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Silhouettes profiles Omar Garcia

By Tiffany Razzano
Published March 10, 2023

The son of Cuban immigrants, Omar Garcia is the first generation of his family born in Tampa. His older siblings were also born in Cuba and came to Florida with their parents.
By 1957, his father was working in Tampa as a chemical engineer. Eventually, his parents purchased a home in the Baycrest area.
Garcia attended Christ the King Catholic School and graduated from Tampa Catholic High School. But he wasn’t the best student, he said. “My grades weren’t the best…They weren’t stellar.”
He took difficult courses in high school, but “I just did enough to pass,” he said. “I graduated with a 2.0.”
His parents considered sending him to trade school to become a welder. “Just so I’d have a career,” Garcia said. “But my mom said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re going to college.’”
So, after high school, he first attended Hillsborough Community College, which prepared him for his higher education. There he took what’s considered a “weeder class” – thermodynamics. “If I got an A, I automatically moved to classes at (the University of South Florida,” he said.
He earned that A and went on to attend USF, graduating with a civil engineering degree and honors.
From there, he joined the U.S. Navy, becoming a civil engineering corps officer. He served from 1995 to 1997. During this time, much of his work was with the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion handling construction contracts in Puerto Rico. “The Fighting CBs. Just like the John Wayne movie,” Garcia said. “We went out and made rapid runway repairs.”
After leaving the Navy, he switched gears, attending the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School to earn his MBA. “I’ve done a lot of different things in my career circuit,” he said.
After graduating from UNC in 1999, “the internet was just blowing up,” he said. “I really saw a huge opportunity.”
For several years he worked at Nortel Networks, which offered high-speed cell networks around the world, as a sale operation manager. “Cell phone use was in its infancy, at the time. We’re talking about Bluetooth in 1999,” Garcia said.
He was in charge of web enabling some of the company’s partners. “I still remember the day one of the girls on our team said, ‘You need to check out this new search engine called Google,’” he recalled.
For a while, he worked in England, just outside London, but field changed when “dot-com imploded” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Twin Towers. Though he considered a move to Silicon Valley, he came back to Tampa.
Once back in Florida, he launched a real estate company, Aventa. While he didn’t want to be “branded to any particular ethnicity, he also felt that the Hispanic community was underserved in the real estate market at the time.
Garcia had always enjoyed “the tangible side of real estate” and was inspired by his mother’s work in the field. He grew up watching her flip homes in the Tampa area. “Like they do on HGTV, but my mom was doing it in the early ‘70s,” he said. “My mom was buying and fixing whole houses in the 1970s. Taking these homes with antique finishings and making them new again. So, I was always kind of into this starting from something old and making it new again. It’s called adaptive reuse.”
Aventa did well in its first couple of years, but by 2006, he began to see that the real estate market as a whole was having some issues. “I didn’t feel comfortable telling first-time homeowners and buyers, ‘Hey, you should buy this house,’” he said. “I felt the market was going to turn.”
At the same time, he was going through a divorce and wanted to switch gears. So, he took a construction management position in Iraq and, later, Afghanistan. “It was like what I did in Puerto Rico, but for a private company,” he said.
There, he met his current wife, who’s from Turkey, and they had daughters. “It works out well. They’re loud and Cubans are loud and very passionate,” Garcia said.
When his dad fell ill, he moved his family to Tampa. He took a position working in a company focused on crude oil and U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects in Afghanistan, serving as director of emerging markets.
Then, he started looking into how mobile phones could be used during field maintenance works and found a way to use QR codes to track equipment and projects. The QR codes are put on containers and other equipment used in the field and are tracked by GPS. If anyone came upon this equipment, all they’d have to do was scan the QR code to know who it belonged to. After perfecting this technology, he launched a company, SHOOTRAC.
Around the same time, he was buying, fixing and flipping properties on the side. Eventually, he had to make a choice – move to Silicon Valley to grow SHOOTRAC or find another career path.
Garcia had the opportunity to purchase a 136-unit apartment complex in West Tampa, and decided to scrap his software company. “I didn’t want to travel,” he said. “When you do startups, it’s the hardest, most intense thing in the world. You’re up at 1 o’clock in the morning. You’re sleeping for four hours a day. You’re all in. You live, breathe and do it every day.”
When he purchased the apartment complex, he launched a new real estate company, Urban Core Holdings. “We felt that there would be a move to the urban core,” he said. “Driving a car is a hassle and expense. So, we felt that movement would be to the downtown urban core of the city.”
The apartment complex wasn’t an easy job, he added. “It was horrible – gangs, drug dealing and a massive amount of deferred maintenance when we bought it.”
But they put the work into it, changing the water lines, updating the roof, redoing apartments. Eventually, it drew attention of University of Tampa students and when he and his partners sold the complex in 2020, more than 40 percent of the tenants attended UT.
“What I realized from that was there was an unmet need for housing for UT students,” Garcia said.
His company didn’t target one particular product or demographic. Instead, they wanted to be experts in an area. “And that area is a five-mile radius of downtown,” he said.
They next purchased 220 Madison, a 90,000-square-foot office building that had been foreclosed on several times. “It failed as an office building, but it’s probably the most central location in Tampa,” Garcia said. “We said, you know what, let’s make these micro apartments.”
The 136-bed project has been 100 percent occupied since the day it opened in August 2019. It’s leased mostly to college students – the majority attending UT with some from USF living there as well.
And Garcia is seeing the downtown growth he anticipated. “There’s development of the outer ring of downtown. We’re starting to see that periphery developed,” he said. “Now, it’s working its way to the center. Across the street from our building is $2-, $3, $4 million housing. It is exactly what we thought would happen, that people would want to live in the urban core; they’d want to walk to restaurants and shops. And while we expected the trend to happen, what we did not contemplate was the speed it would happen in Tampa.”
Garcia also has several other projects in the works, including the conversion of the Bustillo Brothers and Diaz Company cigar factor in West Tampa into housing, called CigarLofts. And he’s working on another student housing facility near UT in a 1900s-era hotel building. He’s also working on the South Tampa development, Interbay Commons, which includes 30 townhomes and 50,000 square feet of commercial space.
He’s also a big supporter of expanding mass transit and alternative transportation options in the Tampa Bay area. He even rides his bike to work. “I encourage people to get out of the car business,” he said.
In his free time, he regularly plays pick-up soccer games in South Tampa. “The players are 16 to 72 years old. That is my social group,” he said. “We talk smack. We fall. We push. And we do it every week, twice a week. And the players are from everywhere – Jamaicans, Algerians, British, Venezuelans – hardly any Brazilians – Central Americans, South Americans, military guys, humans.”
He’s close with his family, who still lives here, as well as his wife and daughters. “All my family is here. I love my family. I love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything,” he said.

