2019 in review: Top 8 stories from Tampa Bay area

Local News

(SunTrust Bank photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – With just a few days left in 2019, WFLA News Channel 8 is looking back at the year’s top stories from the Tampa Bay area.

According to our website analytics, these are some of the biggest local stories from 2019:

1. Middle school girls arrested for hit list

Two Highlands County middle school students were arrested in April on charges of conspiracy to commit murder after detectives say they plotted to harm others. The two were arrested after a teacher told law enforcement about a possible plan to harm others off campus.

A parent who said their child was targeted told 8 On Your Side the girls who were arrested had created a hit list that included 10 people – seven girls and three boys. The parent said the list contained information about how the people on the list would be killed and where their bodies would be buried.

The story was just one of the many we reported on this year that involved students being arrested for school threats.

2. 5 killed inside Sebring bank

Tragedy struck Highlands County in January when five women were killed in a mass shooting inside the SunTrust Bank in Sebring.

According to police, a 21-year-old gunman walked into the bank on Jan. 23 and opened fire. Just minutes later, police say the gunman called 911 and told dispatchers he killed five people. He is facing the death penalty.

Four of the victims – Marisol Lopez, Ana Pinon Williams, Debra Cook and Jessica Montague – were employees of the bank. The fifth victim, Cynthia Watson, was a customer.

In the days after the shooting, SunTrust announced the bank where it happened would close permanently. The building was later torn down.

3. Sarasota charter boat nightmare

A charter boat fishing trip in Sarasota turned into a nightmare when police say the captain got drunk and held the passengers captive for 12 hours.

Five passengers joined Captain Mark Bailey and his first mate in June for the fishing trip. According to police, Bailey drank and did cocaine during the trip and was heavily intoxicated.

At one point, police say the captain took out a handgun and fired shots in the air while his passengers pleaded to go home.

The nightmare finally came to an end when passengers were able to get in touch with Sarasota police and the U.S. Coast Guard.

4. 8 On Your Side’s investigation into deadly Lakeland fire

In February, 8 On Your Side launched a months-long investigation into a tragic fire in Lakeland that left a 76-year-old woman dead.

Records show Loretta Pickard was on the phone with 911 for 20 minutes pleading for help while her home burned around her in November 2018. She took her final breaths while on the phone as the dispatcher assured her crews were coming to rescue her.

A log obtained by 8 On Your Side’s Melissa Marino showed that firefighters who were at the scene never made a rescue attempt.

5. Manatee Co. school guards equipped with long guns

A Tampa Bay area school became the first in the country to have armed guardians carrying long guns in February.

All schools in Florida were mandated to have a guardian on campus after the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Manatee School of the Arts, a charter school in Palmetto, interviewed 600 applicants and chose two veterans.

Both men were required to complete guardian training with the sheriff’s office. They were armed with a style of gun called a Bullpup.

Principal Bill Jones said he wanted guardians to carry a weapon that will immediately stop an intruder and threat.

6. HART bus driver stabbed to death by passenger

Thomas Dunn, a bus driver for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority died in May after being stabbed by a passenger. Police later identified the suspect passenger as 35-year-old Justin Ryan McGriff.

Dunn’s death sparked safety discussions among bus drivers throughout the Tampa Bay area and led to action in Hillsborough County and Pinellas County.

7. Sarasota man injured on cruise ship

A Sarasota man was nearly killed in February while on a cruise ship traveling out of Miami.

Casey Holladay told us he was on the Mariner of the Seas with his friends and decided to use a brand new attraction called “The Skypad.”

The attraction is a series of trampolines enclosed in a cage. Users attach themselves to bungee cords and can perform acrobatic flips in the air, but something went horribly wrong when Holladay was on the attraction. The 26-year-old said his bungee cord snapped and he plummeted nearly 20 feet to the hard deck below.

8. Tracking the Tropics

With 18 total named storms, the 2019 Atlantic Hurricane Season ended as above average. Six of the named storms were hurricanes and three were major hurricanes.

The top-read “Tracking the Tropics” story was about Hurricane Dorian. The extremely dangerous Category 5 hurricane devastated the northern Bahamas when it stalled out over the islands in late August.

Throughout the hurricane season, WFLA provided hours of coverage to viewers in the Tampa Bay area and across the southeast. Digital Anchor JB Biunno and Meteorologist Amanda Holly provided “Tracking the Tropics” updates every week to keep viewers informed and will be back in June for the 2020 hurricane season.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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