Man who killed friend after years of ridicule asks for light sentence

Ronald Hight booking photo
Ronald Hight booking photo

Attorneys for a Royal Palm Beach man who shot and killed his friend because he was fed up with years of the man’s threats and putdowns pleaded with a judge Monday to keep him out of prison.

Ronald Hight, who hung his head through most of his sentencing hearing, was set to receive his sentence Monday, a month after a jury convicted him of manslaughter in Craig Rivera’s January 2013 shooting death.

But because Hight’s attorneys wanted Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley to review some more letters on Hight’s behalf along with a report outlining claims that Hight suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, Kelley postponed the pronouncement of Hight’s sentence to Dec. 15.

The sentencing hearing comes on Hight’s 28th birthday and nearly three years after the January 2013 shooting during what was supposed to be a gathering to celebrate Hight’s 25th birthday.

According to Hight’s arrest report, Hight and Rivera’s friendship was one marked by Rivera’s constant putdowns and belittlement of his younger friend. Rivera, 41, of Wellington, worked with Hight and according to witnesses had a habit of touching Hight inappropriately, joking that the two had a sexual relationship and making other derogatory comments towards him.

“What he told the investigators what that he was fed up,” Assistant State Attorney Lauren Godden said Monday.

Still, witnesses told police, Hight’s family still had an “open door policy” at their Royal Palm Beach home for Rivera They never witnessed Rivera being physically violent with Hight, they said, and the two had lunch together the afternoon before the shooting.

By that night, however, Hight told witnesses that he had “a bad feeling” about earlier threats from Rivera to beat him up.

So when Rivera confronted Hight and approached him after ridiculing him during a party at Hight’s family home, Hight took out his .40 caliber Glock and shot the 41-year-old Wellington man once in the head.

“He outweighed him by 100 pounds, he was standing in his face, it’s clear who the aggressor was here,” defense attorney Scott Berry told Kelley, reminding the judge of his arguments during trial that Hight acted in self-defense.

Godden and felow prosecutor Aaron Papero asked Kelley to sentence Hight to 20 years in prison. Berry and attorneys Thomas Gano and Donnie Murrell asked Kelley to depart from the minimum 10-year recommended sentence, asking for county jail time and probation.

Berry cited Hight’s lack of a prior criminal record, and Rivera’s alleged role as the aggressor of the conflict. In Hight’s statement to detectives, played for jurors during his October trial, Berry characterized Hight as “crying, upset, and feeling for Mr. Rivera’s family.”

“Again, these are all signs of remorse for what happened here,” Berry said.

Stella and Patricia Rivera, Rivera’s 15-year-old twin daughters, told Kelley in a letter that the death of their father has shattered their family.

Because their mother is incarcerated, Rivera, who had himself been arrested six times since 1992, was a single father.

“My father can never be around ever, because of this man’s action,” Stella Rivera wrote in a letter Godden read aloud. “All my family wants if for this man to get what he deserves.”

Seth Adams case headed to trial after court denies officer’s appeal

PBSO Sgt. Michael Custer, who shot Seth Adams to death in May 2012 outside Adams' Loxahatchee Groves nursery. Photo made part of a federal civil case by Seth Adams' family attorney Wallace McCall. It came from a Power Point presentation produced by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and given to McCall during civil discovery.
PBSO Sgt. Michael Custer, who shot Seth Adams to death in May 2012 outside Adams’ Loxahatchee Groves nursery.
Photo made part of a federal civil case by Seth Adams’ family attorney Wallace McCall. It came from a Power Point presentation produced by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office and given to McCall during civil discovery.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeal has denied a request to throw out a multi-million lawsuit filed by the parents of Seth Adams against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s sergeant who shot and killed him more than four years ago.

Attorneys for Sgt. Michael Custer filed a motion to throw out the case with the high court earlier this year. The court’s denial means the case could be headed to trail sometime next year.

“We are pleased that the Appellate Court agreed that there is no physical evidence to support Sergeant Custer’s version of events,” said Wallace McCall of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, the firm representing the Adams family. “We look forward to trial so that the public will be able to understand what really happened that night.”

Custer fatally shot Adams, a 24-year-old Loxahatchee Groves resident, as he was returning to his family’s garden shop on A Road off Okeechobee Boulevard, where he also lived.

Afterwards, Custer claimed he shot Adams, fearing he was reaching into his pickup truck for a gun. Instead, the unarmed Adams was grabbing his cell phone.