Silhouettes profiles Randi Zimmerman

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Aug. 22, 2022

Taking on the general manager role at WMNF earlier this year, Randi Zimmerman’s career has come full circle – and she couldn’t be happier about it. After all, Tampa Bay’s community radio station is where the educator and journalist got her start on the air. Now, she’s ready to guide the station as it continues to grow and connect with listeners throughout the region.
“This job hits all my buttons. I’m this weird combination of people person and a numbers person,” she said. “So, I get to talk to people. I get to be technical. I get to work the board. I get to hug people and hearten people and elevate their stories and I get to run the numbers. And I was handed this station that’s in really great shape, that is doing amazing things, that needs, basically, just a little bit more help to get over into that next generation.”
A native New Yorker, Zimmerman was raised in Kew Gardens, Queens and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. As a teen, she was interested in science and theater, especially the technical aspects of producing shows. “I was one of those AV nerds. But you can’t make money in theater, even in New York, right? So, I went to learn about producing television and radio and then went into producing commercials. Then business, public relations, stuff like that,” she said.
She spent about a decade working in New York after high school “in advertising, public relations, cable television. I worked at Lifetime before it was anything, when we were still pushing buttons, instead of, you know, having an actual remote control.”
In 1990, she moved to Florida. She had family in the state – a great aunt in Brooksville and her grandmother on the East Coast – and was also drawn to its affordability. “I wanted to be able to afford to buy my own home,” she said. “I wanted that opportunity, which wasn’t going to be available to me anytime soon living in New York, working in television and radio.”
Zimmerman didn’t know what to expect when she landed in Tampa but found it to be “a city on the verge, getting ready to become something big.”
She added, “And that seemed very exciting to me to be at the beginning of things.”
At the same time, the Tampa Bay area was also “basically one big small town,” she said, “which is also kind of cool.”
When she first moved to Tampa, she worked in the corporate world, but decided to go back to college to become a science teacher. Living in Safety Harbor at the time, she first attended St. Petersburg Junior College, then the University of South Florida.
At USF, she met Nell Abram, a journalist, DJ and volunteer at WMNF. As they got to know each other, Zimmerman shared her background in commercials, public relations and radio production in New York.
Abram told her, “Well, come to my community radio station where we need some professional skills.”
“So, I started in the news department here because of Nell Abram. Just met her in a class,” Zimmerman said.
She was already familiar with WMNF. As a “news junkie,” she’d already discovered the station not long after moving to Florida after learning that it aired “Democracy Now.”
“It was like, ‘This is great. My people,’” she said. But she couldn’t quite figure out the station’s schedule. “It wasn’t always talk and sometimes it was music. And sometimes it was polka music and sometimes it was rock music and sometimes it was blues music. It took me a number of years to really figure out what was going on.”
Once she began working with the station, it clicked for her. “I knew the station, but I didn’t really understand the station until I was here,” she said. “And then I was hooked. I just did everything. I volunteered doing news. I would do fund drives and answer phones and stuffed envelopes. My mom raised me to be very politically active anything. So, it was great having a cause.”
Zimmerman immediately saw the potential in WMNF’s newsroom. “It was really clear that the newsroom could foster all of these wonderful voices,” she said.
Though her previous experience in radio and television focused on technical production, at WMNF, she shifted gears to broadcast journalism, taking on the role of headline news anchor in 1998 and embracing her role in radio activism. Being on air is “a necessary evil,” something she’s still not fully comfortable doing decades later. “But I have to get on air. Not because I like it or I’m enamored by it, but because I’ve got these great stories,” she said.
Sheila Cowley, who was an engineer at the station at the time, once told her, “You’re not really a journalist. You’re really a storyteller.”
“And that’s absolutely true. I’m really a storyteller,” Zimmerman said. “I write poetry – for myself – I do all that stuff. So, just this idea that here, I’ve got this microphone and because I have a microphone, people are willing to talk to me. And I love people. I think people are just really interesting and we often ignore just this heroic stuff that goes on all around us all that time that is not talked about. And here I had this opportunity to turn on a microphone to record people and elevate their stories to something that everybody could relate to.”
In the newsroom, she was given the chance to experiment. “I got to be creative and develop not just straight on interviews, but longform radio documentary, half-hour pieces, and that was very fulfilling,” she said.
She did live field coverage of the 2000 election and also lent local perspectives to news coverage of stories with national and international interest, with a focus on social justice, for Florida Public Radio, Pacifica and BBC. During her time with WMNF, she also collaborated with Mitch Perry and Abram as a founding co-anchor on the WMNF Evening News. In 2001, Zimmerman was honored by the station for her work with the award for “Exceptional News and Public Affairs Programming.”
Outside WMNF, she also worked as the first headlines editor for Free Speech Radio News, an international syndicated news program.
While working in journalism, educating others was also remained important to her. She recruited and trained younger community members to produce news and public affairs for WMNF. She also developed a course, Practicum in Broadcast Management, for the University of Tampa.
She also worked as a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County before landing a position as a science teacher at Brandon High School.
By 2005, she was ready for a change, though. When her spouse was accepted into an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York City, Zimmerman got a New York City Teaching Fellowship. She taught for the New York Department of Education while earning a master’s degree in middle childhood education with a focus on science from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
In the classroom, she was known for leaning on her creative and communications background to engage students, such as having them perform plays about rocks and minerals. She also coached young science teachers in Title I schools, helping them understand how to interact and communicate with a diverse student body.
She went on to work as an education researcher with Rutgers Graduate School of Education in 2013.
Zimmerman returned to Florida in 2018. The reasons for making her way back to Florida are simple, she said – “snow and taxes.” She also knew it would be an easy transition, as her family “already had a community here,” between her spouse’s relatives and her WMNF friends and colleagues.
Eventually, she reached out to the station about volunteering. She didn’t want to go back on air but knew she could use her skills and experience to improve training documents and policies for reporters.
Weeks later, Rick Fernandes, then the general manager, quit. Zimmerman was slated to be part of the hiring committee tasked with finding his replacement. “I printed out the job description…and I’m reading through the papers and I’m like, I can do all of this,” she said. “I asked my friends what they thought about me applying for the job and they said, ‘We think you’d be perfect.’ So, I (applied) and I got it.”
One of her biggest focuses since taking on the position at the end of February has been “bringing community back into community radio.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many volunteers weren’t allowed into the station. “To keep everybody safe…(we) had to not let a lot of people in,” she said. “Unlike other not-for-profits, this isn’t just stuffing envelopes. It’s not a typical volunteer job. We’re called community radio for a reason, right? People lost their community and it hurt their feelings and it’s been very hard for some of those folks to come back. So, we have to make extra efforts to make people comfortable about coming back to the station. COVID is still going on.”
The station has also focused on doing more outreach events and connecting with the community in person. (And yes, “Heatwave is coming back,” she said.)
Additionally, there are specific audiences the station has never been able to reach. “There are a lot of communities that never felt very connected to WMNF, so I’m working very hard to reach those people as well,” Zimmerman said.
At the top of her list are St. Pete residents. The station has been hosting more events at the Palladium and other venues in St. Petersburg to connect with those living there.
The station is also now working closely with nonprofit groups to offer them free podcasts and teaching them how to produce these shows. WMNF is also reconnecting with the Pacifica network to offer some of its local program to them. “Florida is one of the hotbeds of the country,” she said. “People are very interested in what we would think of as local politics, but people are trying to figure out what makes us tick. So, we have this opportunity to really expand our national audience with the good stuff that is happening here. We have top-notch journalists doing incredibly good shows.”

