Big Cat Rescue Works To Pass Protection Act

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 6, 2015 at 4:49 pm

Big Cat Rescue and its coalition partners are working to end the private possession and breeding of big cats before the year’s end.

The nonprofit, one of the largest accredited wildlife sanctuaries in the world, wants to get the Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act bill passed by November. It was originally introduced to Congress in 2011.

Howard Baskin, advisory board chairman for Big Cat Rescue, said the bill is designed to solve the problem of thousands of animals forced being forced to live in miserable conditions, being physically punished and exploited for profit.

“It is not their natural tendency to jump through burning hoops or do any of the other things you see in performances,” he said.

The bill would allow large zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or zoos having high standards of care, to keep big cats. It would exempt sanctuaries that meet a strict criteria of care as well.

People already owning Class I wild animals would be allowed to keep them until they die of natural causes if the bill is passed, but would not be able to buy or breed more, Baskin said.

“Frankly, there wouldn’t be a place to put all of those cats if we weren’t going to grandfather them,” Baskin said.

The bill is going to be introduced in the 2015 legislative session within the next few weeks, according to Baskin.

The Beginning Of The Cycle

Sassyfrass, a male western cougar, yawns as she wakes up from her evening nap. Kept in a tiny backyard cage, his original owner beat him with a shovel, leaving him afraid of humans.

Sassyfrass, a male western cougar, yawns as she wakes up from her evening nap. Kept in a tiny backyard cage, his original owner beat him with a shovel, leaving him afraid of humans.” Komal Junejo/ WUFT News

Traveling zoos, roadside exhibitors and other businesses in the entertainment industry profit from charging the public a fee to pet, play and pose with tiger cubs.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture banned contact with cubs under 8-weeks old while their immune systems develop. Cubs older than 12-weeks are off limits because they are dangerous to the public.

The result is a four-week period of the cat’s life during which it is legal for the public to pet them.

Baskin said if you observe domestic kittens, they sleep a lot. When they’re awake, they want to use their claws and teeth. But tiger cubs are physically punished if they give into their natural tendencies.

“They’re punched in the face,” Baskin said.

Big cat cub handling operations have been found violating this policy by exposing cubs to the public outside of the allotted time frame, according to a fact sheet produced by several wildlife organizations.

Activists say intensive breeding operations have emerged. The big cats are bred to exploit the four-week window and are considered disposable after they’ve outgrown their profitable age.

Susan Bass, public relations director for Big Cat Rescue, said people don’t know it is such a lucrative business.

She said some owners of big cats believe the business will suffer if visitors are not allowed to pet the tigers.

Bass said people will still be attracted to big cats even if they can’t touch them. She compared it to children and their interest in dinosaurs, even though no child has ever touched a prehistoric creature.

“Look at Jurassic World,” Bass said. “No little kid has ever touched a dinosaur.”

Life After The Entertainment Industry

Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue, located a place in Minnesota that sold bobcat and lynx kittens.

It was a “fur farm,” a place whose business model revolved around raising the cats for a year and then slaughtering them to make coats, Carole said.

Carole said the cats were in cages layered with fur and feces several inches deep. Carcasses from discarded cats were thrown in a corner of the room.

“The pile of dead cats in the corner hit me with the reality of a freight train,” she said. “Their bellies had been cut off as this soft, spotted fur is the only portion used in making fur coats.”

After discovering the cats not sold as pets would be slaughtered the following year for fur, she bought all 56.

Since then, Carole has created a 67-acre property facility that houses abandoned, abused and orphaned exotic cats saved from being turned into fur coats or retired from performing acts.

Big cat sanctuaries can’t take in all the unwanted cubs that intensive breeding creates, according to the fact sheet.

U.S. sanctuaries are nearly full.

Unfortunately, big cats outside of places like the one Carole encountered share a similar fate.

Bass, public relations director, said after cats grow too big, they are sold through wildlife auctions to taxidermists or operations similar to “puppy mills.”

Bass recalled a story about an experience Carole had when she went to an exotic animal auction and ended up with bringing home a bobcat.

