NewsPolk County


FWC investigation reports tortoise not blown up by fireworks on New Year's Eve

Posted at 5:04 PM, Jan 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-15 16:47:56-05

DAVENPORT, Fla. -- A Davenport family started the New Year with a terrible finding in their back yard.

Christopher Martin found a dead tortoise on his property line, originally thinking it was blown up with Fireworks.

“It looks like it was either set on fire or blown up from the pictures,” a neighbor, Stephen Ficarola, said to ABC Action News.

The post to social media alarmed many residents around the Aviana Resort community.

Florida Fish and Wildlife even came out to the property and took the tortoise to examine it.

The FWC report found the tortoise was neither burned nor blown up with fireworks like residents feared. Investigators found the tortoise had been dead for some time.

Below is a statement released by the FWC:

"On January 1, 2020, I, Officer Kaila Munkwitz of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission responded to a Gopher Tortoise call at the address of 224 Paloma Dr. Haines City, FL. I arrived on scene at approximately 7:00 p.m. and made contact with Mrs. Hannah Martin (407-272-6566). Mrs. Martin advised me that earlier in the day she found a deceased Gopher Tortoise on her property. I asked Mrs. Martin to show me where she found the Tortoise, and she complied. Mrs. Martin walked me to the back yard where I observed a deceased, adult Gopher Tortoise shell. Some bones were present, but the majority of the body was gone. The shell was located near Mrs. Martin’s garden area, however, when I asked Mrs. Martin if this was where she found the tortoise, she advised me that she found it “over there” and pointed to the edge of the property line. Mrs. Martin advised that she believed the tortoise had died from either being burned, or from fireworks that were being set off by her neighbors the night before. Mrs. Martin advised that she and her husband had called us previously about their HOA conducting construction on the property behind their house, where Gopher Tortoises have been present. She advised me that she believed someone had put the Gopher Tortoise shell on their property “to send a message”. I advised Mrs. Martin that upon observing the empty shell that I did not believe this Gopher Tortoise died from being burned or killed by any explosive material. I also advised Mrs. Martin that I would turn the shell over to FWC’s Gopher Tortoise Biologist to see if he could determine cause of death. Audio and video of the above events were captured using an agency issued body worn camera."

Christopher Martin and his wife weren’t immediately available to talk with us on camera but over the phone, Martin says his community has hundreds of tortoises and their nests on property. Martin often spots the tortoises crawling around his yard, but never has he found one dead or mutilated.

“It was a little scary,” Jennifer Hernandez saw the social media pictures of the tortoise.

Before the report, Hernandez believed it was intentional.

“There was fireworks that night for New Year's Eve so that’s what we were thinking what happened, it was definitely intentional,” she said. added.

Some neighbors say a message is being sent using the dead tortoise.

“The turtle shell was on the homeowners’ property, the one who had called the department of wildlife and stopped the construction,” Hernandez told ABC Action News.

Concerned residents at Aviana Resort say they say the parcel where dozens of tortoise nests are, could be developed. Martin contacted FWC and since then construction has not started. Some neighbors believe this delay has the HOA or Park Square Homes upset at certain homeowners.

ABC Action News reached out to the HOA that runs Aviana Resort, they reassured residents they are fully cooperating with the investigation but also said they were not aware of the tortoises or their nests on the property.

Below is a statement provided to residents, through an email, from Aviana Resort’s HOA regarding the permanent halt in construction of its phase two:

“As discussed during nearly every Board Meeting, during the past several years, the community was looking forward to the building of 157 homes in Phase 2 of Aviana, by Park Square Homes, which was originally scheduled to be started late 2019.  The dues that would have been paid by these homes would have defrayed the costs to all homeowners, requiring little, if any, increase in HOA dues. 
HOWEVER, we have been directly informed, by the owner of Park Square Homes, that the building of Phase 2 has been suspended, indefinitely, solely due to complaints filed, by one homeowner, with Polk County.  Therefore, we are not sure if, or when, Phase 2 will be built.  Therefore, due to actions of one homeowner, who has been a member of Aviana for less than one year, and may not be aware of the efforts put forth, by the community, to work with Park Square, towards the building of Phase 2, and who did not want any building near, or around this homeowner’s home, all Aviana Homeowners will be impacted by the consequences of these actions, and be subject to larger increases in HOA dues.
Unfortunately, it appears that the actions, by one permanent resident, who had full knowledge of the nature and purpose of the community, and was fully advised of the imminent building to be conducted in Aviana, when purchasing their property, have had, and continue to have, negative impact on the vast majority of the homeowners and investors in this community.  
The addition of the Phase 2 homes would have either avoided any increase, or would have certainly significantly reduced any increase, in HOA dues. 
We will continue our efforts to work with Park Square, in the interests of the entire community, to resurrect the possibility of Phase 2,”

Below is part of FWC's profile on the gopher tortoise:

“The gopher tortoise is one of five North American tortoise species and is the only tortoise naturally found east of the Mississippi River. Gopher tortoises occur in parts of all 67 Florida counties and are important to Florida’s ecosystem for many reasons, including their burrows being utilized as shelter from predators for more than 350 other species. Some examples of species that utilize gopher tortoise burrows include burrowing owls, Florida mice, indigo snakes, rabbits, gopher frogs, and invertebrates.
The gopher tortoise was listed as a Species of Special Concern in Florida in 1979 and was reclassified as a State-designated Threatened species in 2007. It is illegal to handle, harm or relocate gopher tortoises. Handling or relocation of gopher tortoises is only legal under a valid permit issued by the FWC. If accordance with the Gopher Tortoise Permitting Guidelines, an FWC relocation permit must be obtained before disturbing burrows and conducting construction activities.”