Entries in Orlando (26)


"Death at SeaWorld": Book Slams Popular Theme Park

Hemera/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- More than two years after the horrific death of a SeaWorld killer whale trainer, former trainers from the popular Orlando, Fla., theme park have taken the park to task for its safety record and its treatment of killer whales, also known as orcas, in the new book, Death at Sea World.

In February 2010, a 12,000-pound killer whale named Tilikum dragged veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau under water to her death.  Tilikum was also linked to two other deaths -- that of another trainer in 1991 and of a man who snuck into Tilikum's tank in 1999.

"SeaWorld can make the environment safe, according to them, 98 percent of the time.  But what happens when the world's top predator decides to go off behavior?" former trainer Jeffrey Ventre asked in an interview with ABC's 20/20.

In a statement emailed to ABC News, SeaWorld called its killer whale program "a model for marine zoological facilities around the world" and said that in the last two years, additions "in the areas of personal safety, facility design and communication have enhanced this program further still."

Ventre was one of four former SeaWorld trainers interviewed by Death at Sea World author David Kirby.  Ventre was fired from SeaWorld in 1995 because, he claimed, he had voiced his concerns about the treatment of whales there.  (In his book, Kirby reports that Ventre was fired a week after kissing a whale's tongue, in violation of park rules.  Ventre said in the book that many had violated the so-called "tongue-tacticle" rule but were not disciplined and called his firing "total bull****.")

SeaWorld declined to comment on Ventre's history with the park but issued the following statement on Kirby's book: "While we have not yet been given the opportunity to read Mr. Kirby's book, we are familiar with his articles and blog posts on SeaWorld and the issues of marine mammal display."

Kirby, the park said, "has been very candid about his personal opposition to SeaWorld's killer whale program and we anticipate that his book will expand on those themes.  We disagree with Kirby's positions on marine mammal display and hope that he, unlike others who engage in the debate over these issues, confines his arguments to matters of fact."

In his book, Kirby wrote that there are no records of orcas in the wild attacking humans but, in captivity, aggression against trainers is not uncommon.

Kirby also noted that it may not just be the trainers who suffer. Killer whales in captivity have a mortality rate of 2.5 times higher than those living in the Pacific Northwest, Kirby wrote, citing a paper by marine mammal scientist Naomi Rose of the Humane Society.

Trainers interviewed by Kirby spoke of whales breaking their teeth on metal gates and having broken teeth removed with power drills; mother whales going into mourning after being separated from their offspring; and trainers being instructed to "masturbate" Tilikum -- the whale later blamed for Brancheau's death -- to collect semen for an artificial insemination program.

Former trainer John Jett said in the book that trainers were routinely kept in the dark about safety problems related to killer whale work.

"A lack of detailed information was the norm whenever accidents happened at other parks," he said.  "I remember one incident when all of us were pulled from water work for a short time.  To this day, I don't know what happened."

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Orlando Woman's Disappearance Now 'Suspicious'

Ryan McVay/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- The disappearance of a diabetic woman missing for more than a month has been upgraded to suspicious, Florida police said on Monday.

"This is still a missing person," Orlando police Sgt. Vincent Ogburn said.  "But, usually, within a month, the person is located or someone would have seen her vehicle."

On May 8 at around 9 p.m., Sandra LeMire, 47, told her grandmother, Pauline Varner, she was going to a McDonald's in Kissimmee, Fla., to meet a man she had been in contact with online.

Usually, Varner said, LeMire would have her dates at Varner's home, where she lived, so that her grandmother would be close by. But this time was different.  The man LeMire was meeting worked at McDonald's.  She made plans to meet at his workplace, talk a little over coffee, and come home, Varner said.

Varner let LeMire borrow her car, a 1994 red Ford Freestar, so she could be on her way. LeMire called her grandmother when she arrived, "like she always does," to tell her she had gotten there.  She told her, "I will call you before I start back home." That call never came, Varner said.  LeMire has not been seen since.