“There was a man standing next to Carole who was bidding on it [bobcat],” Bass said. “She was thinking, ‘Why would you bid on a bobcat?’”

Carole found out the man was a taxidermist and had plans to stuff the bobcat, which led to her having the winning bid and bringing the animal home, Bass said.

Big cats that don’t find homes are sold to taxidermists or die from health conditions.

Mickey, a 12-year-old cougar, was rescued by Big Cat Rescue from Animal House, a backyard zoo in Moulton, Ala. The owner had been feeding domestic cats and dogs to her wild animals.

When Mickey was found, his back knees suffered from torn ligaments. He was underweight and had almost no muscle mass.

Bass said big cats can live in neighborhoods without any registration. This creates a scenario where unqualified individuals are keeping large, dangerous animals in residential areas.

“If a storm comes and they get out, what then?” she said.

Neighbors, visitors and emergency first responders could be put in danger, according to Bass.

Currently, the USDA only tracks animals that are licensed as exhibitors. It doesn’t track any of the private owners who have cats as pets.

“Right now, we have no idea how many cats there are or where they are,”Baskin said. “So firemen or police have no idea if they might be walking into a house that has a tiger in it.”

The Future Of Cats In Entertainment

“There are an increasing number of circuses that don’t have animals, like Cirque du Soleil, and they are very successful,” Baskin said.

While the bill has a very limited circus exemption, roadside operations, where the animals are poorly treated, will not continue if the bill is passed.

“I feel like a big part of the message is that big cats don’t belong in the entertainment industry,” he said. “It’s a miserable life for these animals.”

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Aug. 6, 2015: Afternoon News In 90

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 6, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Andrew Briz produced this update.

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August Marks 25th Anniversary of Danny Rolling Murders

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 6, 2015 at 3:46 pm

Sonja Larson. Christina Powell. Christa Hoyt. Tracy Paules. Manuel Taboada.

Those five names have graced the graffiti-laden 34th Street wall since 1990 when five  college students were brutally murdered.

That August in Gainesville, four University of Florida students and one from Sante Fe College were butchered in a series of crimes that garnered worldwide attention and changed the fabric of the city forever.

The white apartment building south of the UF campus, the first of three gruesome murders scenes, still stands today. It is the only building to survive 25 years of memories following the horror of Danny Harold Rolling.

This summer marks 25 years since Rolling terrorized Gainesville and those five lives were taken. Such a monumental murder case left its mark on the college town, even if a large portion of its current student population wasn’t even born.

Rolling eventually confessed to raping several of his victims, killing three other people in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, and attempting to murder his father in May 1990. In total, Rolling confessed to killing eight people.  He was executed in 2006 at the age of 52.

A memorial marking the 25th anniversary will be held on the UF campus this month to remember the victims. As time has passed in a city where students come and go, the events of 1990 seem to have withered away. Memorials like this one are a good way to keep the memories alive.

While much has changed in the last 25 years, some things in Gainesville remain constant reminders of the five lives taken too soon.

The portion of the 34th Street wall dedicated to the five victims of the 1990 Gainesville student murders. This mural does not get painted over and is one of the lasting memorials of the murders 25 years ago. Photo by Alex Maminakis.  Audio: Spencer Mann discusses his thoughts on the 25th anniversary of the student murders and reflects back a bit on his time spent working the case, as well as what the 25 years since it happened have meant for him and the city of Gainesville.

The portion of the 34th Street wall dedicated to the five victims of the 1990 Gainesville student murders. This mural does not get painted over and is one of the lasting memorials of the murders 25 years ago. Photo by Alex Maminakis/WUFT News

Williamsburg Village Apartments, on Southwest 16th Street, where roommates Larson and Powell were killed, is the only apartment complex remaining from the murders.  Hoyt, Paules and Taboada were also found dead inside apartments, but those have since been leveled and built upon.

Melissa Burgess, the property manager at Williamsburg Village, was surprised it has been 25 years but could not comment on the topic of the murders. According to Burgess, the management that operates Williamsburg Village is trying to distance itself from the events of 1990.