In March, a judge mostly cleared PBSO of wrongdoing amid allegations that it intentional destroyed or hid evidence to thwart the lawsuit – including the laptop and cell phone Custer used that night.

While attributing most of the agency’s lapses to negligence or technological glitches, U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley said he was still “deeply concerned” that it allowed Custer’s cellphone to disappear.

Attorney Summer Barranco, who represents the sheriff’s office and Custer, attributed the failures to a simple mistake.

Jamal Smith guilty of murder, gets life in prison

Jamal Smith
Jamal Smith

A Palm Beach County jury today found Jamal Smith guilty of first-degree murder for the 2011 shooting death Kemar Clayton.

After the jury delivered its verdict, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Charles Burton sentenced Smith to life in prison for the murder charge plus a consecutive 50 years in prions for an armed robbery conviction.
Clayton’s family, seated in the courtroom, declined to address the judge before he sentenced Smith. On her way out of the courthouse, Clayton’s mother said she was happy with the verdict and sentence for Smith but didn’t elaborate any further as she and other relatives walked out.

Smith’s family expressed audible shock at both the guilty verdict and the life sentence, which was mandatory with the first-degree murder conviction.

Two male relatives left the courtroom with harsh words for the justice system. A young woman put her head in her hands and sobbed.

“The police kill black men every day and they get to go home,” one of Smith’s aunts shouted, to no one in particular, as she left the courtroom.

Smith himself showed anger at his sentence. At one point, after hearing Burton’s life in prison sentence, he stood and pushed his chair into the table and said some words that led deputies to handcuff him and take him back to a holding cell.

When Burton asked deputies to bring him back in to pronounce his sentence on the robbery charges, he stood the entire time and leaned back against the two deputies who stood behind him.

The jury began deciding the case Tuesday afternoon after closing arguments from Assistant State Attorneys John Parnofiello and Andrew Slater and Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey, who presented jurors with two different versions of what happened when Clayton met Smith and Quentin Lythgoe hoping to buy an iPad from them.

Lythgoe testified last week that the iPad sale was just a ruse used to lure Clayton to the parking lot of a Publix Supermarket on State Road 7 so he and Smith could rob him. At some point during the robbery, Lythgoe said, Clayton tried to go for his own gun, and Smith shot him to death.

Parnofiello told jurors that the killing was not an accident, but rather a possibility Smith had planned for in the four days he planned the robbery.

Ramsey, on the other hand, reiterated Smith’s testimony in his own defense, telling jurors that physical evidence in the case fails to support prosecutors’ theory that Clayton was still reaching for the gun when Smith starting shooting.


State: Frederick Cobia won’t testify in Jamal Smith murder trial

Public Defender Carey Haughwout (left) talks with Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey and her client, Jamal Smith, after Judge Jack Cox charged Ramsey with contempt of court for allegedly violating a no-publish order in a case involving a jail informant. She faces a 6 month jail term. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Public Defender Carey Haughwout (left) talks with Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey and her client, Jamal Smith, after Judge Jack Cox charged Ramsey with contempt of court for allegedly violating a no-publish order in a case involving a jail informant. She faces a 6 month jail term. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

On what could be the last full day of testimony in 24-year-old Jamal Smith’s murder trial, prosecutors announced late Thursday that they will not be calling to the witness stand a jailhouse informant whose presence in the case sparked a firestorm of controversy last year.

Assistant State Attorney Andrew Slater told Circuit Judge Charles Burton that prosecutors will likely rest their case in the murder of Kemar Kino Clayton Friday and will not call Cobia as a witness.

Cobia, a convicted murderer who prosecutors have listed as a witness in nearly two dozen other cases where he says he’s obtained confessions from other defendants, told deputies that Smith confessed his involvement in Clayton’s death while the two were housed together at the Palm Beach County Jail.

Smith’s attorney, Assistant Public Defender Elizabeth Ramsey, has fought hard since last year to keep Cobia off the stand. Ramsey provoked the ire of Circuit Judge Jack Cox last year when she entered into court records last year transcripts of recorded jail calls between Cobia and his daughter that showed Cobia bragged about receiving special treatment for helping detectives build cases against his jail mates.

The Palm Beach Post published excerpts of those transcripts. Cox afterwards had the transcripts sealed, ordered reporters to remove excerpts from the newspaper’s website and sought criminal contempt charges against Ramsey for allegedly violating court orders.