Silhouettes profiles Dr. Mario Hernandez

By Tiffany Razzano
Published January 7, 2022

Like many Ybor City natives, Dr. Mario Hernandez has Cuban, Spanish and Sicilian roots and, of course, connections to the historic cigar industry.
His Cuban father was born in Key West after his family immigrated first from Spain and the Canary Islands. At the time, Key West was a growing community thanks to the success of the cigar industry there. But the island was hit by powerful hurricanes, which ended the cigar trade there, Hernandez said. “And so they started bringing the tobacco here to Tampa.” And his father’s side of the family followed the industry as cigar factories opened in Ybor City.
His father met his mother, a Tampa native, here. She was part Spanish – on her father’s side – and Sicilian – on her mother’s side. “So, I’m Italian, Spanish and Cuban,” he said.
It was a different time growing up in Ybor City, one he remembers fondly. “I grew up, as a kid, right there, at what is MLK and 15th Street. It was actually Buffalo. It used to be called Buffalo Avenue,” Hernandez said. “And, you know, I grew up in a time when, you know, you ate breakfast and the doors of the stable were open, and the kids would just run out and come back when your mother screamed for you to come and eat. That was the kind of neighborhood that I grew up in.”
Like many families, much of their socializing happened around good. “Everything was always centered around eating,” he said. “My mother being, you know, having a big Italian influence, would cook. On Sunday, she would cook spaghetti…My mother was not really religious; we weren’t religious. I would say we were spiritual…So, our church on Sundays was my mother’s kitchen, cooking spaghetti sauce.”
It was such a powerful memory for the family that when she died he printed her recipe and the story of her sauce on Sundays on the back of her prayer card.
“That was really fun,” he said. “And, of course, the recipe was, how much garlic do you put in? And the answer would be, ‘Well, it depends on how good the garlic is.’ If it’s really good garlic, you put in less. It’s like, well, what is good garlic? She had this recipe based on how good the ingredients were. It’s so funny.”
His parents ran a store in Ybor City. Hernandez spent a lot of time there as a child, but one of his most vivid moments decades later was hiding from the Ku Klux Klan. A biracial couple had moved about a half a block from the shop and one day his father saw KKK members in white robes marching toward the couple’s home. He and his parents locked the door, pulled down the shades and turned off the lights, and the three of them hid behind the meat counter while the KKK burned a cross in the nearby yard.
“I’ll never forget it, because I saw how concerned my parents were. I never saw my father like that. I can still remember it,” Hernandez said.
He was just a little boy and the gravity of what was happening – and the racism and hatred behind the KKK’s actions – didn’t fully hit him until he was older. “We lived in a Latin community where we were, to a certain extent, living in our own world with other people like us,” he said.
As he grew older though, he noticed things were different when his family traveled outside Ybor City. “When you went out a little bit, like we would try to rent motels at the beach, I remember, ‘Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins. Sorry, we don’t rent to Latins,’ and we’d go place to place to place to try to find a place,” he said. “There was prejudice and my father was always very concerned about where I would go to hang out and do things. He says, ‘Some of these places you go, we’ll never find your body.’ Well, that’s a scary thought. That was just a reality I grew up with. But within the Latin community, you know, it was different. It was like our own world. Tampa was a beautiful, protective kind of bubble.”
Growing up, there was only one person in his family who attended college. Higher education wasn’t the norm for his parents, and though they had a lot of confidence in his abilities, he didn’t have much guidance as far as schooling or his career path.
Access to WEDU’s programming was influential and life-changing for him at a young age. “I didn’t have like a role model for a whole lot, you know, outside (Ybor City,) and so, to me, the window to the outside world, the thing that made me go like, ‘Wow, what is that job? How did that person get that job?’ was WEDU,” he said. “I would watch WEDU all the time…And that’s where I’d see these jobs. You know, I’d see a professor. I was always into animals and plants, I still am.”
Initially, he wanted to be an animal behavioralist and WEDU drove those dreams. After high school, he went on to the University of South Florida. The early research he completed was working with crows and tools. “Crows are amazing creatures,” Hernandez said. “They’re very intelligent.”
