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What to know before taking your boat out on the water | Opinion

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 05:00

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission recently released data that showed 735 boating accidents were reported in the state of Florida in 2022. Following are the counties with the most reported accidents: Monroe County: 92; Miami-Dade County: 90; and Palm Beach County: 49. (Broward County came in 7th place with 27.)

Of those boating accidents, the majority are related to operator negligence. In fact, 77% of fatal accidents can be attributed to ignoring basic boating safety education. Alcohol is the leading contributing factor in fatal boating accidents, and 86% of drowning victims were not wearing a life jacket. (In fact, only 11.6% of adults and 65.8% of kids reportedly wear life jackets while boating.)

Michael Pike is managing partner at the Pike & Lustig law firm.

With summer coming, now is a great time to review boating safety rules and to make sure your maintenance is up to date. Follow these tips to ensure you’re boating safely:

• Wear a life jacket
• Take a boating course
• Schedule a vessel safety check
• Equip your boat with an emergency kit
• Make sure all boat guests are familiar with how to use safety equipment
• Do not drink and drive
• Be prepared for weather changes
• Know where you are at all times
• Know how to contact the coast guard in case of an emergency

Even if you continue to operate your vessel safely, there is always a chance that a less-experienced or less-careful boater may cause an accident due to their reckless behavior. It’s imperative that you know what to do if you find yourself in an accident. If you are injured in a boating accident, there are certain steps you must take to prove your claim and the value of damages you have suffered in order to maximize your potential compensation.

First of all, make sure that you, your passengers and your property are out of harm’s way and, as with any accident such as a car accident or a slip-and-fall accident, you should immediately seek medical treatment, no matter how minor you think the accident was. Second, do not leave the scene of the accident unless it is with a trained medical professional. Florida Statute 327.30(5) prohibits anyone operating a boat involved in an accident or injury from leaving the scene until they have:

• Given “all possible aid to persons involved” in the accident;
• Made a “reasonable effort to locate the owner or persons” affected in the accident; and
• Notified law enforcement personnel.

Minor boating accidents don’t require you to contact local law enforcement, but Florida law requires that you report a “serious” accident. An accident is considered “serious” when there is property damage totaling at least $2,000, serious injuries that require professional medical treatment beyond first aid, and of course, the death or disappearance of anyone on board all boats involved in the accident.

In the meantime, you should exchange information with all involved parties, including names and addresses, and the insurance information of the vessel’s owners. Finally, do not delay filing a claim. In Florida, the statute of limitations for negligence claims is now just two years, thanks to the new tort reform bill, House Bill 837, which was signed into law on March 24, 2023. An experienced attorney will help you understand your rights, help you gather evidence, calculate your damages and maximize your compensation.

Michael Pike, of Wellington, is managing partner at Pike & Lustig, a Florida law firm with an emphasis on personal injury and business litigation in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. He is also an avid boater and boat owner. 

‘I don’t forgive him:’ South Florida serial rapist and murderer faces execution after nearly 40 years

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 05:00

Duane Eugene Owen has just days left to live, according to a death warrant signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Florida Supreme Court.

On Thursday, Owen is scheduled to be escorted into the execution chamber at Florida State Prison in Raiford, strapped onto a gurney and injected with a lethal chemical concoction. He will have eaten his last meal and said his last words.

The covering over the window between the death chamber and the witness room will be lifted, and some whose lives were forever changed by Owen’s brutal murders in Palm Beach County decades ago will be sitting there to watch him die.

Owen, now 62, murdered and raped Karen Slattery, a 14-year-old girl who was babysitting in Delray Beach, on March 24, 1984. Only a few months later, Owen murdered and raped Georgianna Worden, a 38-year-old mother of two, as her daughters slept soundly in their Boca Raton home. They weren’t his first victims.

He attacked multiple other women in Palm Beach County in the 1980s, detailing seven rapes, five attempted murders, burglaries and misdemeanors to one psychiatrist after his arrest, court records said. One survivor said she has been haunted by memories of the night Owen attacked her ever since.

An original officer on the case said he could never forget the crime scene at the Delray Beach home where ninth-grader Slattery was found. The many hours of conversation he had with Owen remain fresh in his mind. And Slattery’s younger sister, just 10 years old when the big sister she idolized was murdered, has made a career in law enforcement, believing it was a calling.

Owen was sentenced to death in both cases, though the death warrant is tied to Worden’s murder. The execution is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday. It is the fourth execution scheduled in Florida this year and the sixth under DeSantis, according to the Associated Press.

‘Chaos and deprivation’

Owen, who grew up in Michigan, lived a troubled childhood and ended up living in a foster home for several years. His parents were alcoholics who neglected him, and his mother died when he was 11 years old. His father killed himself when he was 13, court records say.

He was sexually and physically abused at the children’s home, his attorneys said in a recent court filing, and began using drugs as a child. By 16 years old, Owen was in a juvenile offender program.

“Mr. Owen’s early life was one of chaos and deprivation,” his attorneys wrote.

Owen enlisted in the Army, “maintains a fetish for the military,” and at one point aspired to be a police officer, court records say. He later said if he couldn’t become someone who enforces the law, he would become the antithesis.

Owen’s crimes started out as prowling, stalking, voyeurism. He admitted to multiple burglaries and two indecent exposure incidents at Florida Atlantic University, court records say.

He relished the adrenaline of getting away with his crimes, court records say.

Hiding in closet

Virginia Sada was 28 years old in 1982 and the resident manager at the Peter Pan Motel when Owen attacked her. Owen broke into the motel through a window in the afternoon and hid in a closet for hours.

Newspaper reports from 1982 say the attack happened on Monday, Nov. 1, and offered few other details aside from the fact that Sada was beaten in the head by a suspect who broke in. At the time, she didn’t want to speak publicly about what happened.

“I couldn’t handle the publicity at that time,” Sada said.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on Virginia Sada’s attack in this article published Nov. 3, 1982. (Screenshot of the South Florida Sun Sentinel/Newspapers.com)

Sada, now 68, suffered brain damage from Owen’s attack and can’t remember many of the details of what happened. But Sada still recalled some things clearly — like the feeling of being watched on Halloween afternoon when she headed for the motel’s laundry room.

“I remember having my hand on the door knob on the outside of the room. I remember standing there and holding that door knob for maybe 20 seconds, feeling like I was being watched from the inside out,” Sada said. “And after maybe 20-30 seconds of deliberation about that, I just shrugged my shoulders. And come to find out, he was in my bedroom closet.”

Sada fell asleep on the couch. Her young son slept nearby through the attack, unharmed —  a harbinger of Owen’s future attacks. The girls Slattery was babysitting and Worden’s children were home when they were murdered and were not harmed.

The next moments Sada can recall are of her waking up, feeling sick, soaked in sweat and vomiting blood. She didn’t yet realize she was severely hurt and had no recollection of the attack, she said. Owen had beaten her in the head with a pipe wrench.

Her husband came home and found her. Sada had finger-print shaped bruises on her neck. The phone cords had all been cut and shoved under Sada’s mattress, she said. Her husband took her to the hospital, where she underwent brain surgery. She was expected to be paralyzed, but “God is good,” she said.

“I can’t imagine the horror of that happening as it’s going on, so I’m grateful that I don’t have any memory of that night. I don’t want that memory,” Sada said. “I’ve relived it almost every day.”

Owen wouldn’t be caught until two years later.

He was ultimately charged with Slattery and Worden’s murders, attempted murder in Sada’s attack, attempted murder in another attack of a 17-year-old girl and on another charge stemming from the beating of a 26-year-old woman, newspaper reports from 1984 said.

“He was brutally murdering people and apparently he wasn’t as brutal with me as it got over time,” Sada said. “It might have gotten worse with each person.”

‘Striking’ similarities

Rick Lincoln, a retired Delray Beach Police officer who investigated Slattery’s murder, said Owen came to their attention after Worden’s murder. The two homicides had over a dozen similarities, and Boca Raton Police and Delray Beach detectives compared their cases.

“When we got down there and started going through things, it was kind of striking in terms of the things that were very, very similar — if not exact,” Lincoln said.

Slattery and Worden were both smaller, weighing 100 pounds. The suspect forced his way into the homes and cut screens. The victims were found naked and sexually assaulted while they were dead or nearly dead, Lincoln wrote in a July 1984 police report he shared with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

At Worden’s home, she was killed with a hammer and officers found a knife. At the home in Delray Beach, Slattery was killed with a knife and officers found a hammer nearby, the report said. The list went on.

Debbi Johnson was 10 years old when Owen murdered her sister Slattery. Now 49 years old, Johnson shared what she can remember of her — that she was a skilled gymnast, diver and hair braider, that she was a cheerleader and that she loved children and aspired to become a teacher. A lab school at FAU bears her name, the Karen Slattery Educational Research Center for Child Development.

Johnson said she was the “annoying little sister” who tried to follow in Slattery’s footsteps. Many of the personality traits Johnson remembers about her sister, she now sees in her daughter, she said.

“Whatever she did, I absolutely had to do,” said Johnson, who is now a Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy.

Karen Slattery, left, was murdered when she was 14 years old. Debbi Johnson, right, was 10 years old when Duane Owen murdered her sister. (Courtesy/Debbi Johnson)

Slattery often babysat Carolyn and William Helm’s children, as she did the night Owen killed her, and was a “go-to” for families in the area, Johnson said.

Slattery was stabbed 18 times, court documents said. Owen dragged her to a bedroom in the home, where he assaulted her.

Then-Delray Beach Police Chief Charles Kilgore told the South Florida Sun Sentinel three days after Slattery was killed that it was “the most horrendous crime” the city had seen.

It was past Johnson’s bedtime when her sister was murdered. She woke up to a guttural, wailing cry. A neighbor her family was close with was in the living room and told Johnson to go back to bed. After getting up again later in the night, she saw her mother.

“She’s dead,” her mother told her. “Karen’s dead.”

A reward fund was set up to help catch the girl’s killer. The businessman who led the effort told reporters at the time he hoped it would “prevent it from happening again.”

Karen Slattery, left, and Debbi Johnson, right, are shown in a family photo. (Courtesy/Debbi Johnson)

Then Owen murdered Worden.

Worden, an executive secretary and mother of two, was reading a book in her bedroom when her 13-year-old and 9-year-old daughters went to bed. Her older daughter came into her room to say good night and left the door open. It was shut and locked the next morning, court records said.

In the morning, the older girl went into the kitchen to prepare lunch for school. The kitchen window had been broken, dirt covering the floor. Her mother wasn’t answering from behind the door. Like her mother had shown her, the girl used a Q-tip to unlock the bedroom door and found blood, court records said.

Owen bashed Worden in the head five times with a hammer, the doctor who performed her autopsy testified at Owen’s trial. She clung to life after the blows, surviving for at least three minutes or possibly as long as an hour after, according to a trial transcript.

The doctor testified that Worden would have experienced “the realization that she was going to die.” She was near death but still alive when Owen raped her, the transcript said.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on May 30, 1984, that Georgianna Worden was murdered by an intruder. (Screenshot of the South Florida Sun Sentinel/Newspapers.com) ‘Catch me if you can’

Boca Raton Police officers identified Owen as an early suspect. Retired officer Lincoln said Delray Beach Police questioned several people in Slattery’s murder, but Owen was an official suspect.

Boca officers were already looking for Owen before Worden’s murder. He was suspected of committing multiple burglaries in the city in the few days before, court records said. The burglary victims picked Owen out of photo lineups.

Owen was arrested on May 30, 1984, as he walked down a road in Boca Raton. When an officer stopped him, he gave the name Dana Brown — the name of someone he grew up with at the children’s home, court records said. But he matched the description they were looking for.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel reported on June 22, 1984, that Duane Owen was charged in the killing of Georgianna Worden. (Screenshot of the South Florida Sun Sentinel/Newspapers.com)

So began what Owen felt was a game of cat-and-mouse with detectives. A game he thought he was winning, Lincoln said.

The Boca Raton News reported years later that a “famous” line from Owen’s confession was, “Catch me if you can.”

One psychologist who recently evaluated Owen and reviewed the recorded police interrogations said it seemed Owen was the one “running the show,” court records said. He wrote a poem that read: “Roses are red. You pigs are blue. When you start counting victims, there will be quite a few.”

Lincoln recalled Owen initiating conversations with detectives from the moment he was placed in the Palm Beach County jail. He told detectives to come to the jail to talk to him. Before he was charged with Slattery and Worden’s murders, detectives recorded more than 16 hours of conversation with Owen, Lincoln said. He was “selective” at first with what he shared, Lincoln said, and admitted to other crimes but not the murders.

After confessing committing a burglary to a Boca Raton officer, Owen said, “What am I really here for? Not petty burglaries.” And when the officer explained they believed he murdered a woman, he replied, “Well, finally I know the real reason,” court records said.

Owen eventually confessed to the attack at the Peter Pan Motel and to both murders, court records said.

Insanity claim denied

Owen has unsuccessfully challenged his fate in state and federal court over the years. As of Friday, his recent efforts to stay his execution have also failed.

His attorneys have sought to prevent his execution, writing in a 75-page motion that a jury never heard his “compelling mitigation,” denying him due process, that a neuropsychologist’s recent evaluation “determined he is not competent to proceed in postconviction proceedings” and is legally insane. The neuropsychologist called by the defense to evaluate Owen last month determined he met the criteria for schizophrenia.

