4 big local stories in 2022: Shark, storms, sheriffs & series of motions in high-profile case

These are four of the most memorable stories in 2022. (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Every year in December, News4JAX takes a look back at some of the most memorable stories of the last 12 months.

Here’s a recap of four of those Channel 4 reports from 2022:

🦈 Dead shark found hanging from rafters at school

A shocking sight began to circulate on social media one morning in May when photos were posted of a dead shark hanging from the rafters at Ponte Vedra High School.

It turns out, it was a senior prank gone wrong.

School officials said that five Ponte Vedra High students were identified by investigators as having hoisted the dead shark at the school on Davis Park Road. The FWC report lists two 17-year-olds and three 18-year-olds as being involved, as well as a 19-year-old.

The report shows one of the 18-year-olds told an FWC investigator that he and another one of the 17-year-olds were fishing in Mayport on May 3 when, around 8 p.m., a man next to them caught a bull shark. He said they asked the man if they could keep the shark, and he gave it to them. The teen said they wanted to use it for a senior prank, so they gutted it and then stored it in the 19-year-old’s yard with ice.

An incident report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission included this photo of the shark. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

The 17-year-old who was also fishing in Mayport said they bought the shark for $100 from the stranger, according to the FWC report. He also told the investigator that he drove the shark in his truck bed from the friend’s house to the school the next night.

Around 9 p.m. May 4, according to the FWC report, the 18-year-old and 17-year-old who got the shark and three other teens, ages 17 and 18, went through an open gate through the back of the school, rolled the shark in and lifted it onto the rafters using a pulley system and ladder. The 19-year-old was the lookout at a nearby Gate gas station in case anyone drove into the school, according to the report.

The report doesn’t say who killed the shark.

The following morning, according to the FWC report, a 63-year-old Ponte Vedra High maintenance worker arrived at work around 7:30 a.m. May 5 and found a dead shark hanging from the rafters off the stairway in the front courtyard. He placed a dumpster under the shark and cut the ropes holding it. He told the FWC investigator that the shark landed in the dumpster and was then taken to a landfill by the maintenance crew. From there, the shark was placed on a truck around 8:30 a.m. and moved to Georgia for disposal.

An incident report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission included this photo of the shark hanging from the rafters at Ponte Vedra High School. (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission)

The investigator for FWC, which is leading the investigation, gathered photos of the shark hanging from the rafters at the school and sent them to two of the agency’s marine shark biologists, who did confirm the shark was a bull shark.

“The shark was identified as a Bull Shark, which is legal to possess. The legal size limit for a Bull Shark is 54 inches. Based on the pictures provided by students, I determined the Bull Shark to be over the legal size of 54 inches,” the FWC investigator wrote in the report.

According to the FWC website, harvestable Group 2 sharks — seven species that include bull sharks— have a 54-inch (fork length) minimum size limit.

The report said that no resource-related violations were found and that this information was presented to the State Attorney’s Office, which agreed.

The school sent a statement to News4JAX saying, “The shark was removed prior to notification to FWC. This was a unique situation and as you can imagine not one that the staff at PVHS has encountered before. They wanted to avoid creating a stressful situation for any individuals or students arriving on campus.”

According to the St. Johns County School District, consequences were applied for a level four discipline -- which includes no senior year activities, including graduation, mandatory suspension, possible expulsion and more.

OneProtest, an animal advocacy group, started an online petition on change.org calling for signatures in support of seeking charges against the five students identified by investigators.

And PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) said it sent a letter to St. Johns County Superintendent Tim Forson on Tuesday offering lessons on kindness to animals after the incident.

🌀 Ian & Nicole causes millions of dollars in damage

Hurricane Ian made landfall Sept. 28 in Southwest Florida as a category 4 storm, producing widespread damage and significant storm surge in Lee and Charlotte counties.

The storm crossed the state, becoming a tropical storm before impacting Northeast Florida.

Even though it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, St. Johns County officials said Ian still left millions of dollars in damage in its wake when it blew through the area.

Officials said that 636 homes were damaged by the powerful storm and that there were also 26 high-water rescues. Early estimates put the total cost of damage at $37.8 million in home damage and potentially millions more to county infrastructure. As expected, most of the damage was along the coastline, in downtown St. Augustine and near the St. Johns River. The county had major flooding in areas along the coast like Porpoise Point, North Beach, Crescent Beach and Flagler Estates. Downtown saw a 3 to 5-foot storm surge during the height of the storm and around 10 to 20 inches of rain. A home on Vilano Beach was left standing on its pylons after the storm surge from Ian washed away most of its sea wall, driveway and underlying ground.

Farther south in Flagler County, Ian tore off 120 feet of the Flagler Beach Fishing Pier and left a section dangling over the ocean, according to the Post-Hurricane Ian Pier Condition Assessment Report. The report found that 3 to 7 feet of sand was scoured from under the pier, which reduced the pile embedment below the sand line and created a risk for collapse. The Flagler County Beach City Commission voted to keep the pier closed after an engineering firm said it is no longer safe for public use following significant Hurricane Ian damage.

Flagler Beach pier sustained "significant" damage from Ian, according to police. (Copyright 2022 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Forty-three days after Ian slammed into the state, Nicole made its landfall on Florida’s Treasure Coast.

Category 1 Hurricane Nicole made landfall near Vero Beach on Nov. 10. It was the first November hurricane to hit the east coast of Florida since the Yankee Hurricane of 1935. Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia were already dealing with a strong nor’easter, and Nicole made the situation significantly worse.