Robert Varner, LeMire's father, said "there's a good possibility that they [police] believe she's still alive, so we have hope about that.  We want some kind of closure, no matter what.  If it's bad news or good news."

Police spokesman Ogburn said the department has been unable to verify that LeMire was last seen at the Kissimmee McDonald's where she had her date.  But the man with whom she met there is not a person of interest in LeMire's disappearance, and "his story has been validated and verified," he said.

Pauline Varner said, "All they know from the cameras is that they did have their coffee.  It was about a half-hour.  Then, he went back to work, she went to the car."

Varner is concerned because LeMire is diabetic and left home without her medical supplies.

Ogburn said the Orlando Police deem the incident suspicious in nature because there have been no sightings of LeMire or the van since her disappearance.

"Oftentimes, we have people who just leave," he said.  "They don't want to be recovered by her family, they don't want to be found."

Sandra's uncle, James Varner, believes this is not the case with his niece.

"I know she wouldn't do this," he said.  "It's so many different things it could be.  She had been told by her father that this Internet business, meeting people isn't a good idea, it's dangerous.  But when you're 47 years old, you're going to do what you're going to do.  Lonely hearts, you know?"

Crimeline is offering a $5,000 reward for any information about LeMire or her vehicle, Ogburn said.  LeMire is 5 feet 4 inches tall with blonde hair.  She weighs about 130 pounds.  The vehicle she was driving has a Florida license tag J36-8ZE.

If anyone knows of her whereabouts, call Crimeline at 1-800-423-TIPS.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Florida Watch Shooting Probe Reveals Questionable Police Conduct

AbleStock/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- ABC News has uncovered questionable police conduct in the investigation of the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white neighborhood watch captain in Florida, including the alleged "correction" of at least one eyewitness' account.

Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee said there is no evidence to dispute self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman's assertion that he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin out of self-defense.

"Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him," Lee said.

Martin had been staying at his father's girlfriend's house during the night of the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 26.  The teenager went out to get some Skittles and a can of ice tea.  On his way back into the gated suburban Orlando community, Martin, wearing a hood, was spotted by Zimmerman, 26.

According to law enforcement sources who heard Zimmerman's call to a non-emergency police number, he told a dispatcher "these a..holes always get away."

Zimmerman described Martin as suspicious because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly in the rain, police later told residents at a town hall.

A dispatcher told Zimmerman to wait for a police cruiser, and not leave his vehicle.  But about a minute later, he left his car wearing a red sweatshirt and pursued Martin on foot between two rows of townhouses -- about 70 yards from where the teen was going.

Witnesses told ABC News a fist fight broke out and at one point Zimmerman, who outweighed Martin by more than 100 pounds, was on the ground and that Martin was on top.

Several residents heard someone cry for help, just before hearing a gunshot.  Police arrived 60 seconds later and the teen was quickly pronounced dead.

According to the police report, Zimmerman, who was armed with a handgun, was found bleeding from the nose and the back of the head, standing over Martin, who was unresponsive after being shot.

An officer at the scene overheard Zimmerman saying, "I was yelling for someone to help me but no one would help me," the report said.  Witnesses told ABC News they heard Zimmerman pronounce aloud to the residents watching that "it was self-defense."

But after the shooting, a source inside the police department told ABC News that a narcotics detective and not a homicide detective first approached Zimmerman.  The detective peppered Zimmerman with questions, the source said, rather than allow Zimmerman to tell his story.  Questions can lead a witness, the source said.

Another officer corrected a witness after she told him that she heard the teen cry for help.  The officer told her, a long-time teacher, it was Zimmerman who cried for help, the witness told ABC News.

The Sanford Police Department refused to release 911 calls by witnesses and neighbors.  Several of the calls, ABC News has learned, contain the sound of the single gunshot.

Lee publicly admitted that officers accepted Zimmerman's word at the scene that he had no police record.  Yet public records showed that Zimmerman was charged with battery against an officer and resisting arrest in 2005, a charge that was later expunged.