While working with the crows, though, his research assistantship funding ran out, forcing him to switch gears. He was pointed in the direction of Dr. Robert Friedman, a clinical psychologist and USF staff member who eventually chaired the psychology department. Friedman was hiring people to work with teenagers with emotional issues at the Florida Mental Health Institute.
Hernandez wasn’t sold on changing his career path, though. He told his wife, “I’m not gonna work with teenagers. You know, that’s not what I want to do.”
She told him, “Well, why don’t you go check it out? We need the money.”
He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from USF in 1975, followed by a master’s degree in clinical/community psychology from the university in 1978. While working toward his Ph.D. in clinical/community psychology, also at USF, he headed west to complete his required internship at Camarillo State Hospital in California in 1980. “That’s where all the movie stars go,” he said.
It was a big move and adjustment for Hernandez and his tightknit family. He recalls his sister moving away from their Ybor City neighborhood before him. She didn’t go very far, moving to Lutz. “My mother was crying, because it was like she was moving to France, you know. They might never see her again,” he said. “But that’s how the families were. Everybody stayed right by each other. So, then, you can imagine what it was like when the son moves to California.” The first plane trip his parents ever took was to visit him on the West Coast.
His connection with Friedman at USF gained him many admirers at Camarillo State Hospital and the area. “He’s nationally famous for his way of thinking about how children’s services should be,” Hernandez said. “It’s not all just therapy based. It’s more about how we support kids and families in a more realistic way as opposed to just always thinking in terms of treatment. It’s about how agencies can work together to help.”
He added, “Well, it turns out that where I moved to, the county was replicating and trying to put his ideas into a real situation. So when they found out that I knew him, it was like a golden key for me. It was like, ‘You know this guy? You know Elvis.’ ‘Yeah, he’s my friend.’”
After earning his Ph.D. from USF, he remained in California operating a private practice and working with various agencies. But the late 1980s, he took on the position of chief of children and youth services with Ventura County Mental Health. His work focused on reforming and overhauling the system.
“Part of the work that I did in California was we helped to close the state hospitals. Our work was to make sure that no children ever had to go there,” he said. “We emptied them. We emptied them out of our county and then we did five counties and then it went statewide.”
With the success in California, Hernandez has consulted in many states on children and youth services, helping to reform their systems. “It was an incredible ride. I mean what were doing in California to replicate what (Friedman) was one of the designers of here just opened up the whole world,” he said. So from a guy who never left his neighborhood, I can’t believe everything I’ve been able to see and do just through my career in advocacy and reform.”
By 1993, he returned to Tampa. His mentor, Friedman, recruited him back to USF, offering him a position as a research associate professor and director of division of training, research, evaluation and demonstrations for the university’s Department of Child and Family Services. He’s been there ever since, working his way up.
Life came full circle for him when Friedman retired. USF asked Hernandez to take over the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences as chair in 2007.
The interdisciplinary department is the largest at the university with 267 employees. It’s also responsible for bringing in around $60 million in grants for various research projects.
“We have psychologists, sociologists. We have educators. We have business majors, anthropologists,” he said. “So, we are really interdisciplinary and whenever we approach a problem, we approach it from all those different perspectives, which really lends a lot.”
The department continues to grow, Hernandez added. “We have the rehab and mental health counseling program. We just added a marriage and family therapy program. We have five certificates. We have a new minor in addictions counseling, which is totally popular. We also have an applied behaviors minor.”
He added, “And we still have more ideas.”
Most university psychology departments are driven by accreditation standards. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, with so many professions associated with it, it’s adopted a “more unique” mission and vision statement, he said.
“And we did that on purpose because we would no matter what you are, that’s what we’re about. We’re about that first. We want to support everyone and everything they’re doing, while meeting accreditation, of course,” he said. “But we have a real mission statement. It’s not just a slogan that was thrown together. It’s real and has purpose, and that’s what drives us.”

Silhouettes profiles Gretchen Cothron

Gretchen Cothron
Photo by Dave Decker

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Sept. 11, 2020

Even as a child growing up in Tampa and Pasco County, Gretchen Cothron was naturally drawn to activism. By the time she was a teenager, she joined local chapters of ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and NOW (National Organization for Women). “I don’t know why, but I’ve always been a fighter for the underdog,” she said. “Any sort of injustice has always set me off, ever since I was young.”
Decades later, this early passion for justice continues to inform her work in the community. Among her various roles, she’s a well-known human, civil rights and criminal defense attorney currently representing several Black Lives Matter protestors. She’s also the new president of the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and served as a member of Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. “Fighting for justice has always been my biggest passion,” she said.
In her youth, she was equally passionate about the arts, though. Specifically, she was an actor, and after high school, she spent her early twenties focusing on this path. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and worked for several years as an actress and model.
During this period, Cothron was hired as a spokesmodel for Reebok and traveled the United States and Canada with the Harlem Globetrotters hosting their shows for three years. “That was a lot of fun. I was the only woman with about 30 or 40 men and the majority of us were all in our twenties. It was just kind of a rolling party,” she said. “I look back and I wish that we had gone to see the Grand Canyon and things like that instead of going to night clubs and acting like twentysomethings, but it was so much fun.”
By the time she hit her mid-twenties, though, she realized she was aging out of the modeling industry. “I realized I needed to do something that used my intellect as opposed to my looks,” she said.
She returned home to the Tampa Bay area and enrolled in St. Petersburg College’s new forensic science program. “It was the only one in Central Florida at the time,” she said. “I just jumped right into it.”
It was an easy choice, she added. As a child, she loved horror movies and the thought of solving gruesome crimes. “I’d act them out at home,” she said. “While my siblings were playing video games, I was running around the woods of Pasco pretending to be chased by zombies and serial killers.”
Forensic science seemed like the perfect major for her, and her goal, initially, was to become a crime scene investigator. “Maybe even go towards the FBI, like Clarice Starling (from ‘Silence of the Lambs,’)” she said.
Then, while writing a research paper, she learned about Jerry Townsend and Frank Lee Smith, two South Florida men who were convicted for rapes and murders they didn’t commit. The Innocence Project worked to overturn these convictions and prove their innocence. For Smith, it was too late. He died of cancer while on death row months before the DNA evidence that ultimately exonerated him came back.
Townsend didn’t fare much better, Cothron said. He was “mentally slow” with a low IQ. Police tricked him into confessing to crimes he didn’t commit by offering him sandwiches and sodas. When he was exonerated, he was unable to care for himself and was sent to live in a psychiatric facility.
“Their stories broke my heart,” she said. This began several years of volunteering with the Innocence Project to review cases from around the country.
When she transferred to the University of Tampa to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminology, she met Seth Miller with the Innocence Project of Florida, as well as Alan Crotzer, whose rape and murder conviction in Tampa was later overturned by DNA evidence. She launched a forensic consultation nonprofit to help those wrongfully convicted of crimes.
She shifted gears on her career plans, thinking she’d have more of an impact using her forensic skills as a criminal defense attorney rather than in law enforcement. “I thought it was the best way I could help,” she said. “I wanted to try to stop wrongful convictions before they happen.”
She began writing letters to criminal defense attorneys she admired seeking opportunities for legal experience. This included Rochelle Reback, who hired Cothron as a paralegal and invited her to sit on a legal panel for the ACLU.
She attended the University of Miami School of Law. “Out of Florida law schools, it’s the best one if you want to be a criminal defense attorney,” she said. “Because of the city of Miami, its population, how many cases they have, and the opportunities down there to really develop myself as a criminal defense attorney.” UM also offered her a partial scholarship to launch an Innocence Project Clinic on campus for law students.
In 2013, after earning her law degree and passing the bar, she returned to Tampa. She was hired to work for the public defender. She spent four years working in Tampa and Plant City before transferring to Dade City.
At first, the job was everything she had hoped it would be. She was there to assist vulnerable people at their lowest points. But, she eventually became overwhelmed by the volume of cases. “I loved the work and I learned so much there, however, the caseload is so exorbitant,” Cothron said. “I started to get a cynical feeling that there was no way to stop wrongful convictions. I would see them happen in front of me.”
Sometimes, she could appeal a case and get it overturned down the road, but even that didn’t happen as frequently as she would have liked. “I felt like justice wasn’t happening and I was overwhelmed,” she said. When she left in 2018, she had more than 300 cases assigned to her.
She was hired to teach the course “Culture, Race and Crime” at the University of South Florida. Adjunct teaching was a nice change of pace for her. “It was an opportunity to get off the gerbil wheel and jump out of the public defender’s office,” she said.
While at USF, she discovered she enjoyed teaching. She’d had some experience in law school teaching seminars and workshops.