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Tidal flooding occurred along the St. Johns River and portions of the coastline, with strong winds and rains. Beach erosion was significant, with portions of A1A needing emergency repairs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency reports nearly $3 billion in federal grants, disaster loans and flood insurance payments have been provided to the state of Florida in response to Ian. Of that, $769 million went to households and $358 million to the state for emergency response. Flagler, Putnam and St. Johns counties were included in the relief.

With Nicole, which weakened to a tropical storm after making landfall, much of the damage was along A1A in Vilano Beach. A long stretch of the road was washed out and had to be temporarily shut down, dunes were severely damaged along South Ponte Vedra Beach, and at least one home became so eroded, it was teetering on the edge. There was also flooding in downtown St. Augustine. St. Johns County officials report an estimated $34 million in damage caused by Tropical Storm Nicole.

Downtown St. Augustine was flooded during Tropical Storm Nicole. (WJXT)

A day after Nicole made landfall, Flagler County submitted an initial damage assessment report to the state in the amount of $23.7 million. Of that, $13.3 million was recorded in Flagler Beach and $1.2 million in Beverly Beach. Damages in the unincorporated areas of the county make up the remaining $9.2 million.

The county said FEMA may follow up to perform its own assessment. Of the $23.7 million, $13.3 million was recorded in Flagler Beach and $1.2 million in Beverly Beach. Damages in the unincorporated areas of the county make up the remaining $9.2 million.

Notably, the county said no homes in Flagler were destroyed. It said 299 were affected, while another 125 sustained minor damage and 20 had major damage. Approximately 218 homes were flooded. The county said these numbers will likely change.

Other impacts to the area occurred in Jacksonville. Multiple Ken Knight Drive homes along the Ribault River flooded and suffered significant damage as Nicole swept through. On the Westside, roadways and yards flooded in the Riverside, Avondale and Ortega neighborhoods.

🚔 Jacksonville sheriff retires amid residency controversy

Mike Williams ended more than three decades with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office with his retirement in June — a year before the end of his second term as the city’s sheriff.

The abrupt departure was sparked when it came to light that Williams and his wife sold their Jacksonville home a year ago, listing a new address in Nassau County on the deed selling their home.

According to the city’s charter: “If the sheriff should die, resign, or remove his residence from Duval County during his term of office, or be removed from office, the office of sheriff shall become vacant.”

When questioned about the issue, Williams cited state law, which does not require a sheriff to live in a county where they serve, saying that would overrule the city charter in this case.

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But the city’s lawyer, who was asked to look into the matter by City Council, disagreed with that, according to a draft opinion obtained by News4JAX.

The draft opinion, which was never issued and is therefore not legally binding, said Williams vacated his office when he moved out of Duval County.

The day the general counsel’s opinion was slated to be issued, Williams withdrew the question from consideration by announcing his retirement.

“After some consideration, I have decided that a court battle over my residency would not be good for our community,” Williams wrote in a letter announcing his decision. “I’m proud of my 31 years of service to this City and am excited about a new chapter and new challenges.”

Now-former Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams

Williams’ early retirement sparked an August special election for voters to choose a candidate to serve out the remainder of Williams’ term.

Republican T.K. Waters walked away with the most votes from that, but it wasn’t enough (50%, plus one vote) to be declared the winner. That sent him and second-place finisher Lakesha Burton, a Democrat, into a runoff.

In the November general election, Duval County voters chose Waters to serve as the next sheriff of Jacksonville.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Undersheriff Pat Ivey to be interim sheriff after Williams’ retirement, and Ivey then announced his retirement just days before Waters took over the Sheriff’s Office.

Waters was sworn in as Jacksonville’s new sheriff on Nov. 20, becoming the third person to hold the position in just five months. After taking an oath of office, the sheriff-elect became emotional as he thanked God and members of the church for helping him overcome hardships and become sheriff.

Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

Waters said the goal of JSO is “to make every member of Duval County safe” and to ensure Jacksonville continues to grow into the city “that we know it can be.”

The city will elect its next full-term sheriff during the spring 2023 general election.

Williams is now the special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Jacksonville Regional Operations Center.

⚖️ Court proceedings continue in case against teen accused of killing Tristyn Bailey

Aiden Fucci, the teen accused of killing 13-year-old Tristyn Bailey, made multiple appearances in court this year.

His latest court appearance was this month when his defense team suffered two blows. A St. Johns County judge denied a motion to move Fucci out of the Duval County jail and also opted not to change the venue for the murder trial — at least not yet.

Judge R. Lee Smith said he would revisit the decision to possibly move the trial out of the area if an impartial jury could not be found.

Aiden Fucci

Fucci, now 16, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Bailey, his schoolmate. She was found stabbed to death on Mother’s Day last year in Durbin Crossing, less than a half-mile from Fucci’s home in the St. Johns County neighborhood where Bailey also lived. He was arrested in the early morning hours the next day.

Jury selection in his trial is expected to begin in February and is projected to last three or four days.

Tristyn Bailey

Fucci’s attorneys argued in their motion for a change of venue for the trial that their client cannot get a fair trial in the Seventh Judicial Circuit, which encompasses St. Johns, Flagler, Putnam and Volusia counties. The attorneys also said an impartial jury can’t be found in any of the neighboring counties in the region.

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One reason they listed was pretrial publicity. The attorneys wanted the trial moved to an alternate Florida county.

In the meantime, Fucci has been in the Duval County jail pending his trial because the jail in St. Johns County does not have a juvenile wing.