Zimmerman has not responded to requests for comment.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Cops Search for Missing Florida Baby, Teen Parents

Thinkstock/Getty Images(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- A missing 1-year-old boy from Orlando, Fla., his teen mother and teen father, who is a registered sex offender, are being sought by police, ABC affiliate WFTV reported.

The baby boy’s grandmother reported the three missing on Jan. 21 after her daughter, Jessica Gonzalez, 18, and the child did not return home, Orange County Sheriff’s Office officials told ABC affiliate WFTV in Orlando.

Sheriff’s deputies said the three were last spotted around 9 a.m. Friday walking along U.S. Highway 192 near Armstrong Boulevard in Kissimmee, Fla.

The baby’s father, Sean J. Schwartz, 17, is listed on the Florida Sexual Offenders and Predators list as “absconded,” which means he no longer lives at the last address he registered with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

“What we are trying to do right now is determine the safety of the child. Make sure he’s doing well,” Capt. Angelo Nieves of the sheriff’s office said.

Schwartz, who was convicted of lewd or lascivious molestation of a victim under 12 years old with the offender under 18 years old, according to the FDLE sex offender registry website, is only allowed supervised visits with his son.

“Obviously there is a history with this young man regarding a prior incident with him and he has a criminal record, and again we are concerned with the child’s safety,” Nieves said.

The Department of Children and Families is also investigating the case.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


'People's Court' Missing Mom: Family Believes Foul Play

ABC News(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- A tip led to the discovery of missing Florida mom Michelle Parker's cell phone at the bottom of a lake, and the battered iPhone indicates foul play to her family, according to the Parker family attorney.

Though the family has so far been publicly optimistic about the search for the mother of three, "hope is starting to fade."

"On the one hand, the family was relieved to get some kind of lead in regards to the disappearance of their daughter," Parker family attorney Matt Morgan told ABC News. "On the other hand, it was devastating for them because at this point, they're coming to grips with the fact that a tragic day is likely imminent."

On Friday, investigators resumed a full-scale search in the area where the cell phone was found, using all-terrain vehicles and divers in the water.

Though the cell phone was found about 40 minutes from Parker's home, the lake is only five minutes from the home of her ex-fiance Dale Smith, who is also the police's prime suspect in the investigation and the father of two of Parker's three children.

The Parker family's newfound despair follows the recovery of Michelle Parker's missing iPhone from the bottom of an Orlando lake. Police have released a photo of the phone that has been submerged for more than three weeks and it has been sent to forensic specialists to see what information can be extracted from it.

The family immediately recognized the pink, blue and black Hurley cover on Parker's iPhone.

The 33-year-old mother of three disappeared on Nov. 17, the same day an episode of The People's Court aired that she and Smith appeared on to resolve a dispute over a $5,000 engagement ring.

The couple's tumultuous relationship played out in the episode and details of Smith's violent past emerged after Parker's disappearance. Even though Smith is the police's main suspect, an Orlando court gave him custody of his and Parker's three-year-old twins just one day after the children had been removed from his care.

The Parker grandparents have not seen their grandchildren since the hearing when a judge gave Smith custody.

Smith's attorney Mark LaJame has said his client has voluntarily met with police three times and has cooperated fully with the investigation.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Police Raid House in Search of Missing Orlando Mother of Three

Thinkstock/Getty Images(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Police raided an Orlando, Fla., home overnight as they probed the 10-day disappearance of Michelle Parker, the mother who vanished the same day she and her ex-fiancé aired a dispute on The People's Court.

"Roughly 12 guys piled out, banged on the door, [and] yelled 'search warrant, search warrant,' and basically took everybody out of the house," neighbor Don Partin said.

The home belongs to Dale Smith Sr., the father of Parker's ex-fiancé, Dale Smith Jr., according to reports.

Smith Sr. was removed from the home in handcuffs, witnesses told ABC News affiliate WFTV. Two women, another man and some children also were taken out of the house, according to witness reports.

"They took everybody out, sat them in the yard," Partin said. "And then the cops went in, and the crime lab went in and pretty much everybody from all departments showed up."