An appellate court later overturned Cox’s ruling, and he later recused himself from Smith’s case, but Ramsey’s contempt case is still open.

As for Smith, who has argued that Clayton’s death was the result of an unintentional killing, the most damaging testimony against him now will likely be from co-defendant Quentin Lythgoe, who on Thuesday completed his testimony against his former friend.

Lythgoe told jurors that Smith lured Clayton to the parking lot of a Publix Supermarket on State Road 7 in Wellington under the guise of selling Clayton an iPad.

In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors dropped murder charges against Lythgoe, allowed him to plead guilty to robbery charges and capped a sentence recommendation at 15 years in prison.

Scott appoints Weiss, Rowe as circuit judges

tmpNSWfqS-mdly-photoGov. Rick Scott on Friday filled two openings on the Palm Beach County Circuit bench.

He appointed County Judge Daliah H. Weiss to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Circuit Judge John L. Phillips, and he appointed Cymonie S. Rowe to fill the open spot created by the resignation of Circuit Judge Amy Smith.

Weiss, 46, of Wellington, has been a county court judge since 2012. She was an assistant state attorney from 1996-2012. Weiss received her bachelor’s degree from Emory University and her law degree from the Villanova Law School.

Rowe, 47, of Boca Raton, has been a senior trial attorney for Liberty Mutual since 2007. She previously was an attorney with Green, Ackerman & Frost, P.A. Rowe received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami and her law degree from Nova Southeastern University.

“American Greed” to feature Wellington pill mill bosses Jeff, Chris George

Jeff George (right) sits in court with his attorney, David Roth, Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2015 during his sentencing in the death of Joseph Joey Bartolucci on charges related to his operation of a pain clinic. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)
Jeff George (right) sits in court with his attorney, David Roth, Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 2, 2015 during his sentencing in the death of Joseph Joey Bartolucci on charges related to his operation of a pain clinic. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

A story on the rise and fall of Wellington twin pill mill kingpins Jeff and Chris George will air on CNBC’s “American Greed” Thursday, according to the show’s producers.

The episode will air at 10 p.m. Eastern time.

Until their arrests more than five years ago, investigators say the brothers amassed a $40 million pill mill empire that was once the largest operation of its kind in the nation.

State and federal authorities took down the operation with sweeping indictments against the brothers and dozens of others in their operation, including childhood friend, their mother and their wives.

Chris George is serving a 14-year federal prison sentence. A judge sentenced Jeff George last year to the maximum 20-year sentence which was part of a plea agreement in exchange for his testimony against his co-defendants in a case involving the death of patient Joey Bartolucci.

John Goodman loses legal battle to toss blood-alcohol test in fatal crash

Wellington polo mogul John Goodman won’t be able to throw out his DUI manslaughter conviction for the 2010 death of Scott Wilson by arguing that shoddy techniques falsely elevated his blood-alcohol level, an appeals court ruled on Wednesday.

ID Photo
John Goodman (Florida Department of Corrections)

In a seven-page opinion, the 4th District Court of Appeal rejected Goodman’s claims that the blood collection method was flawed. They noted that both a state administrative law judge and Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath decided that rules were in place to ensure the accuracy of blood tests.

“The rules at issue, when combined with basic laboratory practices, are sufficient to protect the safety and interests of the court system and defendants alike,” Judge Alan Forst wrote for the three-judge panel.

Had the appeals court ruled that the scientifically complex rules were inadequate, Goodman could have used that to challenge his 2014 conviction and 16-year prison sentence. He could have argued that jurors should haven’t been told that his blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the level at which Florida drivers are considered impaired.

Instead, Goodman will have to hope that other issues he has raised in a separate appeal will win him yet another trial. His first conviction was thrown out due to jury misconduct. A second jury reached an identical conclusion about his role in the late night crash that killed the 23-year-old recent engineering school graduate.


PBSO agrees to pay for not turning over data in suit over Seth Adams’ death

The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has agreed to pay $15,000 for not immediately turning over GPS data to show where various officers were when Loxahatchee Groves resident Seth Adams was shot dead by Sgt. Michael Custer four years ago.

Seth Adams, 24, in Loxahatchee Groves. Fatal. Photograph dated May 1, 2012. He was killed by a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office deputy outside his home on May 17, 2012.
Seth Adams, 24, was fatally shot by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy outside his home on May 17, 2012.