Needing more of a break and wanting to continue exploring her newfound love of teaching, Cothron was hired to teach English overseas. Already interested in Thai Buddhism, she decided to teach kindergarten and first grade in Thailand. She taught them all subjects in English. “It’s very different from what I’d done, but also very similar,” she said. “As an attorney, a lot of what I do is tell people, ‘No, you can’t do that’ or ‘Why did you do that? Why did you think that was a good idea?’ So, kindergarten wasn’t that much different.”
Ahead of an election in Thailand and uncertain about the political climate there, she opted to return to Tampa after a year abroad. “Now I’m kind of regretting it,” she said. “Thailand has fewer cases of COVID than Hillsborough County.”
Upon her return, friends attempted to recruit her to work for their firms. “But I’m just not ready to get back on the hamster wheel,” she said. “I don’t want to kill myself for work.”
Despite turning down positions, it’s not like Cothron hasn’t been busy. In fact, she launched her own firm, Gretchen Cothron Law & Forensics. “I’m still doing criminal defense. That’s my base knowledge,” she said. “I’m moving more into civil disputes. That’s when money is at stake and not somebody’s livelihood. It’s not as intense to me as criminal defense law is.”
She’s also active in the Tampa community. While in Thailand, she continued her involvement with the ACLU’s Greater Tampa chapter and “jumped back into it” when she returned to Florida. In March, she was appointed interim president and is set to be named president at the upcoming Sept. 26 general election, as she’s running unopposed. “I love it, it’s very time consuming and it’s all volunteer work,” she said. “I didn’t expect to still be doing this.”
Between the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, her work with the ACLU has turned into practically a full-time job.
She also hopes that people get a better understanding of what the organization is. “People are confused, but it’s a nonpartisan organization that sues the government for civil liberties violations,” Cothron said. “I get angry people emailing me that I’m ‘a leftist liberal ACLU person.’ But they don’t even know what the ACLU is.”
She encourages Tampa residents to learn more about the organization on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/aclufltampa.
Personally, she’s also offering pro bono representation to injured and arrested activists Jae Passmore and Jason Stewart Flores. Flores was arrested by Tampa Police Department during a Hyde Park protest after being hit on June 27 by a car whose driver drove through a crowd of protestors at an intersection.
Passmore was also injured being hit by a car a week earlier. Last month, she was also arrested by Tampa police after leaving a protest. The arrest landed her in the hospital.
Working with civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Cothron said they recently got the charges dropped for Passmore. Now, they’ve turned their efforts to “getting justice” for her after how she was treated by TPD during her August arrest. The case has been handed over to the state attorney’s office for investigation. “We are hopeful that Jae will get justice through that,” she said.
They’re hoping that charges will eventually be dropped for Flores, too. She’s also launched a GoFundMe page to assist both protestors with their hospital bills. This fundraiser can be found at https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-jae-and-stu.
In the wake of Black Lives Matter and protests of police brutality and over-policing in the area, Cothron was invited to sit on Mayor Jane Castor’s Community Task Force on Policing. The goal was to facilitate community conversations about how to improve the work done by the Tampa Police Department. Ultimately, she’s “disappointed” by the task force and thinks it might have been more of a “PR stunt” than anything else. “I feel like it was almost a pre-planned set-up,” she said. “The report that was issued did not reflect what was being said in meetings.”
She and others would speak up about racism and other policing issues they’d personally witnessed our experienced. Then, TPD representatives at these meetings would “deny or say, ‘that doesn’t happen’ or, ‘oh, no, we fixed that problem,’” she said. “I didn’t feel the meetings were productive.”
She added, “Tampa’s just been crazy. I knew that we had factions of racism in our county, in our city. I knew that we had major issues with the police. I was a public defender during ‘biking while Black’ and that was at a time when I was also representing juveniles. So, I saw what was being upheld. Almost all my juvenile clients were Black male teens and I saw how I was treated back then. To think five years later after the (U.S. Department of Justice) investigation Tampa police are still policing in such an aggressive manner and over-policing poor communities, it saddens me that there hasn’t been progress.”
She’s also part of a task force organized by the local chapter of the NAACP. This one, which features police chiefs from throughout the county, including Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, Plant City Police Department, Temple Terrace Police Department and the USF Police Department, has been more productive, she said. Though, the Tampa Police Department and the Tampa Police Benevolent Association didn’t show up at the group’s most recent meeting, she adds.
Still, this NAACP task force is making headway in creating policies for transparency and accountability in police departments. “If an officer sees another officer acting badly, it’s their duty to interact and report that officer,” she said. “We need more accountability.”
Since this group formed, they’ve already seen Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister fire an officer for excessive force and investigate another for inappropriate posts on social media. “I think some local agencies are taking good steps forward,” Cothron said.
As for the Tampa Police Department, “all we can do is keep applying pressure,” she said. “No one is happy right now. The community isn’t happy, officers aren’t happy right now with the department or the mayor, and citizens aren’t happy. Obviously, something needs to be done. Someone needs to be accountable and so far, the leadership seems to be whitewashing over the problems instead of actually addressing the problems.”

