by Lee Williams
PUNTA GORDA — The two former state officials linked to a theft ring uncovered by a Herald-Tribune investigation at the Cecil M. Webb shooting range have each been sentenced to five years of probation and restitution.
Glen Nickell, who had been the chief range safety officer at the Webb range, operated by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and his former boss, John Weatherholt, appeared in Charlotte County Circuit Court Thursday afternoon for a plea acceptance hearing and sentencing before Circuit Court Judge George C. Richards.
Each faced one count of grand theft and one count of “organized fraud,” both third-degree felonies punishable by up to five years in prison, five years of probation and a $5,000 fine.
In court Thursday, Nickell wore a gray suit, white shirt and tie, and was accompanied by his defense attorney Steven Leskovich of Punta
As part of a plea agreement, Nickell agreed to plead guilty to one count of organized fraud.
Because he had no criminal record, Judge Richards withheld adjudication of the guilty plea and sentenced Nickell to five years of probation. He also must pay $13,098 in restitution to FWC’s foundation, $3,690 in court costs and $5,000 to the agency’s Inspector General’s Office, to cover the cost of their investigation.
Judge Richards asked Nickell how he pleaded to the felony fraud charge.
“Guilty,” Nickell said.
Weatherholt appeared wearing a blue polo shirt and green military style pants, with his attorney, Hunter Chamberlain of Tampa.
He, too, pleaded guilty to organized fraud, and was sentenced to five years of probation, but he must pay $15,000 in restitution. He must also pay $3,690 in court costs and $5,000 to FWC’s Inspector General’s Office.
Weatherholt’s attorney asked the court if his client could continue working as a firearms instructor.
Judge Richards said because the adjudication of the felony charge was withheld, he could not prohibit Weatherholt from working in his profession.
Both men were told they cannot return to the Webb range.
As he was being fingerprinted, and again as he was leaving the courtroom, Weatherholt made several obscene gestures toward a Herald-Tribune reporter and photographer in the room.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant Statewide Prosecutor Jessica Costello, of Attorney General Pam Bondi’s Office of Statewide Prosecution.
Citing the AG’s policy, Costello declined to comment about the plea offers.
The Herald-Tribune investigation, first published in June, revealed that Nickell and Weatherholt had pocketed thousands of dollars from sales of the recycled brass at the Webb range.
Signs posted on the firing lines at the range falsely claimed that money from the recycled brass went to promote youth hunting. But the Herald-Tribune’s probe and subsequent evidence collected by state prosecutors show that it instead went into Nickell’s and Weatherholt’s pockets.
For its series, the Herald-Tribune interviewed former range safety officers, officials with the commission and other state agencies and people familiar with the practices at Cecil M. Webb and other ranges. The newspaper asked for more than 30 types of documents through requests to state and county agencies made under Florida’s open records law. The Herald-Tribune also arranged a surveillance “sting,” after a reporter was told of the brass theft ring by the owners of a local ammunition reloading firm, who invited the reporter to position cameras in their business.
Glenn Demoss, an ex-con who did side jobs for Nickell, cooperated with prosecutors and gave several taped interviews to investigators.
Prosecutors also had taped and written statements from Nickell, recorded during two days in July.
Weatherholt invoked his rights and declined to be interviewed by investigators.
Nickell was fired by the commission after the newspaper series was published. Weatherholt resigned after the Herald-Tribune began asking questions.
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