Unsolved murder, megachurch legal fight, embattled surgeon: These are the I-TEAM’s most read stories in 2022

I-TEAM's most read stories in 2022. (News4JAX.com)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Here at News4JAX, the I-TEAM exists to investigate stories that you, our viewers and News4JAX Insiders, demand be uncovered and exposed — they’re stories and real issues in the community that we’re honored to scrutinize, and frankly, we couldn’t tell them without you.

So, as the year nears its conclusion, here are some of the biggest I-TEAM investigations from 2022.

The unsolved murder of Jared Bridegan

Jared Bridegan’s unsolved murder haunts family, Jacksonville Beach community

After 10 months, the murder of a Jacksonville Beach father of four — a story that’s received national attention — remains unsolved. And there’s a $55,000 reward being offered for information that leads to an arrest.

Jaren Bridegan, 33, was shot and killed on Sanctuary Boulevard near J. Turner Butler Boulevard just 2 miles from his ex-wife’s home. His 2-year-old daughter was in the SUV when he was shot, but she was not injured.

According to police, it was a targeted attack.

“Sometimes I feel like we are just a spectacle,” Bridegan’s wife said in a previous interview, noting national and international attention about the case. “People don’t realize that this is our reality every single day. We wake up every day and Jared is still not here. His car is not pulling in the driveway. This is real. Myself, four children and an enormous amount of friends and family are all suffering every single day because of this. This is real.”

Jared Bridegan and his wife

Bridegan’s widow told the I-TEAM previously that the Crime Stoppers reward was raised from $25,000 to $50,000, and that’s in addition to $5,000 from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

She hopes the notoriety of the case will lead to an arrest.

RELATED: Jared Bridegan’s unsolved murder haunts family, Jax Beach community | Murder of father of 4 in Jacksonville Beach inspires toy boxes for children caught in tragedy

Investigators have not released details about who they believe might be responsible.

“I can’t comment on suspects or people of interest,” Jacksonville Beach Police Department Sgt. Tanya Tator said previously. “With hundreds of tips that have come in, the detectives have to follow up on each one. We can’t pick and choose, and if you can imagine going over hundreds and hundreds of tips, that takes a bit.”

Truck Jacksonville Beach police are looking for in investigation of Jared Bridegan (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The Jacksonville Beach police continue to look for a 2004-2008 blue Ford F-150, which it thinks might be connected to the Feb. 16 shooting death of Bridegan. According to police, a tire left in the road prompted Bridegan to stop that night and is a key piece of the puzzle.

Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 1-866-845-TIPS (8477). Tipsters may remain anonymous.

To submit a tip to ATF, call 1-888-ATF-TIPS (283-8477).

Embattled former surgeon of Ascension St. Vincent’s

Nearly 350 lawsuits have been filed against a former orthopedic surgeon in Jacksonville, alleging he caused hundreds of injuries while operating with a neurological condition that caused him to slur his speech and lose his balance.

Lawsuit alleges Ascension St. Vincent’s knew doctor wasn’t fit to operate, but allowed him to perform surgeries

Dr. David Heekin formerly practiced at Ascension St. Vincent’s Riverside Hospital and the Heekin Clinic before voluntarily relinquishing his medical license in 2021 at the conclusion of a state Board of Medicine investigation, records show.

The I-TEAM spoke with the plaintiffs in one of the lawsuits. In those lawsuits, they and other plaintiffs allege leadership at Ascension St. Vincent’s knew this doctor wasn’t fit to operate but still allowed him to perform surgeries, putting patients at risk and making money doing it.

Court records show St. Vincent’s has accepted liability in some of those lawsuits, while denying wrongdoing in others.

An appeals court denied a request, based on privacy concerns, to protect more than 2,700 text messages making reference to Heekin on the phones of St. Vincent’s employees from disclosure in discovery.

“Those records, according to the plaintiffs…they think will demonstrate that employees of the hospital were aware that Dr. Heekin was impaired,” explained attorney Curtis Fallgatter, who is not involved in the case.

I-TEAM: Judge finds top executive at St. Vincent’s knew about complaints against Dr. Heekin

The employees include an orthopedic clinical coordinator, an operating room manager, a surgical service manager, and nurses and a surgical tech who worked with Heekin. Those employees aren’t the ones being sued, but court records show St. Vincent’s has paid the costs associated with searching their devices for electronically stored information in response to the plaintiffs’ discovery requests and their efforts to protect that information from disclosure in discovery.