Silhouettes profiles Erin Smith Aebel

Originally published in the july 17, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
Erin Smith AebelBy Tiffany Razzano

Erin Smith Aebel is probably the happiest attorney you’ll ever meet.
“It’s true,” said the partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP. “I’m one of the very few happy lawyers. And I’m one of the few women who has lasted 20 years in a big law firm.”
Ask her the secret to her happiness and success, and she’ll be quick to tell you that the autonomy to do her job well has kept her going all these years. “The key to making me happy is that I’ve always had my own clients,” she said. “I bring in money and do my own thing, and that gives me some degree of protection and freedom.”
A board-certified health care attorney, she’s co-administrator of the firm’s health care practice. Aebel fell into health care law 20 years ago when she happened to be assigned a few cases in the field. “I was working with other lawyers and they said, ‘Here, take care of this doctor,’” she said.
She was drawn to the “really complex laws” governing health care covering everything from HIPAA to kickbacks. “It’s a very technical area and very difficult and constantly changing,” she said. “Every year there are new federal, state, and local laws.”
In her role, she works closely with those in the medical field, such as physicians and dentists, “to try to boil down complex laws in a way that’s affordable and makes sense for them.”
Though she has some larger, national clients, her “passion” is working with small business owners. With small businesses, it’s about cultivating long-term relationships, she said. “I’m not replaceable with many of my clients. They know me. I know them. I know their dogs and I know their children. These longer client relationships are the most rewarding.”
Aebel, a fifth-generation Floridian and St. Petersburg native, didn’t set out to be an attorney. Instead, the Gibbs High School graduate thought she would become a history professor.
She attended Loyola University in New Orleans on a full scholarship, majoring in history and French. Then, she began to think about her future more practically. “My history professor made $30,000 a year and had to get a Ph.D. and live somewhere they might not want to, like South Dakota, to get tenured,” she said.
So, she turned her sights to law. She got into some impressive law schools, including the University of Florida. “I actually turned down UF twice. I don’t want to go to school in a swamp and I don’t like football,” she said.
She decided to attend law school at Loyola because she loved her undergraduate experience there and thought she could excel in the program, making it easier for her to find a job after graduating.
After earning her law degree, Aebel decided to return to the Tampa Bay area. Though she loved New Orleans, she knew it wasn’t the city for her to grow roots. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people in Tampa Bay,” she said. “What I learned about living in an old, Southern city is everyone wants to know who your daddy was and how many lawyers your family has. It’s hard to break into there, but in Tampa Bay, it’s easy to come from anywhere and get very involved easily… People are very welcoming here. They’re not judgey or snotty.”
She started her career working in litigation, but she never enjoyed it. “I like to prevent problems and work behind the scenes and make deals happen,” she said.
Though she didn’t enjoy trials, “what does appeal to me is finding justice for your clients and advocating for other people,” Aebel said. As she began growing her client list and working with them outside the courtroom, she found her niche and began to enjoy being a lawyer.
In addition to her career, her other great passion is community involvement. She sits on the state advisory board for Ruth’s List, which encourages pro-choice, Democratic women to run for office. She’s also served on the boards for Planned Parenthood of Southwest and Central Florida, the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg and the local chapter of the American Diabetes Association.
In recent years, she’s started working with organizations that “focus on marginalized people in healthcare” and sits on the boards for the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay and Brain Expansions Scholastic Training, which encourages disadvantaged youth to pursue careers in medicine.
Aebel is a leader in other ways, as well, and is vocal about her political beliefs. “I believe political action is important,” she said. “You want to see the world change in the way you want to see it change.”
This means being educated and involved at a local level. “It means knowing your city council members, knowing your school board members, knowing your local representatives,” she said.
For decades, she’s made it a point to be “a very informed voter,” ever since she returned to the Tampa Bay area after law school. But in 2016, with the election of Pres. Donald Trump, she “decided, clearly, that was not enough.” She wanted to do something more.
Aebel and her friend, a fellow lawyer, Mary Elizabeth Lanier, started a Facebook group, Surly Feminists for the Revolution.
The purpose of the group was to create a safe space for positivity, inclusiveness, progress and feminism, a space that rejects misogyny and prejudice. The name was a play on the phrase “nasty woman,” which was used by Trump to reference his opponent Hillary Clinton. “I came up with the name (Surly Feminists,)” she said. “It’s indicative of its time but also timeless and continues on.”
Today, the group has nearly 13,000 members and has hosted everything from book clubs and other live events to a radio show that airs on WMNF.
When they created the group, Aebel never anticipated its popularity. “That wasn’t my intent,” she said. “It just spontaneously happened. I wasn’t trying to get attention on myself or the group or anything.”
The timing was right for progressive women, stung by Clinton’s loss as a female presidential candidate, to come together to speak out about their own experiences. “What happened with a lot of women, especially middle-aged women, was they had enough, and they said, ‘This is bullsh*t. We need to get more representations. We need to talk about me, too,” she said.
On the political spectrum, she tends to fall further to the left than many Democrats, she said, so, Clinton wasn’t her top candidate in 2016. She did vote for Clinton, though, and was disheartened by her loss. “It was still sad that a woman couldn’t get to that position of power in the United States,” Aebel said.
After the election, discussing the outcome with her family, she was moved when her mother noted that she likely wouldn’t see a woman president in her lifetime. Aebel knew she needed to do more politically.
The 2016 election and creating the Surly Feminists changed her life. “(Women my age) have lived through a lot of sexism and things and survived them. We learned what we’ll put up with and what we won’t. We’re not naïve anymore,” she said. “Normally, I’m a very upbeat, optimistic person, but I am tired of this sh**.”
In January 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, she attended the first St. Petersburg Women’s March. “It was the first march I ever did,” she said. “It was the most thrilling, fun and great experience.”
Now, she doesn’t hesitate to march for causes close to her heart. Since 2017, she’s participated in the second St. Petersburg Women’s March, the local March for Science and various Black Lives Matter gatherings.
“Once you do that a few times, you realize that a protest is very powerful,” Aebel said. “You want to have the energy of the moment and connect with people and use that energy and connection to go to the next steps, which for me, in my position, is to make procedural change and legal change. (Protests) really can spur on change. I’ll never take it for granted.”

Silhouettes profiles Kelly Stephens

Kelly Stephens

Originally published in the June 12, 2020 edition of La Gaceta
By Tiffany Razzano