DeSantis on May 22 temporarily stayed the execution date and appointed a commission of experts to evaluate Owen and determine whether he is sane. The three psychiatrists refuted the defense expert’s findings, writing in a report to the governor the next day that Owen is not mentally ill and is faking it to avoid the death penalty, according to a recent brief filed by the Attorney General’s Office.

The Florida Supreme Court issued an opinion Friday finding Owen sane to be executed.

Sada hadn’t kept track of Owen’s case over the decades. She said she figured he would never walk out of prison and she didn’t much care what happened to him.

What would she say to Owen?

“I would want to know why? Why would you do this? How could you do that to people?” Sada said.

In many ways, Johnson’s childhood was taken from her. Fear persisted. Still, she will check a house she enters for window coverings. In college, she couldn’t live on a first-floor apartment, knowing Owen broke in through windows.

As a mom now of a young woman herself, Johnson has a newfound appreciation for her parents who tried diligently to give Johnson a “life as normal as possible,” she said.

“Now that I’m an adult, I have no idea how they did that. The strength that it must have taken for them to do that must have been huge. Huge,” she said.

Johnson said she’s relieved the end of decades of legal wrangling has nearly arrived.

“I don’t think there’s anything that I could say or he could say that would make a difference,” she said. “I don’t forgive him. At all.”

Angie DiMichele can be reached at adimichele@sunsentinel.com, 754-971-0194 and on Twitter @angdimi.

The US and Canada saw dangerous smoke this week. It’s a routine peril for many developing countries

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 04:10

By SUMAN NAISHADHAM (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Thick, smoky air from Canadian wildfires made for days of misery in New York City and across the U.S. Northeast this week. But for much of the rest of the world, breathing dangerously polluted air is an inescapable fact of life — and death.

Almost the entire world breathes air that exceeds the World Health Organization’s air-quality limits at least occasionally. The danger grows worse when that bad air is more persistent than the nightmarish shroud that hit the U.S. — usually in developing or newly industrialized nations. That’s where most of the 4.2 million deaths blamed on outdoor air pollution occurred in 2019, the UN’s health agency reported.

“Air pollution has no boundaries, and it is high time everyone comes together to fight it,” said Bhavreen Kandhari, the co-founder of Warrior Moms in India, a network of mothers pushing for clean air and climate action in a nation with some of the world’s consistently worst air. “What we are seeing in the U.S. should shake us all.”

“This is a severe air pollution episode in the U.S.,” said Jeremy Sarnat, a professor of environmental health at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “But it’s fairly typical for what millions and millions of people experience in other parts of the world.”

Last year, nine of the 10 cities with the highest annual average of fine particulate matter were in Asia — including six in India, according to air quality company IQAir, which aggregates readings from ground level monitoring stations worldwide.

Fine particulate matter, sometimes denoted as PM 2.5, refers to airborne particles or droplets of 2.5 microns or less. That’s far smaller than a human hair, and the particles can reach deep into lungs to cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation and even affect heart function.

Sajjad Haider, a 31-year-old shopkeeper in Lahore, Pakistan, rides his motorbike to work daily. He wears a mask and goggles against frequent air pollution in the city of 11 million, but suffers from eye infections, breathing problems and chest congestion that get worse as smog grows in winter.

On his doctor’s advice, he relies on hot water and steam to clear his chest, but said he cannot follow another bit of the doctor’s advice: Don’t go out on his motorbike if he wants to keep his health.

“I can’t afford a car and I can’t continue my business without a motorbike,” said Haider.

Last year, Lahore had the world’s highest average concentration of fine particulate matter at nearly 100 micrograms per cubic meter of air. By comparison, New York City’s concentration hit 303 at one point on Wednesday.

But New York’s air typically falls well within healthy levels. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard for exposure is no more than 35 micrograms per day, and no more than 12 micrograms a day for longer-term exposure. New York’s annual average was 10 or below the past two years.

New Delhi, a heaving city of more than 20 million where Kandhari lives, usually tops the list of the many Indian cities gasping for breath as haze turns the capital’s sky gray and obscures buildings and monuments. It’s worse in autumn, when the burning of crop residues in neighboring states coincides with cooler temperatures that trap deadly smoke over the city, sometimes for weeks.

Vehicle emissions and fireworks set off during the Hindu Diwali festival add to the murk, and the results include coughs, headaches, flight delays and highway pileups. The government sometimes asks residents to work from home or carpool, some schools go online and families that can afford them turn to air purifiers.

On Thursday, even as a hazardous haze disrupted life for millions across the U.S., New Delhi still ranked as the second-most polluted city in the world, according to daily data from most air quality monitoring organizations.

Kandhari, whose daughter had to give up outdoor sports over health scares related to the bad air, said the air pollution is constant but policymakers only seem to notice its most acute moments. That has to change, she said.

“We should not compromise when it comes to access to cleaner air,” Kandhari said.

Many African countries in the Sahara Desert regularly grapple with bad air due to sandstorms. On Thursday, AccuWeather gave nations ranging from Egypt to Senegal a rating of purple, for dangerous air quality. It was the same rating given this week to New York and Washington, D.C.

Senegal has suffered unsafe air for years. It’s especially bad in Senegal’s east as desertification — the encroachment of the Sahara onto drylands — carries particles into the region, said Dr. Aliou Ba, a senior Greenpeace Africa campaigner based in the capital of Dakar.

The Great Green Wall, a massive tree-planting effort aimed at slowing desertification, has been underway for years. But Ba said pollution has been growing worse as the number of cars on the road, burning low-quality fuel, increases.

In the U.S., the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act cleared up many smog-filled cities by setting limits on most sources of air pollution. The landmark regulation led to curbs on soot, smog, mercury and other toxic chemicals.

But many developing and newly industrialized nations have weak or little-enforced environmental laws. They suffer increased air pollution for other reasons, too, including a reliance on coal, lower vehicle emissions standards and the burning of solid fuels for cooking and heating.

In Jakarta, capital of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, it’s often difficult to find clear blue sky, with power plants and vehicle emissions accounting for much of the pollution. It’s also one of the world’s largest coal-producing nations.

In one apartment building in the north of the city, between two busy ports where coal is shipped and stockpiled and where factories burn more, residents tried filtering coal dust with a net. It didn’t work.

“My family and I often feel itching and coughing,” Cecep Supriyadi, a 48-year-old resident, said. “So, when there is a lot of dust entering the flat, yes, we must be isolated at home. Because when we are outside the house, it feels like a sore throat, sore eyes, and itchy skin.”

An Indonesian court in 2021 ruled that leaders had neglected citizens’ rights to clean air and ordered them to improve it.

China has improved since Beijing was notorious for eye-watering pollution that wreathed office towers in haze, diverted flights and sent the old and young to hospitals to be put on respirators. When the air was at its worst, schools that could afford it installed inflatable covers over sports fields with airlock-style revolving doors and home air filters became as ubiquitous as rice cookers.

Key to the improvement was closing or moving heavy industries out of Beijing and nearby areas. Older vehicles were taken off the road, many replaced with electric vehicles. China still is the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, but almost none is consumed at street level. The average PM 2.5 reading in Beijing in 2013 of 89.5 — well above the WHO’s standard of 10 — fell to 58 in 2017 and now sits at around 30. China had just one city — Hotan — in the world’s top 10 for worst air.

Mexico City, ringed by mountains that trap bad air, was one of the most polluted cities in the world until the 1990s, when the government began limiting the number of cars on the streets. Pollution levels dropped, but the city’s 9 million people — 22 million including suburbs — rarely see a day when air pollution levels are considered “acceptable.”

Each year, air pollution is responsible for nearly 9,000 deaths in Mexico City, according to the National Institute of Public Health. It’s usually worse in the dry winter and early spring months, when farmers burn their fields to prepare for planting.

Authorities haven’t released a full-year air quality report since 2020, but that year — not considered particularly bad for pollution, because the pandemic reduced traffic— Mexico City saw unacceptable air quality on 262 days, or 72% of the year.

In the summer months, intense rains clean the city’s air somewhat. That’s what brought Verónica Tobar and her two children out Thursday to a small playground in the Acueducto neighborhood near one of the city’s most congested avenues.

“We don’t come when we see that the pollution is very strong,” Tobar said. Those days “you feel it in your eyes, you cry, they’re itchy,” she said.

Her son was diagnosed with asthma last year and changes in temperature make it worse.

“But we have to get out, we can’t be locked up,” Tobar said as her children jumped off a slide.


Naishadham reported from Washington. Associated Press researcher Yu Bing in Beijing and journalists Babar Dogar in Lahore, Pakistan; Mark Stevenson and Teresa de Miguel in Mexico City; Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi; Sam Mednick in Dakar, Senegal; Edna Tarigan and Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia; and data journalist Camille Fassett in Seattle contributed to this report.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Pythons are killing off predators in Everglades, leaving rats to thrive

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 04:00

If you don’t like rats, you might have more in common with invasive Burmese pythons than you think. A new study by the University of Florida shows that pythons in the Everglades are killing off predatory mammals such as foxes and bobcats and otters, but not depleting ample cotton rat populations.

Pythons, brought to Florida via the exotic pet trade in the 1970s, have thrived in the wild, establishing breeding populations, growing to as large at 18 feet, and wreaking havoc on the Everglades ecosystem. They’re also expanding up to Lake Okeechobee.

You’d think that adding a lethal predator like the python to the mix would bring down rat populations, but it hasn’t. In some instances, rat populations have actually increased.

“Mammal communities in python-invaded portions of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem are increasingly dominated by cotton rats and other rodents,” the study stated.

University of Florida mammalogist Robert McCleery, one of the researchers on the study, explained that cotton rats “are always a large part of any grassland system in the southeast, but in the Everglades, cotton rats and other small mammals … are now practically the entire mammal community.”

This can harm both ecosystems and people. The study states that “cotton rats are reservoirs for zoonotic viruses such as the Everglades Virus (EVEV) and hantaviruses.” Huntaviruses can lead to a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease, and is typically passed from rodent to human, not human to human, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say. With less mammal diversity in South Florida, cotton rats can “amplify the presence of these diseases,” the study says.

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Researchers from the University of Florida set out into the grassy swamplands of South Florida to find out how the invasive serpents were making room for rats. To do so they released radio-collared cotton rats into two wilderness Everglades areas — one, near Homestead, with lots of pythons and one at the Fran Reich Preserve west of Boca Raton, with almost none.

When they compared what killed the rats, the results were stark.

They then tracked the rats until they died — each collar had a mortality detector that signaled when the animals stopped moving for a long period of time. Then they located the collars to decipher the rats’ fate.

A researcher prepares to release a cotton rat wearing a radio-tracking collar into the Everglades. Biologists tracked the native rats to determine what was eating them. They found that in areas where pythons were present, larger mammals such as foxes and bobcats were essentially missing from the food chain, and not significantly preying on rats.

“Sometimes the snakes regurgitate [the collar], sometimes it’s in the poop, other times we actually find the snake,” said McCleery. “We caught, over two years, eight or nine pythons just with cotton rats [wearing trackers].”

Usually the researchers had to do a bit of poop forensics. If they found the collar in snake poop, they used DNA testing to determine it was from a python.

“An owl or red shouldered hawk or something like that — they kind of rip off the fur. So you’ll see the fur strewn about, and then you see some pecks on the collar, you see a feather or two and some whitewash [bird poop].”

McCleery said mammals will eat the whole rat and there will be bite marks on the collar once the bobcat or fox poops it out.

Researchers track cotton rats in the Everglades to determine what ate them. The study found that the presence of invasive Burmese pythons can diminish larger mammals such as foxes, and allow cotton rats to dominate an ecosystem.

On one occasion, things got weird. “We knew the tracker was in a snake,” said McCleery, “but we couldn’t catch the snake — it wasn’t a python, and then the snake was eaten by an alligator and we saw it swimming down the canal.”

Predatory mammals have gone missing

McCleery and his team found that when pythons show up, foxes, bobcats and coyotes lose. In the area with low python populations, mammal carnivores accounted for 35.7% of the rat deaths, but in the area with a high python population, mammals accounted for only 10.8% of the rat deaths.

Pythons killed none of the rats in the low-python area, and 16.2% in the high-python area.

Birds, such as hawks and owls, killed the rats at about the same rate as mammals in the low python area (35.7%), but picked up the rat slack in the high python area, killing almost half the rats.

Alligators and native snakes didn’t seem as affected by the pythons, and ate around 25% of the rat kills in each spot.

The takeaway, says the study, is that the rats survive at about the same rate regardless of pythons, but that pythons change who’s around to kill them. “We found that cotton rats had little risk of predation from mammalian carnivores on our site with high python occurrence,” said the study. In other words, there just aren’t many mammals left to eat the rats, but hawks and owls pick up a bit of the slack.

Though not part of the study analysis, some experts say that the pythons prefer larger mammals as prey because they offer more calories. Sure they’ll eat 10 rats if they have to, but would prefer to eat one big meal, like a fox, bobcat, possum or baby deer.

Researchers at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which tracks pythons, said that hatchlings eat mice and rats, but quickly move up the food chain. They found a 10-pound python with a 6-pound white tailed deer fawn in its stomach, and routinely find adult deer remains inside pythons of 100 pounds or more. White tailed deer, they said, are the primary prey base for the endangered Florida panther.