RELATED: Widower’s lawsuit says his wife died after surgery with former Jacksonville doctor at center of hundreds of malpractice claims

Among the plaintiffs is Anthony Bonk. He says he lost his wife of 42 years, Cindy Bonk, after a hip replacement with Heekin in 2018 went wrong. He was emotional when the I-TEAM told him the appeals court ruled the text messages should be released.

“My heart’s about to jump out here,” Bonk said. “This is the first I’ve heard — 2,700 — heard of any text messages. I’ve heard of cases where people go in and demand that they not have to do surgeries with this physician.”

One of the nurses’ whose texts are at issue said in a deposition she was in the OR for Bonk’s surgery. She and at least one other member of Heekin’s team testified they asked not to be involved in surgeries with Heekin anymore.

So far, one text exchange allegedly between some of the employees whose text messages are being litigated has been disclosed by the plaintiffs in public legal filings. It says, we “are going to both report him to the state I think. He is out of his mind today. He’s so confused... “not making any sense,” and “can’t form a full sentence.”

RELATED: New audio recordings added to lawsuits against doctor accused of botched surgeries | Deposition video shows former St. Vincent’s surgeon accused of botching procedures slurring speech, having outbursts

In November, a judge found that plaintiffs submitted enough evidence to permit a jury to conclude that top executives at St. Vincent’s were grossly negligent when they didn’t stop Heekin from operating. Earlier this month, the I-TEAM learned a top executive of the hospital must testify at the deposition hearing.

VyStar Credit Union’s online banking issues

For more than a month, customers of VyStar Credit Union dealt with online banking issues that occurred after it rolled out an update to its website during a planned outage.

That outage was only supposed to last over a weekend in May. Customers who visited the website a week later continued to see:

“Online & Mobile Banking is currently unavailable. Our teams are working as quickly as we can to resolve issues.”

Down, up, down: VyStar mobile app, online were banking down

“After 32 years, I opened an account with another CU. I will be leaving VyStar once all transactions clear. This was handled so poorly that I have lost trust in VyStar,” a News4JAX Insider wrote in May.

Another person wrote: “I will not leave VyStar because (of) the online computer system problem. The problem will be resolved in a week or so. VyStar is a great credit union that I can trust to treat me fairly.”

The issue, however, went on for much longer. Members struggled to get information on their accounts. The credit union even opened select branches outside of normal business hours in an attempt to help customers.

Jim Piggott was granted an interview with Brian Wolfburg, the CEO of VyStar.

Jim Piggott speaks with VyStar CEO Brian Wolfburg about online banking problems (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

“It was not a good week for us, it was not a good week for the community and we are going to make it up to them,” Wolfburg said.

UNCUT: Jim Piggott’s interview with VyStar CEO Brian Wolfburg

At the two-week mark, VyStar’s banking system was still locked up. Customers told the I-TEAM they were unable to pay certain bills or make internal transfers.

Three weeks later — going into June — customers still complained the website wasn’t fully functional. Customers were told they could use the bank’s Magic Touch phone banking service to view their balances and make transfers.

More than a month after the initial outage, members still had issues.

Nearing the end of June, while some still reported problems, many customers were finally able to log in successfully to the mobile banking app after VyStar rolled out another update.

Celebration Church, former pastors involved in legal battle

The News4JAX I-TEAM has been following a court battle between Celebration Church and its former pastors since April.

In the latest chapter of the legal dispute, Stovall and Kerri Weems re-filed their defamation lawsuit against the church they founded in 1998 and are demanding a jury trial. The filing comes after a judge dismissed the first version of the Weemses’ lawsuit and gave them 20 days to rework it.

Celebration Church in legal dispute with founding pastors. Stovall and Kerri Weems founded Jacksonville megachurch in 1998. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

In the updated lawsuit obtained by the News4JAX I-TEAM, the Weemses got specific. The lawsuit says the summary section “falsely states that Stovall Weems engaged in a series of improper and unauthorized financial transactions through which he personally benefitted.” He said this exposed him to hatred, contempt and disgrace, and it is not true. As for Kerri Weems, the suit says that “the intimate details of Weems’ private life were unlawfully obtained.”