“I thought $15,000 was very reasonable,” said attorney Wallace McCall, who represents Adams’ family in a civil lawsuit against Custer and the sheriff’s office. “We spent a lot of time proving the GPS existed and trying to get them to turn it over.”

The failure of the agency to turn over the GPS data is one of several instances where the agency has failed to turn over key evidence, McCall said.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley is still deciding whether to sanction the agency for not preserving the cell phone Custer was using on May 17, 2012 when  he shot the unarmed 24-year-old as Adams was returning to his family’s garden center on A Road, where he also lived.

After a hearing in March, Hurley said he was torn between whether the agency acted in bad faith or was “extraordinarily negligent” when it lost the phone, knowing it had to be preserved. He said he needed time to do additional research.

While the agency also destroyed Custer’s laptop, Hurley ruled that it was not done intentionally. Rather, he said, it was destroyed because the officer was in line for a new computer. Old laptops are routinely thrown out, sheriff’s officials testified.

Hurley said McCall was clearly entitled to the GPS data to show the locations of other officers who were working with Custer the night Adams was shot. After McCall argued that the agency had repeatedly denied the records existed when it was clear they did, Hurley agreed McCall should be paid for the extra time he spent trying to get them.

In court papers, the sheriff’s office and McCall agreed to the $15,000 payment.



Boynton Beach Mall murder retrial to begin for Wilson Pierre

Wilson Pierre
Wilson Pierre

Jury selection is expected to begin Tuesday in the murder retrial of a man accused of the Christmas Eve 2006 killing of a rival gang member at the Boynton Beach mall.

Wilson Pierre was convicted in 2009 of 24-year-old Berno Charlemond’s murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

His conviction was later overturned when an appellate court ruled the first jury received an erroneous deliberation instruction on a lesser included charge of manslaughter.

Berno Charlemond
Berno Charlemond

The case was headed to retrial last year but stalled when a couple of judges stepped down from the case.

Defense attorney Peter Grable, who represented Pierre during the first trial, is also now off the case, and attorney Gerald Saleno will now represent Pierre in the case to be tried before Circuit Judge Dina Keever.

Dennis DeMartin ordered back to Florida for new sentencing hearing

(Palm Beach Post staff file photo)
(Palm Beach Post staff file photo)

Dennis DeMartin, the juror once jailed for a series of missteps that led a judge to overturn John Goodman’s first DUI manslaughter conviction, will have to return to Florida if he has any hopes of reducing what’s left of a 6-month jail sentence hanging over his head.

While a potential Florida Supreme Court fight looms over whether Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath’s five month, 29-day contempt of court sentence against DeMartin is justified, attorneys for the 72-year-old retired Delray Beach accountant have asked the judge to reduce his sentence to the 37 days he already served at the Palm Beach County jail between January and March of 2014.

Assistant Public Defender Paul Petillo on Thursday filed paperwork asking for a reduced sentence for DeMartin, who landed in legal trouble after Goodman’s 2012 trial when he revealed he conducted a forbidden drinking experiment as a juror and later revealed he failed as a prospective juror to disclose that his ex-wife had once been arrested for DUI.

As a result, Colbath in 2013 overturned Goodman’s DUI manslaughter conviction and 16-year prison sentence in the Feb. 12, 2010 death of 23-year-old Scott Patrick Wilson. Another jury, selected from Tampa, convicted the polo club founder again in 2014 and he is now serving the 16-year sentence.

DeMartin as a result of the time he’s already spent in jail lost his  social security benefits temporarily, which caused him to lose his Delray Beach condo, Petillo said,. He now lives in a government subsidized apartment in Connecticut, but could lose that as well if Colbath sentences him to more prison time.

In a brief hearing Friday morning, Colbath told attorneys in the case that he will consider reducing DeMartin’s sentence and any other matters still up for discussion in the case, but DeMartin must return to Florida for a hearing he’s scheduled for June 3.

According to Petillo’s petition, DeMartin suffers from heart disease, is nearly blind, has short-term memory loss and is taking nearly a dozen medications that includes one used to trat Alzheimer’s patients. He pays $630 in rent a month and otherwise lives on $1,223 a month in social security, a $175 monthly annuity that will end when he is 75 and $37 a month in food stamps, Petillo said.

“He is poor by just about any standard, but with HUD-subsidized housing he is able to get by,” Petillo wrote. “If he temporarily loses his Social Security benefit, he will lose his apartment. If he can’t live with relatives, he will be homeless.”