Previously, researchers had wondered what caused fox, bobcat and coyote populations to plummet in the Everglades — was it because pythons ate their food, or ate them? This study and others indicated that cotton rats’ high birth rate means there’s plenty of food for foxes and bobcats, so the cause of their demise is likely pythons.


McCleery said there are two significant consequences to pythons promoting rat dominance.

One is that because cotton rats are always present, there’s always going to be something for the pythons to eat — they won’t eat themselves out of a prey base. The second thing, he said, is that globally we are replacing larger animals with smaller ones. “There’s all these things that [larger] mammals do — they do seed dispersal and nutrient cycling and soil aeration, all these things, and now all we have are these cotton rats. They don’t do all the functions that we need, that are lost.”

The one positive, McCleery said, is that the rats have proven to be so resilient to the invasive pythons that if we can ever recover mammals such as foxes, bobcats and mink, they’ll have plenty of food.

The United States v. Donald J. Trump | Editorial

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 04:00

America’s security secrets were stacked next to a toilet at Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion.

Trump's contempt for United States national security, captured in a single photograph: pic.twitter.com/j9GY2ttwFC

— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) June 9, 2023

A Department of Justice photograph shows more than two dozen white bankers’ boxes, perched one on top of another, in a bathroom at The Mar-a-Lago Club, with a shower curtain and vanity in the background. According to the 49-page indictment, the illegally stored records included a Pentagon “plan of attack” and a classified map related to a military operation.

The picture is damning in its sloppiness and the casualness with which Trump treated sensitive national security information. It was released on Friday as the government unsealed a federal indictment that accuses Trump of 37 separate criminal charges related to mishandling hundreds of classified documents. Trump will formally answer to the charges Tuesday afternoon at a federal courthouse in Miami — the first time in U.S. history that a former president is facing federal crimes. One charge, corruptly concealing a document or record, carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years; Trump is 76 years old.

It’s historic. It’s unprecedented. And naturally, it did not immediately destroy Trump’s presidential ambitions. On the contrary, the norm-shattering Trump will exploit a grave indictment for his political advantage and use it to galvanize his MAGA political base and raise money. Who would publicly announce his own indictment, as Trump did, unless he saw a political upside?

In any other decade …

“In any other decade, this would be more than enough to kill a presidential contender in the crib,” Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told the Associated Press. “That’s no longer the case, particularly for Donald Trump … This comes as a surprise to very few Republicans.”

In the greatest country on earth, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination stands accused by the government he once led of violating the federal Espionage Act. That’s breathtaking enough all by itself.

But it gets worse. This is Trump’s second indictment in three months, following the 34-count filing in New York relating to secret hush money payments to two women who said they had trysts with Trump. At least two other criminal investigations of Trump are still pending.

It is a sad and weighty moment when a former president is charged with crimes against our country. That it could have happened to Richard Nixon 49 years ago, and in many people’s opinions should have, no longer matters. It should be a point of pride that we have a Justice Department that is willing and able to uphold the principle that no one is above the law.

Like anyone else in America, Trump is entitled to the presumption of innocence unless and until the special counsel proves the charges against him beyond a reasonable doubt. These are unproven allegations at this point. Everyone else should hold their temper and their tongues and let the law play out.

But if no one is above the law, not everyone respects that.

‘A very dark day’

The reactions of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (“a very dark day in America … we’re not going to stand for it”) and other Republicans are beneath contempt.

Once again, Republicans posture as if Trump, and by implication any other Republican president, should be exempt from the law. That is a hideously irresponsible message to send to the American people. In addition, the threats by Congressional Republicans to attack the Biden administration for allowing the law to work must be taken seriously.

The principle that no one is above the law is embedded in the Constitution in Article I, Section 3: “Judgment in cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States; but the party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to law.”

Federal prosecutors want to try Trump as soon as possible, to avoid any possibility of interference with the 2024 presidential election. It already seems too late for that.

In the latest sign of how Trump retains a cult-like grip on the Republican base, most of his rivals for the nomination rushed to his defense Friday, led by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who tweeted: “The weaponization of federal law enforcement represents a mortal threat to a free society.”

Of all our statewide elected officials, though, none was as pathetic and obsequious as Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who tweeted, “He’s a former President for God sakes … beloved by tens of millions of Americans,” as though Trump’s popularity among his and Patronis’ base voters should guarantee legal immunity.

As Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith said in a brief and highly unusual public appearance Friday: “We have one set of laws in this country and they apply to everyone.”

Especially to Donald J. Trump.

The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, email at letters@sun-sentinel.com.

Brightline service from South Florida to Orlando could be cut in half under Coast Guard plan for St. Lucie River drawbridge

South Florida Local News - Sat, 06/10/2023 - 04:00

A proposed U.S. Coast Guard test program to require a railroad drawbridge over the St. Lucie River to stay open for longer periods of time may force Brightline, the higher speed train service, to cut its planned service to Orlando by half, railroad officials say.

The span is a critical segment that Brightline must use as part of its highly anticipated expansion to Orlando from West Palm Beach. The new passenger service is expected to start late this summer with 16 trains a day in each direction.

The bridge is also currently used by more than a dozen Florida East Coast Railway freight trains a day. The FEC owns and operates the bridge, which is part of a 351-mile coastal rail corridor between Jacksonville and Miami. Its freight trains move products ranging from automobiles, perishables and packaged foods, to building and industrial materials, ethanol, bio-fuels and liquid natural gas. Rail officials fear the proposed test will cause significant delays to and from  Port Everglades, the Port of Palm Beach and PortMiami.

The rule would require freight trains that are more than 2.5 miles long and all Brightline trains to stop when the bridge is open for marine use. The impact, according to Brightline and the FEC, would be to bring trains to a stop while they wait for the bridge to lower — blocking busy crossings along the rail corridor, including downtown Stuart.

Under current operating rules, the bridge is open until a train comes, allowing boats to pass through. Within 8 minutes of a train approaching, a red light flashes and the bridge goes down, then goes back up after the train passes.

During the test period envisioned by the Coast Guard, which would run from June 21 through December 17, the bridge “would open on signal at the quarter and three-quarter hour and remain open until all vessels requiring or requesting an opening have cleared, except any open period shall not exceed 15 minutes,” according to a notice the Coast Guard filed Thursday in the Federal Register.

“If a train is in the track circuit at the designated opening time, the opening may be delayed up to but not exceed five minutes,” the filing adds. “Once the train has cleared the track circuit, the bridge must open immediately, if requested, and remain open until all vessels requiring an opening have cleared.”

In a joint statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Brightline and the FEC called the proposed test period “deeply flawed and will result in dramatic impacts to local traffic, create safety issues for the public, and is impossible for freight and passenger railroad operations to comply.”

The companies also asserted that the plan  “was done unilaterally and without authority or regard for due process.”

“We will continue to pursue reasonable and equitable resolutions to the issue of bridge operations and simultaneously continue to encourage progress toward the ultimate solution which is the development of a new bridge and a Treasure Coast Brightline station,” they added.

Transparency pledge

On Friday, a Coast Guard spokesman based in Miami Beach said the military service is trying to account for the needs of everyone who has economic and other interests along and around the river.

“This has been an ongoing process,” said Lt. Commander John Beal. “For at least the past year it has been in the works.”

He added that the last opportunity for public comments was in July of last year. The clock started on a comment period this past Thursday.

“We will remain transparent and consider multiple interests while ensuring safe navigation and reasonable access for mariners,” the Coast Guard said in a separate statement.

The bridge issue has the attention of members of Congress.

Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican whose district covers the affected rail segment, has been an active advocate for local maritime interests, criticizing a repair plan that would close the bridge to boating traffic. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

But in a statement Friday, Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Democrat from Weston, said she and Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart are seeking to ensure that all business and residential interests are served by changes involving the bridge.

“Congressman Diaz-Balart and I are working very closely with Coast Guard and industry leaders to reach our mutual goal of protecting the safe, swift movement of traffic, cargo, and passengers throughout South Florida,” she said. “Adjusting this proposed, temporary Port St. Lucie River bridge alteration is important to ensure that it does not significantly impact commuters, supply chains or travel throughout our state, is in the best interest of all residents, businesses, and visitors.”

Local residents in May registered their opposition to Brightline’s plans in federal court. Thirteen businesses sued the FEC, Army Corp of Engineers and Coast Guard to stop Brightline’s proposed schedule, which would require the bridge to be closed to marine traffic for unacceptably long periods of time.

Perennial tensions

Over the years, tensions between the railroads spanning South Florida’s inland waterways and boaters and other marine interests that use them have been a prominent feature of the region’s transportation network.

In downtown Fort Lauderdale, the FEC corridor crosses the New River via a similar drawbridge that is just four feet above the water when the span is in the down position to let the trains pass by. In January, a mechanical failure prompted the FEC to keep the span down for two days, preventing boats from passing west of the rail line where a significant number of yacht maintenance centers are located.

The bridge is a short distance south of Brightline’s downtown Fort Lauderdale station, and slightly north of the point where the FEC uses a rail spur to deliver and pick up freight at Port Everglades.north of Fort Lauderdale.”]

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