It was unclear what initiated the raid.

Parker, 33, has been missing since Nov. 17, the day The People's Court aired an episode that exposed the tumultuous relationship between her and Smith Jr., the father of her two children.

Parker disappeared after she dropped her 3-year-old twins off at the Smith's house, the last place Parker was seen.

Police and Parker's parents have been saying Smith Jr. is not a suspect.

Appearing on the courtroom show, Parker and Smith battled over whether she had to pay for a $5,000 engagement ring she tossed away during one of their spats. The judge ruled the two should split the cost.

In the episode, the couple hurled accusations at each other and fought nastily. A court reporter called their relationship a "fatal attraction."

Parker's parents amped up their search for their daughter this weekend, even offering a $50,000 reward for any information leading to her whereabouts.

That reward had an expiration date of Sunday to motivate tipsters to act soon.

"If you know something, you know it," Parker's mother Yvonne Stewart said.

Parker's mother wanted a time limit on the reward money to encourage people with tips to come forward immediately.

"She's worth millions of dollars to me and my family, but I think $50,000 is an awesome amount," said Stewart.

Earlier this week, Parker's family released her final voicemail and a new batch of photos in the hope that someone would recognize the missing mother of three.

Parker left a nine-second message for her father on the day before she vanished, asking him to call her.

"Anything families can do to keep their case in front of the media and the public, they should do," said Brad Garrett, an ABC News consultant and former FBI special agent.

Parker's family has conceded that Smith's relationship with Parker was volatile, but Smith has also been described as a dedicated and loving father who cared for Parker, even when the two didn't get along.

While police do not currently consider Dale Smith a suspect, they have not ruled him out as a possibility.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Jury to Deliberate in Florida Millionaire's Murder Trial

Comstock/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- After multiple outbursts in court this week, millionaire developer James Robert "Bob" Ward chose to stay silent when asked if he wanted to take the stand in the trial where he is accused of shooting and killing his wife.

Diane Ward, 55, was found dead in the Isleworth, Fla., home she shared with the wealthy land developer in September 2009.  Ward, 63, is accused of shooting her at point blank range.

The defense team has argued that a combination of high amounts of alcohol along with depression medication caused Diane Ward to become suicidal, leading her husband to grab the gun from her hand.

In closing arguments Thursday, Ward's attorney Kirk Kirkconnell presented the defense's claim -- that his client was trying to prevent his wife from killing herself when the gun went off.

"We don't know if it was a suicide or not, and we don't know what her intentions were when she took that gun," Kirkconnell told the court.

Prosecutors disagree, and argue that Ward, in a fit of rage, intentionally shot his wife in the face.

"This is about a dead woman and the laws of the state of Florida," the prosecution said.

The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday.

If convicted, Ward could face more than 20 years in prison.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


SeaWorld Fights Charges after Trainer's Death

Stockbyte/Thinkstock (file photo)(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- SeaWorld Orlando and federal officials are sparring in a Florida courtroom this week over charges that the popular theme park put its employees at risk by allowing them to perform shows in potentially dangerous conditions.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration filed an extensive complaint detailing the allegedly unsafe work environment at SeaWorld and said in court Wednesday that the theme park failed to keep proper documentation of whale behaviors that could endanger trainers.

The complaint comes on the heels of the death of Dawn Brancheau, a trainer who was violently drowned by a killer whale named Tilikum during a live show at the Orlando park in February 2010.

In a copy of the complaint provided to ABC News, OSHA specifically mentions the killer whale.

"At the Shamu Stadium pools animal trainers working with Tilikum, a killer whale with known aggressive tendencies and who was involved in the 1991 death of a whale trainer at a marine park in Vancouver, British Columbia, were exposed to struck-by and drowning hazards in that they were allowed unprotected contact with Tilikum," the complaint states.

SeaWorld vehemently denies the charges that it put its employees at risk.

"These allegations are completely baseless, unsupported by any evidence or precedent, and reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the safety requirements associated with marine mammal care," wrote SeaWorld in a statement.