Burgess also could not comment on whether Apartment 113, where Larson and Powell lived, is currently occupied. However, the Tampa Bay Times reported in 2010 that it had been vacant for quite a while.


Spencer Mann can recall the events of August 1990 like they were yesterday. A lieutenant and spokesman with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office at the time, he visited each of the three murder sites firsthand.

“I can vividly recall (the scenes) in my mind right now, and that’s tough,” Mann said. “For several months I’d have bad dreams about it, and I ended up going to a counselor.”

The 59-year-old is now retired. He spent 17 years working for the Alachua County Sheriff’s office and another 15 as the chief investigator at the state attorney’s office. Mann investigated numerous death cases over his career, but he said the scenes Danny Rolling left behind in Gainesville were too gruesome to forget.

“(I have) been to a lot of deaths over the years, but these clearly were the most horrific ones I’d ever seen,” Mann said.

One person Mann worked closely with on the student murder cases was Sadie Darnell, presently Alachua County Sheriff. Darnell was a sergeant and spokeswoman for Gainesville Police Department in 1990.

Darnell declines to talk about the murders today. Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, Art Forgey, said in a statement:  “After the 10 year anniversary of the student deaths, Sheriff Darnell and many of the other officers who worked this horrific crime scene made a decision to ‘move on’ and not to focus back on the crimes or the related press and media.”

The statement goes on to say “Any additional focus on Danny Harold Rolling only serves to ‘glorify’ him and we certainly don’t want to do that.”

Twenty five years later, Mann, who witnessed Rolling’s execution, is still sharing his story and said the Gainesville student murders are something he’ll never forget. He can’t. The case played too big a role in his career and in his life.

“It doesn’t seem like 25 years,” he added. “There are some things that you will never forget, and that obviously is one set of cases that I will never forget and has always had lasting impact.”

But as monumental a case as this was for Mann and the city of Gainesville, many students who attend UF know little to nothing about the student murders. With Gainesville being such a transient city, events and occurrences seem to come and go.

Kemi Thomas, 21, is a senior at UF. She never heard of the Gainesville murders or Danny Rolling before and was both surprised and frightened to learn about what happened 25 years ago.

“Wow, that’s scary. No one’s ever told me since being here,” Thomas said. “They don’t tell you that at Preview.”

That lack of recognition today of what shook the city of Gainesville 25 years ago is what Mann said makes anniversaries and memorials less well-known and publicized.

“When an anniversary comes up and there’s a remembrance here, it’s not as well attended because nobody truly knew it happened,” Mann said.

UF will be holding a memorial for the 25th anniversary of the student murders on Tuesday, Aug 25th, at the Baughman Center on campus, said Mary Claire Whelan, coordinator of budget and operations in the Dean of Students Office.

Mann said it’s always important to remember the victims. He does every time he drives by the 34th Street wall and sees the names painted in white.

Mann said he’s had people tell him they would prefer to forget the horrible events of 1990 rather than hold onto those memories, but he knows there’s no running away from it.

“People deal with it in different ways, but it is part of the fabric of Gainesville, always has been always will be,” Mann said. “Some people remember it and some people don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.”

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Alachua County Commission Considers GFR Assistance To Combat Ambulance Shortage

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 6, 2015 at 2:08 pm
A Gainesville Fire Rescue truck sits at the downtown fire station July 22, 2015. (photo by Samuel Navarro)

A Gainesville Fire Rescue truck sits at the downtown fire station on July 22. Samuel Navarro / WUFT

The increasing number of calls for emergency medical services and the lack of ambulances from the Alachua County Fire Rescue has raised concerns in the community.

The group Strengthen Gainesville wants county commissioners to focus on expanding the ambulance fleet for emergency use instead of focusing on making money from out-of-state transfers.

The group created a petition asking for signatures to show the community’s support for allowing Gainesville Fire Rescue using their ambulances for Alachua County EMS calls. The petition’s aim was to also let county commissioners know the community stands for a stronger EMS system.