MORE: I-TEAM: Celebration Church releases findings of explosive investigation into founding pastor | I-TEAM: ‘Office hospitality cheat sheet’ outlines former Celebration pastor’s daily instructions

The suit names a former staffer and accused her of sharing private information from the Weemses’ home.

Celebration Church suspended Stovall Weems, who later resigned. Its internal investigation revealed allegations of financial misconduct and emotional and spiritual abuse of staff. Stovall Weems said it was an orchestrated coup and denies the allegations against him.

Stovall and Kerri Weems (wjxt)

RELATED: Celebration Church founding pastor steps down amid legal battle | ‘Your church is OK’: Celebration Church pastor reassures congregation amid legal dispute | I-TEAM: Celebration Church in legal dispute with founding pastors | I-TEAM: Celebration Church pastors deny misuse of PPP money | I-TEAM: Celebration Church in legal dispute with founding pastors

Stovall Weems resigned from his positions at Celebration Church in April and has since launched Stovall Weems Ministries. He and Kerri Weems have hosted gatherings at a facility in Mandarin and also online gatherings.

There is a separate eviction case ongoing between Celebration Church and the Weemses. Celebration served the couple with an eviction notice to get them out of the home where they reside on Black Hammock Island. The church bought the home from Stovall Weems and said because he no longer works at the church, he should not be living there. The Weemses’ defamation suit said that property was a retirement home for Stovall Weems and was never intended to be a parsonage.

Celebration Church has been under the leadership of Pastor Tim Timberlake since September 2021. Timberlake was brought in to succeed Stovall Weems, so he could transition into a “global pastor” role and focus on other initiatives.

City of Jax Beach did not investigate harassment, abuse claims among lifeguards, records show

A two-year U.S. Department of Labor investigation into the relationship between Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps found the City of Jacksonville Beach had 133 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act from 2019 to 2021. The Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees the right to minimum wage and overtime.

For decades, the corps provided training and volunteer lifeguards to watch the beaches on holidays and Sundays — until this labor investigation, which led to the end of the city’s partnership with the corps for lifeguarding and training purposes.

A two-year U.S. Department of Labor investigation into the relationship between Jacksonville Beach and the Volunteer Lifesaving Corps found the City of Jacksonville Beach had 133 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act from 2019 to 2021. The Fair Labor Standards Act guarantees the right to minimum wage and overtime.

The report also alleges a culture of hazing and abuse. The I-TEAM uncovered documents showing that lifeguard took her complaints to the city, but the city did not investigate.

For seven years, she worked for the city as a member of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue. She also volunteered to watch Jacksonville Beach as a member of the American Red Cross Volunteer Life Saving Corps. At the time, the corps recruited and trained lifeguards for the city and provided volunteer lifeguards on Sundays and holidays.

“I have passion and the love for lifesaving,” said Nicki Emerson.

But she said to be a lifeguard, she endured abuse and harassment.

“It’s probably the most toxic culture I’ve ever witnessed in my life,” Emerson said.

She said she ran the belt line in 2012 when she was 16. She said new recruits were beaten with belts.

“You bend over, grab your ankles, say ‘Thank you, sir. Might have another?’ And then you sprint as fast — the fastest I ever have in my life,” Emerson said. “It just disgusts me actually, thinking about it now.”

RELATED: Former Jacksonville Beach lifeguard tells story, alleges culture of abuse and harassment

A former lifeguard at Jacksonville Beach is telling her story publicly for the first time, alleging a culture of abuse and harassment among lifeguards that was tolerated by the City of Jacksonville Beach.

The report found that there was so much overlap between volunteer lifeguards and lifeguards employed by the city that they were basically the same entity. It found lifeguards were pressured by the corps to work for free, but a spokesperson for the corps said lifeguards were actually drawn to volunteering, with the opportunity to work for the city just an added bonus.

To come into compliance, the city was ordered to pay back more than $122,000 in back wages.

The investigation found that virtually all of the workers employed by the city as part of Jacksonville Beach Ocean Rescue in recent years were also members of the corps, and their volunteer hours were effectively free labor for the city.

After the report came out, the city dissolved the corps.

A spokesperson for the city told the I-TEAM:

“The City believes that the report is an accurate account of the findings of the investigation and is consistent with federal labor laws. Going forward, it is the City’s intention to fully comply with all federal labor laws and regulations, as set forth by the Department of Labor.”

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Lifetime Jacksonville resident & broadcast news producer who's been reporting & writing for nearly a decade here at The Local Station.