebrated their diplomas. Although the Blue Devils were eliminated, 4-0, by Deltona, five senior players still walked across the stage in the graduation gowns two days later to receive their degrees.

World Champion pitmaster lives high on the hog

FLEMING ISLAND – All Josh Skipper needed was a match, a bag of charcoal, a chunk of wood and a hunk of meat to create a mouth-watering masterpiece. Skipper played a major role in Blues Hog’s Grand Champion victory at the renowned Memphis in May competition, a cookoff that’s considered the world championship of barbecue. Hours of preparation and a 550-gallon drum cooker smoked the competition – literally – and earned the team a total of $36,000 in prize money. Just don’t expect Skipper to taste his success. “I really don’t eat barbecue,” he said. “I’ll taste it, but I don’t eat it.” Skipper learned to cook from “a bunch of old-school guys,” but every pitmaster takes a unique path to smokey success. Blues Hog uses its proprietary spice blends, injections and lump charcoal. But more than anything else, the team use a giant barrel cooker that accelerated the low-and-slow process. While others spent nearly a day cooking a hog, Blues Hog only needed 9½ hours. The team cooked three hogs belly-side down. The result was crispy, mahogany skin and succulent meat that dripped with flavor. Since the shoulders and hams take longer to cook, Blues Hog placed bags of ice or beef briskets on the middle of the back to keep the loin from overcooking and drying out. “It’s a crazy amount of moisture you get out of it,” Skipper said. Bill Arnold created Blues Hog but the team was sold to Scheer in 2015. Scheer owns Marble Ridge Farms in New Haven, Missouri where he raises wagyu cattle and Mangalitsa-Berkshire-Duroc pigs. Many of them wind up on the grill. Skipper said he’s probably cooked 30 whole hogs. He’s also done half steers, ribs, chicken and Boston butts. In fact, he has a 1,000-gallon grill that he’s used to cooking a steer and whole hog at the same time. The team’s victory at Memphis in May was featured in season one, episode six of Michael Symon’s “BBQ USA” on the Food Network.


Middleburg girls’ softball team rallies from .500 start to state crown MIDDLEBURG – After Middleburg girls’ softball team started the season with an 11-11 record, the team rallied to win the school’s first state championship. “We’re just so humbled and grateful to everyone who has supported this team,” said Houston, in just her fourth year at Middleburg. “At the beginning of this season, we talked about taking just one game at a time, everything one step at a time and never looking too far ahead. I can honestly say that no matter what our record was, no matter how poorly we played, they always kept fighting. They stayed in the fight all year.” Houston coined the simple phrase: “Finish the Assignment” for the team that held through the final month’s championship run. “No matter how cheesy it sounds, it worked,” said Houston. “Our kids bought into it because we finished the assignment.” The Lady Broncos beat South Lake High, 1-0, on Belle Mincey’s fourth-inning solo home run. “Check, check, we finished the assignment with a 100% (grade),” said Mincey. Senior pitcher Mallory Forrester’s final four games included 19, 19, 10 and 10 strikeouts. “We knew that no matter we played, we had the support of our fans,” said Forrester. “That gave us the determination to finish.”

Clothes Closet and Food Pantry of Orange Park wins $25,000 grant

ORANGE PARK – Volunteers huddled one morning morning to talk about their assignments moments before the doors opened at the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry of Orange Park. Volunteer Anita Aultman was paying more attention to her cellphone, constantly refreshing a page to see the results of the State Farm Neighborhood Assist program. Just as the group was about to go to work, Aultman looked up from her phone and smiled. The all-volunteer organization that provides food, clothing and household items to residents in need in Clay County suddenly realized they were among 100 national winners that received a $25,000 grant. “This is one of the largest grants we’ve received so far and it will do a great deal for our community,” Aultman said. “We have between 60 and 70 families a week coming in for food, and it means that the children won’t go hungry. “Due to a significant and sudden increase in clientele, funding has been inadequate to meet the demand for assistance. The grant from State Farm will help meet these needs.” State Farm opened the program for the first 4,000 applicants. All of the spots were gone within an hour, Aultman said. The insurance company then pared the list to the top 200 vote-getters and the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry made the cut. From there, the top 100 organizations would share a total of $2.5 million. The State Farm Review Committee selected the top 200 finalists, and public voting determined the top 100. In the eleven years of the program, nearly 500 organizations have received a total of $12.5 million to enact change in their communities. More than two million ballots were cast nationally during the promotion, State Farm said.

Four honored at Shepherd’s Golden Years Gala

FLEMING ISLAND – The 15th Annual Golden Years Gala honored older adults at Sullivan Hall at Sacred Heart Catholic Church who volunteer in Clay County. Shepherd’s Center of Orange Park presented awards to four volunteers in the following categories: Shepherd’s Center of Orange Park Outstanding Volunteer, Ernie Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award, Woman of the Year and Man of the Year. The Ernie Cohen Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Pat Fernandez by JoAnne Cohen, Ernie’s wife. Fernandez currently volunteers for The Way Free Medical Clinic and St. Mary’s Episcopal Church of Green Cove Springs. She has volunteered at The Way Clinic since its inception in 2006 and has steadfastly served when needed. She is professional and works proactively to take care of the patients and facility. The Shepherd’s Center of Orange Park Outstanding Volunteer Award was given to Chris Bass. Chris has been a member of the Shepherd’s Center since 2016. She is a great ambassador for the Shepherd Center and the Adventures in Learning Program. At SCOOP she serves on the Board of Directors as Secretary, teaches two classes in Tangling, assists with registration, mans the outreach booth at the Orange Park Farmer’s Market, does data entry, has designed a marketing piece, and redesigned the newsletter. Kathy Wray accepted the Woman of the Year award. Kathy volunteers for The Clothes Closet and Food Pantry which has a volunteer base of 110 volunteers and serves approximately 5,000 Clay County Residents. She is Secretary of the Board of Directors, Team Leader in charge of opening and running the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry on Mondays and Second Saturdays. She is also an Executive Board Member. The Man of the Year Award was given to Robert Simpson. Robert volunteers for the Young Life Florida Region, Young Life Clay County, and Grace Anglican Church and Preschool. e started volunteering with Young Life in 1985 as a part of the Hiring Committee when the dream of Young Life Clay County began. Those honored are nominated by people in the community. Nominators write a letter about the person and what they have done to serve the community. The nominees are judged by local leaders who select winners in each category.