GFR Chief Jeff Lane said the department has not submitted a petition, but they have monitored a recent increase in the response times of the Alachua County ambulances. 

Strengthen Gainesville claims the use of Alachua County ambulances for inner-facility transfers, which they say sometimes go as far as Tennessee, led to a shortage of ambulances in the area.

Staff assistant for the EMS branch of the ACFR Christa Kopman confirmed that the county does perform out-of-state transfers, but that the shortage of ambulances in the area is not necessarily a consequences of this kind of service.

By state law, the ACFR is the only entity allowed to provide medical transportation, unless the Alachua County Commission grants a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity to GFR.

Lane said the certificate will be discussed during an August 10 county commission meeting.

The certificate is a permit that allows any third party to perform a public service like non-emergency transfers as long as they meet a list of requirements stated under Ordinance 93-3, section 25.

“We do have the expertise, but we don’t have the county’s permission,” Lane said in regard to GFR’s ability of participating in transfer calls.

County commissioners recently agreed to purchase three new ambulances in an attempt to lower the workload of the ACFR emergency responders and meet high demands of transfer calls.

According to an ACFR budget proposal for fiscal year 2016, so far this year, the increase in responses and lack of available rescue units have led the ACFR to have a low number of rescue units available to respond in 142 occasions and 3 hours of no rescue units available to respond to emergencies.

Transfer calls consist of transporting patients from one hospital to another, even to out-of-state facilities. Transfers from UF Health, North Florida Regional and the VA Hospitals to out-of-county hospitals has increased 155 percent, according to ACFR deputy chief Harold Theus.

This is a major source of revenue for the county. Last year, revenue generated by out-of-county transfers was $561,037. Also, during the same fiscal year, the county was unable to handle 128 out-of-county transfers with potential revenue of $314,334, as stated in the county finance report…

Lt. Don Campbell from Gainesville’s Fire Rescue Station 1, located at 427 S. Main St., said that the only concern they have is to do the job right.

“We just want to save lives,” he said.

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The Freewheel Project Advocates for Community Cyclists

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 7, 2015 at 4:21 pm

Frankie Withey is still trying to break-in his Mongoose.

An avid cyclist, Withey uses every chance he can to ride.

The 44-year-old lives in Dignity Village, Gainesville’s tent city. He rides his Mongoose mountain bike to pick up trash around the community, run errands and deliver messages to other residents around the camp.

“It’s therapeutic because I have to get my cardiovascular up. It also gives me something to do. It allows me to clear my mind,” he said. “I just jump on my bike and ride.”

But when Withey’s bike breaks down, he has a limited supply of tools to use. 

That’s where The Freelwheel Project comes in.

Artists Steven Speir and Cesar Antonio Evans paint the mural that is located in the back of The Freewheel Project on Sunday afternoon. They have dedicated about 50 hours to the mural by providing free labor to the organization.

Artists Steven Speir and Cesar Antonio Evans paint the mural that is located in the back of The Freewheel Project on a weekend afternoon. They have dedicated about 50 hours to the mural by providing free labor to the organization. Maria Valencia / WUFT News

The Freewheel Project, located at 618 S. Main St. in Gainesville, will be a low-cost education-based bike shop staffed with a mechanic and an intern. Members will have access to a tool library, a bike library and a crit-cross style track (a lap course with a rough surface) that snakes through the 2.7-acre lot behind the building.

Withey said he would like to be a part of The Freewheel Project’s cycling group, but can’t afford to pay for it. The project would be a great resource for him and the other residents of Dignity Village who rely on bikes as their main mode of transportation.

The project’s vice president, Patrick Dodds, said his previous experience with the homeless community allowed him to see how important a bicycle can be for a homeless person in their day-to-day life.

With The Freewheel Project, Dodds said he envisions a space where the underprivileged community can come in and feel comfortable.

He wants them to feel like they have a space of their own and have their bike worked on while engaging with other people in the community.

This approach is what attracted Ethan Hudgins, a 20-year-old UF student, to volunteer with the project.

“The fact that they’ll be a community center will add another outlet for people to get help that they need,” Hudgins said. “You don’t think about it much because it’s not generally a huge issue for students.”

Hudgins said he thinks the project will add the missing piece to help get a variety of different modes of transportation on the ground. This would make the community more inclusive for people who can’t drive while increasing cycling advocacy and education.

The project is not solely directed at the underprivileged community, but anyone interested in cycling.

“If you ride a bike, we want to be supportive of that,” said Ryan Aulton, executive director of the project.

The project also has a focus on empowering women in competitive cycling due to the vast difference between women’s and men’s presence in the sport at the local and professional level, according to Jamie Aulton, the project’s president.

Ryan Aulton said the project has been well-received in the community even though the bike shop is not set to open until August.

In addition to volunteers, the organization has received donated bicycle equipment, discounted tractor rentals and other building materials from community members, organizations and businesses.

Sarah Goff, co-founder of The Repurpose Project, a nonprofit organization that salvages discarded items intended for reuse, said it donated about 4,000 bricks to The Freewheel Project. The bricks will be used to pave the bike track.

“A thing I really like about them is the impact of the environment from biking, like the reduction of carbon dioxide,” she said. “That’s our whole thing, helping the planet, and what they’re doing is also helping the planet in the respect of having more bikes and fewer cars.”

Although Withey can’t afford to pay for membership, there are other ways that the project can give access to those who don’t have the means to join.

Dodds said the project will have free service days on the weekends, either Saturday or Sunday, where members of the underprivileged community can come in to learn how to change a flat tire or make some minor corrections that would help them on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to the free service days, he said the organization plans on visiting GRACE Marketplace to engage and educate individuals on the available services to make them aware and involved as much as possible.

As a advocate of Dignity Village, Withey thinks the project would really benefit other riders in the community, especially those who are heavily reliant on their bicycles to go to work.

“I feel like it would be a great source for the cyclists here (at Dignity Village),” he said.

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University of Florida Among First To Use Online Safety Program

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: August 6, 2015 at 11:50 am

The University of Florida is one of the first institutions that will begin using the VTV Family Outreach Foundation’s 32 National Campus Safety Initiative.

The 32 NCSI is a series of free online confidential self-assessment tools for colleges and universities to see where their policies and procedures are in nine key campus safety areas including campus public safety, mental health and emergency management.

Families of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting victims created the foundation. The number 32 was selected to serve as a living legacy for the 32 students and faculty killed in the tragedy, and the survivors as well.

The online tool will help institutions gauge their methods and practices for ensuring safety and security.

“It will allow institutions based on best and promising practices to identify where they are doing well and where there may be gaps that they need to bridge with how they provide safety and security services,” said S. Carter, director of VTV Family Outreach Foundation and 32 NCSI.

A student walks by an emergency phone station at the Hub. UF was chosen by the VTV Family Outreach Foundation as a model for campus safety in the nation.

A student walks by an emergency phone station at the Hub. UF was chosen by the VTV Family Outreach Foundation as a model for campus safety in the nation. Allison Stendardo / WUFT

The initiative will launch at George Mason University on August 13.

Part of Carter’s initial task when creating the initiative was to identify thirteen of the nation’s leading experts in campus safety, one being UF’s Jen Day Shaw.

Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at UF, said she and other expert panelists spoke with families, who thought the best way to start this initiative would be to work with colleges and universities.

“The foundation is interested in families of perspective students being able to get information about campus safety,” Day Shaw said.

Families of the VT shooting victims want to make sure campuses are as safe as they can possibly make them after the tragedy they had to face, she said.

UF and six other schools were chosen to participate in the pilot survey for 32 NCSI, which lasted a year in order to choose the best national standards for every type of institution to follow.

“We’re a national model,” Day Shaw said when asked about why UF was chosen. “We’re nationally known for our campus safety, we have schools come and see us all the time.”

She pointed out the police department is accredited by three different accrediting agencies, which is rare.

“We were thrilled to have such a large, robust institution participate and help us validate our instrument,” Carter said.

While Day Shaw said UF is at platinum level when it comes to safety standards, she personally would want to see more being done with the concerns of alcohol.

“Alcohol drives a lot of other safety issues so even though we do a lot with it, it is something we continually have to work on” said Day Shaw, “I would like to see us emphasize helping students really make smart choices and making sure they are not put in vulnerable situations.”

Day Shaw said the university is also looking into things like off-campus transportation. UF currently has SNAP that runs on campus but she would like to see more of a door-to-door service for students.

“Institutions are sometimes criticized for campus safety efforts, said Peter Lake, 32 NCSI advisory council chairman in a press release. “For the first time, there is now a tool to help campuses implement effective programs across a wide variety of safety metrics,” Lake said.

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In The News: State Has Record Low Pass Rate Of Written Drivers Test, Four Florida Planned Parenthood Facilities Cited For Violations, Body Found Monday Identified As Trenton Woman, 70th Anniversary Of Hiroshima Atomic Bombing

By on August 6th, 2015 | Last updated: September 3, 2015 at 2:07 pm
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State Park Commercialization Plan Contributor Appointed DEP Secretary

By on August 5th, 2015 | Last updated: August 5, 2015 at 7:17 pm

Florida state parks were identified by Jon Steverson, then-interim secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the Florida Park Service in a draft strategic plan, as test cases for allowing commercial businesses to graze cattle, timber and hunt in the parks.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed, and the Florida Cabinet approved, Steverson Secretary of DEP during a cabinet meeting today.

The proposal is not intended to commercialize and privatize parks, Steverson told Cabinet members. But, the state might not be able to maintain all of the publicly owned land without the capacity to generate more revenue.

Grassroots groups are forming across the state to oppose this possible plan to commercialize the state parks. Protect Paynes Prairie was founded just weeks after Florida Parks in Peril was established to protect Myakka River State Park.

The DEP looks for opportunities to make the state’s parks and lands self-sustaining to achieve the ultimate goals of ecosystem restoration, resource-based recreation and land management and conservation said Jason Mahon, DEP spokesman, in an email.

But Mark Smith, Protect Paynes Prairie steering committee head, said the grassroots groups’ concern is that the plan goes beyond resource management, allowing for commercialization and even privatization of state parks.

Jim Stevenson, a retired DEP senior biologist, procured the plan on June 18th. He said the parks’ land and wild life would be in jeopardy if Steverson were to execute it.

“If they can make a dollar off of it, they’re going to do it,” he said. “The parks have not been treated like this for their entire existence. For 80 years we have not had this kind of what’s called multiple use, and it’s just since Gov. Scott has come on board that they started moving in that direction.”

Randy Lance, owner of Little River Organics in Wellborn, Fla., grazes cattle on his farm. He said he approves of the plan because it is beneficial for the environment.

“If you put cattle on (land), the trees grow better, the grass grows better, the soil captures carbon,” he said. “That’s the ideal.”

But Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam expressed concern against the plan during today’s meeting. Smith said this was a success for the grassroots groups.

“I would say our message has been heard, not only for me but for all the people who are represented by their involvement in signing petitions, in making calls to the cabinet members and to state law makers,” he said. “For everyone who has participated in this.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to the reporting.

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Aug. 5, 2015: News in 90

By on August 5th, 2015 | Last updated: August 5, 2015 at 3:42 pm

Aaron Abell produced this update.

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Sexual Battery Case Turned Over To Alachua Co. Sheriff’s Office

By on August 4th, 2015 | Last updated: August 4, 2015 at 6:53 pm

The sexual battery incident that occurred Sunday has been turned over to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office after the University of Florida Criminal Investigations Division (UFCID) determined it did not happen on the UF campus.

Police say the suspect, a UF student, met the 19-year-old victim at Grog House, located at 1718 W. University Ave., before bringing her to his off-campus home, which is where the sexual battery reportedly took place.

The victim told police she remembers leaving with the suspect and then waking up in a bed, according to the release. The suspect then reportedly drove the victim back to her residence hall.

UFCID initially worked with ASO to interview the suspect. Because it is out of UFCID’s jurisdiction, it was then turned over to ASO.

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