As the city grows and changes, Kelly Stephens remains proud of his Tampa roots. With more people moving to the area from other parts of the country, fewer residents are “born and raised in Tampa,” he said. “I’m one of the very few, anymore.” It’s important for natives of the city to “reminisce about the old days…talk about the good times, talk about what’s going on now, talk about how that relates to how things were.”
Growing up, he split his time between Riverside Heights and Ybor City. In the 1980s and 1990s, both neighborhoods were quite different from what they look like today, he said.
His father, owner of Tampa Oxygen and Welding Supply and founder of the James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession in the late 1990s, has lived in Ybor City for decades, Stephens said. “I remember Ybor City back in the day when it wasn’t much of a district. There were some offices and businesses, but it was a quiet time. It evolved and changed into more of an entertainment district over the years.”
He added, “Now, there’s all these shops and retail and restaurants during the day and at night more of the restaurants and night clubs. It’s a very busy district now.”
Riverside Heights, where he lived with his mother, also experienced a dramatic transformation over the years. “My street that I grew up on, all the families were related or had relationships over the years and had all grown up together,” he said, adding that several members of his family and close friends lived nearby. “It was one of those neighborhoods where everybody knew one another, and everybody grew up around one another. It was not as popular as it is today.”
Now, families clamor to live in the neighborhood, he said. “As soon as houses go up for rent or sale, they’re usually taken off the market very, very quickly.”
As a child, he was drawn to law enforcement and police work. “It’s funny, I remember that I loved seeing cop shows, and I remember watching ‘T.J. Hooker’ and ‘CHiPs’ as a kid,” he said.
By the time he got to Hillsborough High School, like many teens, he got distracted. “You know how it is. As you get older and get into high school and figure out who you are as a teenager, you don’t think too hard career wise,” he said. “You’re more in the moment, making friends and having fun.”
Stephens still found his way to the Tampa Police Department Explorers Post, which was a life-changing experience for him, though. “I met some friends who were in the Explorers program and they thought I should check it out, so I did,” he said. And he loved the program.
He took criminal justice courses when he moved on to Hillsborough Community College after graduating from high school. He thought that one day he might become a police officer.
While studying at HCC, he also began working for private corporations in the security field. As he worked his way through the ranks and his career became more demanding, he abandoned his studies before earning his degree.
Years later, at the urging of a mentor, he went back to college in 2015 and earned his bachelor’s degree in public safety administration with a minor in emergency management from St. Petersburg College two years later.
He doesn’t regret focusing on his career first, though. “It took me a different route,” Stephens said. “It brought me up a different career path and I couldn’t ask for more.”
He launched his career in the security field working in the security department at Tiffany & Co. in International Plaza. After the Renaissance Tampa International Plaza Hotel was built, he began working for Marriott Hotels in the loss prevention department.
After four years, he became a traveling director for the company. In this role, he was deployed to New Orleans for six months after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. “I assisted our hotels, trying to secure the hotels, secure the employees and get things back up to an operational standpoint, get them up to an operational mode,” he said.
“It was a very, very eye-opening experience and led me to the emergency management side of things,” he said.
In 2006, he left Marriott to become Countrywide Financial’s regional director of security for the Eastern United States. He oversaw 6,100 branches in 31 states. “That was probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever had,” he said.
Unfortunately, it was short-lived as “the housing market tanked and (he) was laid off.” Stephens returned to Marriott, but that also took a financial hit. Around this time, he connected with 717 Parking Enterprises, which oversaw valet parking at the hotel. They had a position for him, and he joined their team. He started out as a valet manager and worked his way through the ranks to senior district operations manager by the time he left three years later.
In 2010, he was hired by the city of Tampa as an assistant garage and lot operations supervisor. There, he also worked his way through the ranks, first to interim garage operations supervisor then to parking operations superintendent. Last February, he was named parking division manager.
It’s not an easy job, but he enjoys it, he said. He often hears from people, “It’s just parking. How hard could it be?”
He added, “I tell them, come work my job just one day, please.”
There are numerous duties that fall under his role. His department works closely with private parking operators throughout the city “to ensure we’re operating effectively…and we’re doing stuff efficiently.”
He also oversees parking enforcement, both paid and free spots, as well as in garages. He knows this is a job that doesn’t always make his department popular, but it’s important. The dramatic altercations between parking enforcement and characters “that you see on TV? It happens all the time,” he said.
Stephens stresses that it’s “not just writing tickets. We also try to educate and correct the action beforehand. Ticketing should be one of our last resorts.” He sends his staff to go out into the community to speak with residents and businesses about parking rules in the city. “That positive relationship makes for a better process than just going out there and writing tickets.”
Security is also a big part of his job. After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the city increased security at various venues, including parking garages, he said, particularly in areas that draw large crowds, such as around Amalie Arena, the Straz Center and Curtis Hixon Park. “We’ve increased our security presence because of that,” he said.
His department is currently working on implementing new technology systems for garage and on-street parking. It’s a multi-platform system that will allow drivers to use multiple parking providers, he said. “If you go to Atlanta, you go to (Washington) D.C., you go to Atlanta. You can use that same provider here. You don’t have to download another app just because you’re in Tampa. We’re looking to make it so much easier for everybody to use the provider you want to use.”
His staff are currently working on the implementation of frictionless parking at the Tampa Convention Center Garage and the William F. Poe Garage. “What that means is when you enter the garage, you don’t have to touch anything,” he said. “You don’t have to pull a ticket. The gate will lift, it will pull your tag and you’ll use your cell phone to pay or go to one of the machines, kiosks in there…When you leave, go to the gate. The camera captures your tag again and there’s no contact with anybody.”
In recent months, Stephens was also named to the city’s Emergency Management team, taking on the role of emergency response center commander overseeing Ybor City, downtown and the port. He was excited by the appointment as it aligns with his longtime goals and interests. “It’s what I got my degree in and what I wanted to do,” he said. “I was really, really excited when they asked me.”
Typically, those on the Emergency Management team are called to duty during disasters, such as hurricanes. “But the emergency centers don’t activate for hurricanes. Really, it’s anything that goes on, natural disasters, any crisis,” he said. “Let’s say we had a 9/11 experience in downtown Tampa, a bombing. We’d be called.”
He was activated much sooner than he thought he would be when he was called up May 31, the day after the civil unrest led to looting and rioting in the University Mall area. During the protests, he was ready to assist Tampa police with anything they needed. He received one downtown call to secure tables and chairs at Curtis Hixon.
“I didn’t expect to be activated so soon. My acceptance (of the role) was recent then all of a sudden there’s COVID-19, then protests and I’m activated for that, and now it’s June 1, hurricane season,” he said.
As a Tampa native who is proud of his roots, he’s excited to be working for the city in a position where he can give back. “It’s very inspiring,” he said. “I was raised here, and I’ve seen a lot of changes. I turned 40 in October. That’s 40 great years. I’ve worked outside the city of Tampa. I’ve traveled, but I’ve always loved and wanted to come back home. Tampa is home and I can’t see myself anywhere else. This is a great city and I’m glad to be able to work for (it).”

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