SeaWorld is asking that a judge throw out the three federal safety citations, which would not only slam the park with up to $75,000 in fines -- but also threaten its famous shows.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Florida Millionaire on Trial for Wife's Murder

Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Millionaire developer James Robert "Bob" Ward shot his wife dead in a fit of rage in the bedroom of the Florida couple's mansion, prosecutors told a jury Thursday during opening statements in Ward's murder trial, while his defense characterized the death as a "tragic accident."

"This case is about the fact that it was Bob Ward that shot her almost dead between the eyes," Assistant State Attorney Robin Wilkinson said in an Orange County, Fla., courthouse Thursday.

The prosecution played a recording of the 911 call Ward made to police moments after his wife, Diane, was shot to death in their Isleworth home on Sept. 21, 2009.  The 55-year-old woman was killed just days before her scheduled deposition in an investigation into whether her husband took money from his companies to support his lavish lifestyle.

"I just shot my wife … I just shot my wife.  I just shot my wife.  She's dead.  She's done.  I'm sorry," he says in the tape.

His daughter, Sarah Ward, cried when she heard the tape.  Her father consoled her.

Prosecutors say Ward, 63, admitted to shooting his wife, then changed his story to say she killed herself as he was trying to take the gun away from her.

But defense attorney Kirk Kirkconnell outlined a different scenario for jurors, telling them Diane Ward had a strong mix of alcohol and antidepressants in her system, and that her husband was just trying to save her when she was killed.

"He hears a sound behind him.  He turns to the sound and right there is his wife with the gun in her hand.  With a loaded gun in her hand.  She is right there.  She is right on top of him.  Not a word is spoken.  What do you do in that situation?  Instinctively Bob grabs the gun tries to wrestle it away," Kirkconnell said.

Gunshot tests prove the victim was shot from 18 inches away, making it difficult for her to have killed herself, the prosecution said.

Ward is charged with second-degree murder.  His trial is taking place in the same court where Casey Anthony was acquitted, marking the second notorious trial in Orlando, Fla., in a matter of months.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Florida Millionaire's Murder Trial: Jury Selection Underway

Comstock/Thinkstock(ORLANDO, Fla.) -- Jury selection is underway in the murder trial of a Florida millionaire who called 911 from his mansion to announce that he had shot his wife in the face.

James Robert "Bob" Ward, 63, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder charges.  His trial will take place in the same court where Casey Anthony was acquitted, marking the second notorious trial in Orlando, Fla., in a matter of months.

On Sept. 21, 2009, Ward called 911 from the couple's exclusive Isleworth home, telling a dispatcher five times that he had shot his wife, Diane, in her face.  Isleworth is a community that was once home to celebrities like Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer.

"She's dead.  She's done.  I'm sorry," he said in the 911 call.

While being questioned later, Ward told police, "I'm really concerned about my wife and children.  I have two kids in college and it's a nightmare, but we probably need to go ahead and get a lawyer in here."

As the interrogation continued, Ward began to change his story, arguing that his wife actually pulled the trigger and committed suicide as he tried to take the gun away.  Diane Ward had high levels of an antidepressant in her system as well as alcohol, according to court documents.

During Ward's interrogation, detectives noted his oddly composed demeanor.

"James Ward was smiling, and seemed to be in an upbeat mood," one detective wrote in court documents.

Video captured Ward calling relatives to say that his wife was dead, and jailhouse footage caught him dancing and laughing with his daughter and sister-in-law.

ABC News' legal analyst Dan Abrams said that the videos, while disconcerting, may not play a big factor in the trial.

"They make him look odd, they make him look bad, but I don't think it's going to be that significant in terms of guilt or innocence.  These are her [Diane Ward's] family members as well," Abrams said.

Prosecutors argue that Bob Ward's DNA was found on the gun and that Diane Ward was shot from more than a foot away.  Diane Ward was also shot within days of being scheduled to give a deposition in a financial investigation against her husband.  Bob Ward faced allegations that he took money from his companies to support his lavish lifestyle.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio