Woman who disappeared while jury deliberated found guilty of drug trafficking

A Bay County jury discounted a woman’s testimony in her own defense and found her guilty of drug trafficking Wednesday, but she never returned once deliberations began and is now a fugitive, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Circuit Court Judge Brantley Clark ordered a capias for the arrest of Ashley Yvonne Peters after dismissing the jurors who found her guilty of Trafficking in Methamphetamine (between 14 and 28 grams), Possession of Paraphernalia, and Tampering with Physical Evidence.

Ashley Yvonne Peters

Peters, 37, a white female about 5 feet, 3 inches tall, and weighing about 200 pounds, was present during the trial and took the stand in her own defense for about 10 minutes Wednesday morning.

Following Prosecutor Jennifer Lieb’s closing arguments and the judge’s jury instructions, deliberations began at 11:37 a.m. and court was in recess. Court was reconvened at 12:18 to address a question from jurors and the defendant was not there. When it was announced around 1:30 p.m. that the jury had reached a verdict – but before jurors were brought back into the courtroom – the court made a finding that the defendant was voluntarily absent.

The jury announced its guilty verdicts and after jurors were released Judge Clark found the defendant had also violated a previous Violation of Probation for Possession of Methamphetamine and ordered a hold-without-bond capias for her arrest.

The defendant is facing up to 30 years in prison on the drug-trafficking charge, with the first 3 years being minimum-mandatory.

Lieb called four witnesses: Bay County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Gage Cowart, the case agent; BCSO Inv. Doug Cummings; Panama City Beach Police Department Det. Stephanie Thomas and Florida Department of Law Enforcement analyst Pallavi Vira.

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The witnesses’ testimony and evidence presented at trial proved that the defendant was driving a vehicle involved in a traffic stop June 18, 2020, around 9:40 p.m. Cummings’ K9, Bix, detected the odor of narcotics coming from the vehicle.

The defendant, before a female officer could search her, admitted she had about an ounce of Methamphetamine in her underwear. It was recovered and a search of the vehicle turned up a digital scale, syringes, and other paraphernalia.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

Two life sentences for Ortiz in Beach murder

Abel Ortiz was given two Life sentences Tuesday for his part in the Dec. 29, 2019 attempted robbery and murder of Edward Kenneth Ross in his Panama City Beach home, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

The defendant was found guilty as charged Sept. 22 of First Degree Felony Murder and Attempted Robbery with a Firearm after a three-day trial. He was one of three gunmen who burst into the Ross home Dec. 29, armed and seeking to rob the victim. Instead, all three shot at the victim, with the defendant shooting 7 times and hitting the victim with 3 bullets, including a final shot to the back.

Prosecutor Mark Graham addresses Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay, asking for the maximum sentence.

The gunmen fled as the victim died before his father’s eyes.

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“Mr. Ortiz, in some way your robbery was a success,” the victim’s father told the court in his Victim Impact Statement. “You robbed me of a son and the family that he would have … I now have to live for the rest of my life with the images of my son laying on the floor bleeding out, gasping for air and watching as the life light in his eyes went out while I was on the phone with 911.”

Bay County Chief Prosecutor Mark Graham asked for the maximum sentence.

“Out of the accomplices and shooters, this defendant is the most vicious,” Bay County Chief Prosecutor Mark Graham told Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay at sentencing. “The defendant deserves the same mercy that he showed Edward Ross that night when he leaned over the couch and shot him in the back as he lay helpless on the floor.”

Because the defendant was a juvenile – he was about 6 months away from turning 18 when the crime occurred – the sentencing was guided by different Florida Statutes than it would have been for an adult.

The defendant, right, and his attorney in court Tuesday.

That started with the jury’s verdict form, which included special “findings” for both charges that jurors had to decide. On the First Degree Felony Murder Charge, jurors found that the defendant actually possessed and discharged a firearm causing great bodily harm or death, and that he killed or intended to kill the victim. This meant the minimum sentence the defendant faced would be 40 years, with the first 25 years being served day-for-day. The maximum sentence was Life.

On the Attempted Robbery with a Firearm charge, in addition to finding the defendant guilty, jurors found he possessed and discharged a firearm during the crime causing “great bodily harm or death” to the victim. That also carried a maximum sentence of Life in prison.

And regardless of the sentence, under Florida Law the defendant, because he was a juvenile at the time, will be eligible for a sentencing review after 25 years.

Graham, in asking for the maximum, pointed out the defendant was only six months away from being an adult when he committed the murder, was a willing and eager participant, fired multiple times including a final shot to the back as the victim lay helpless, and bragged about the killing to others.

Graham also noted the defendant had a lengthy criminal history with 13 arrests prior to the homicide. And since his arrest and turning 18, Graham said, the defendant has had 15 disciplinary actions at the Bay County Jail.

Prosecutor Mark Graham addressing jurors during Ortiz’ trial.

Finally, Graham introduced courtroom footage taken after the verdict was delivered and as jurors were being escorted out. As they passed the defense table, the defendant cursed at them.

“The defendant continues to demonstrate that he cannot comply with rules and/or directions,” Graham said, adding later, “The defendant’s extensive juvenile history and the number of juvenile sanctions that were imposed on the defendant clearly shows that he has little or no chance to be rehabilitated.”

Judge Gay, in handing down 2 Life sentences, ordered that they be served concurrently as required by law.

For additional information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

 

 

 

Guilty verdict, life sentence in Jackson County sexual battery on a child case

MARIANNA – A man found guilty Friday of holding a teenager against her will while he sexually battered her has been sentenced to Life in prison without the possibility of parole, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Thomas Leroy Davis, 45, of Greenwood, was found guilty Friday of Sexual Battery Upon a Child 12 years of Age or Older but Under 18 Years of Age, and False Imprisonment. Circuit Court Judge Timothy Register sentenced the defendant to Life without parole on the first charge and 5 years in prison on the second, with the sentences to run concurrently.

Thomas Davis

Jackson County Chief Prosecutor Shalla Jefcoat put on witnesses who provided testimony and evidence that the defendant committed the offense against the victim in April, 2020, inside a home.

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Testimony showed that someone who heard the victim yelling for help rushed to her aid and the defendant fled. He was picked up a short distance away by Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputies.

The jury took about 2 ½ hours to reach its verdict of guilty as charged. The defendant has four prior felony convictions and previously went to prison.

Basford thanked the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center for the case it put together, as well as the witness who responded to the victim’s cries for help.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

JURY: Belc guilty of 1st Degree Murder in 2018 shooting of wife

BLOUNTSTOWN – A case that stretched over 4 years ended Friday when a jury took just over an hour to convict Dan Belc of murdering his wife in 2018 after she filed for divorce and refused his demands for reconciliation.

Belc was found guilty of First-Degree Murder for killing Judith Belc, as well as Aggravated Assault for waving his gun at the victim’s brother, who was coming to her aid behind the family’s home, and threatening to shoot him. Chief Circuit Court Judge Christopher Patterson ordered Belc held in the Calhoun County Jail until sentencing, at which time he faces Life in Prison without the possibility of parole.

Prosecutor Bill Wright during closing arguments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Northwest Florida is a good place to live, but when tragedies happen, we make sure that justice is served,” State Attorney Larry Basford told a large gathering of Judith Belc’s relatives in the courtroom after the verdict. “We could not have done this without your help.”

“Thank you for everything,” responded Judith Belc’s brother, Robert Yoder Jr., who was also a witness in the case. “We appreciate the work and how much everyone involved cared.”

Prosecutor Bill Wright addresses jurors, left, with State Attorney Larry Basford.
The defendant and attorneys watch bodycam footage of a traffic stop earlier the day of the murder.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calhoun County Chief Prosecutor Bill Wright, who led the prosecution team, said he was pleased that a verdict in the week-long trial was returned in about 70 minutes.

“It’s amazing how often they get it right,” he said of the duties given to jurors. “We could not have done this without the help of the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, the FDLE, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the staff here at the State Attorney’s Office and the family.

“And I am looking forward to the defendant spending the rest of his life in prison and the family finally getting justice.”

Prosecutor Bill Wright during his cross-examination of the defendant.

Within hours of the shooting and before he was in custody, the defendant admitted to multiple people that three bullets he fired from his .45-caliber pistol struck Judith Belc – two in the head and one in the torso. At trial, the defendant testified that he “snapped” and fired in the “heat of passion” without realizing what he was doing.

But there was no evidence to support that claim. The evidence and roughly 20 witnesses called by the State proved that the defendant killed his wife in anger because, after two dozen years of being able to “control” her, she had made up her mind to go through with a divorce.

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The Belcs and four of their children were living in Germany, where the defendant worked, when the victim returned to their Tallahassee home to get away from her husband a few weeks before the shooting. When he flew overseas and showed up there, they left for her family’s home just outside Blountstown, where the shooting later occurred.

Dr. Greg Prichard testified that it boiled down to the defendant losing control.

“That domestic situation was not going his way and ultimately he made a decision, ‘If I can’t have her, nobody can,’” Prichard said.

After the shooting, the defendant drove around for hours making phone calls with his wife’s body in the trunk. In recorded phone conversations he told family members and a 911 operator that he shot his wife three times because she was divorcing him. At the urging of family members and the 911 operator, he turned himself in at the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office that morning, the body still in the trunk

For additional information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

 

 

Sexual Predator sent to prison

A man convicted of possessing 11 video clips depicting children in sexual acts has been sentenced to 15 years in prison, designated a Sexual Predator, and will not be allowed access to the internet or internet capable devices when released.

Marcus Allen Creel, 35, of Southport, entered a plea of No Contest to 11 counts of Possession of Child Pornography, Failure to Register as a Sex Offender and Violation of Probation. He was adjudicated guilty by Circuit Court Judge Brantley Clark.

Marcus Creel

The defendant was sentenced to 15 years in prison. That will be followed by 10 years of Sex Offender Probation during which he will have to wear an electronic monitor and will not be allowed internet access or “internet capable” devices, like smart phones. He will not be allowed to have contact with minors.

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The defendant was arrested by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office in March, 2021, after Inv. Jeremy Mathis received five reports from the National Center For Missing & Exploited Children that Google had identified child pornography images being uploaded to its servers.

Prosecutor Jennifer Lieb was prepared to present evidence gathered by Mathis and the Sheriff’s Office that the images were uploaded through email accounts associated with the defendant. Evidence would have shown the IP address through which the images were uploaded returned to the defendant’s home.

Further, evidence would have shown the defendant admitted receiving the child pornography.

State Attorney Larry Basford thanked Sheriff’s Office investigators for their work in identifying the defendant based on the Google report and helping put together a strong case.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

“Scoop” dealer faces prison

A Nov. 8 sentencing is set for a man found guilty of possessing with intent to distribute a controlled substance that the body turns into GHB, also known as “Scoop” or “Water.”

State Attorney Larry Basford said John Virgil Murphy, Jr., 46, of Panama City, was found guilty of Sale or Possession of a Controlled Substance with Intent to Distribute, and Possession of Drug Paraphernalia on Thursday.

John Murphy

A Bay County jury took 1 hour and 23 minutes to return the verdict. Circuit Court Judge Dustin Stephenson set sentencing for Nov. 8. The defendant faces up to 15 years in prison.

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Prosecutor Dustin Miller called four witnesses and presented evidence showing the defendant was in possession of a large quantity of 1,4 Butanediol, an industrial chemical designed to make floor stripper and paint thinner, as well as some types of plastics and similar materials.

1,4 Butanediol was found in the red container.
A closer view of the cotainers found in truck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florida Statutes define 1,4 Butanediol as a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no currently acceptable medical use. When ingested, the chemical quickly turns into GHB, also known as “Scoop,” and can cause overdoses and death even in small doses.

Following the verdict, Prosecutor Miller said the case reiterates that authorities will not tolerate “the poison that drug dealers are bringing into our community.”

“And when it comes to the Butanediol, this is a particularly dangerous poison because it not only causes overdoses, it can be used as a ‘date-rape’ drug,” Miller said. “So it’s not only fueling an addiction, it could be helping someone in furthering more heinous crimes.”

Testimony, including case agent Inv. Gage Cowart of the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, showed authorities surveilled the defendant at a Panama City home for about 3 weeks in 2021. They obtained and served a search warrant on April 7, 2021.

Among the items found was a gasoline can containing approximately 2.2 kilograms of 1,4-Butanediol in the floorboard of a truck the defendant had been seen in and working on several times. That is about 1,100 doses. In a statement to authorities, the defendant admitted the liquid was his, saying he bought it online and planned to distribute it in Bay County.

Basford thanked the Sheriff’s Office and investigators Cowart, Jeremy Head and Doug Cummings for their work in obtaining the search warrant and their subsequent testimony.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

Repeat offender guilty of Tampering with a victim, could face Life in prison

CHIPLEY – A man charged with intimidating his victim to drop charges in two cases against him was convicted of Tampering with a Witness Monday and could face Life in prison, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

A Washington County jury took 19 minutes to find Mitchell Brigham, 36, of Chipley, guilty of Tampering with a Victim and Violation of Conditions of Pretrial Release. Chief Circuit Court Judge Christopher Patterson set sentencing for Nov. 7.

The defendant was in jail on various charges, including arrests in February and in March for Aggravated Battery (Pregnant Person) involving the same victim, when the latest offense occurred.

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Washington County Chief Prosecutor Megan Ford presented three witnesses, including the victim, and evidence included recorded phone calls from the defendant in jail to the victim.

State Attorney’s Office Investigator John Pettis was one of those witnesses. Pettis found that the defendant had called the victim some 50 times from jail between his March 29 arrest and April 5. On the calls that connected, the defendant and victim spoke a total of about six hours. The defendant told the victim to drop the charges. He explained in detail how to drop the charges, and how to provide him with proof that she had dropped the charges.

The victim did attempt to drop the charges but testified at trial it was only because of the defendant’s intimidation in the phone calls.

Aggravated Battery on a Pregnant Person is a Second-Degree Felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Under Florida Law, Tampering with the Victim or Witness in a Second-Degree Felony is a First-Degree Felony offense, with a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.

Additionally, Ford is seeking to have the defendant sentenced under Florida’s Habitual Felony Offender law. If successful, the defendant faces up to life in prison.

The defendant has a lengthy criminal history that includes four prison sentences dating back to 2004, and it includes a previous conviction for Tampering with a Witness/Victim. He still faces trial on the February and March charges of Aggravated Battery (Pregnant Person).

Basford credited Ford on her successful prosecution involving a repeat victim and Pettis for finding the phone calls that showed the defendant was tampering with the victim.

For more information contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov or call 850-381-7454

JURY: Man guilty of drug trafficking, faces up to Life

A 6-person Bay County jury Friday found a Panama City man guilty as charged on two drug offenses, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Willie Kacheno Cleveland, 42, was convicted of Trafficking in Methamphetamine (more than 28 grams) and Possession of Cocaine. Circuit Court Judge Brantley Clark set sentencing for Dec. 1. The defendant faces life in prison as a habitual felony offender.

“It’s a great feeling when everyone works together to get a major drug trafficker off the streets,” Prosecutor Jacob Cook said. “The Panama City Police Department and Case Agent Austin Brock put together a good case that helped lead to a guilty verdict.”

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Cook and co-prosecutor Josh James presented witnesses and evidence showing that Panama City police served a search warrant on a 10th Street home on May 8, 2020, and as a result found over 150 grams of methamphetamine, as well as cocaine.

The evidence showed that the defendant attempted to flee when police arrived but was apprehended after a short foot pursuit. Police ultimately recovered 383 multi-colored pills containing methamphetamine packaged in plastic baggies. They also discovered numerous small baggies containing cocaine.

Basford thanked Panama City police for both their proactive efforts and testimony.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

4 Life Sentences + 125 years in prison for sex offender

The maximum penalty was given to a Springfield man Friday for his conviction on 15 offenses, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Jason Dowdell, 38, was found guilty Aug. 18 of three counts of Sexual Battery, three counts of False Imprisonment, three counts of Tampering with a Witness or Victim, Burglary of a Dwelling with Assault or Battery, Child Abuse, three counts of Aggravated Assault, and Battery.

Friday, Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay sentenced Dowdell to four separate terms of Life in prison, three 30-year terms, and seven 5-year terms. The State succeeded in having the defendant declared a Prison Release Reoffender and a Sexual Predator. The defendant will not receive any gain time, he must serve every day of the sentence.

Judge Gay also ordered the sentences to be served consecutively, or one after the other. The defendant was given time served on one misdemeanor charge of battery.

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At trial, Prosecutors Barbara Beasley and Jennifer Lieb presented evidence and testimony that the defendant, armed with a knife, forced his way into a home in May of 2021. Two of the victims were bound, evidence gathered by Springfield Police and Investigators showed, and all three were threatened.

Beasley and Lieb called 14 witnesses during the one-day trial Aug. 18, including the three victims, Florida Department of Law Enforcement experts and five Springfield police officers, including Chief Barry Roberts.

Altogether, 29 pieces of evidence including DNA findings and the knife used in the crime were shown to jurors.

Basford thanked the Springfield Police Department for the case it put together and FDLE agents for their testimony.

For additional information please contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or 850- 381-7454.

22-year prison sentence for Meth trafficker

A man who pleaded guilty to Trafficking in Methamphetamine after his jury was selected but before the trial started has been sentenced to 22 years in prison and fined $50,000, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Joshua Causby, 40, of Panama City, was set for trial in September. But after a jury was selected, he entered an open plea to Trafficking in Methamphetamine. An open plea means the judge decides the sentence.

Joshua Causby

Prosecutor Nicole Reed sought and succeeded in having the defendant declared a Habitual Felony Offender. This means he faced an enhanced penalty based on previous convictions of Burglary of a Structure and Fraudulent Use of a Credit Card, and Burglary of a Dwelling. Reed noted the defendant was released from prison about a year before this charge.

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Circuit Court Judge Dustin Stephenson, who had ordered a Presentencing Investigation, on Tuesday sentenced Causby to 22 years in prison with a minimum-mandatory 3 years and assessed a $50,000 fine.

Reed was prepared to call witnesses and present evidence proving the defendant was arrested by Lynn Haven police, working with the Drug Enforcement Agency, in August, 2020, after selling an ounce of methamphetamine as part of an undercover operation. Evidence would have shown the defendant sold the methamphetamine from his truck and later that day was apprehended by Panama City Beach police during a traffic stop.

Basford thanked the Lynn Haven Police Department for its work in putting the case together along with the DEA.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov.