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Florida officials investigating whether tortoise was blown up by fireworks on New Year's Eve

Posted at 6:32 PM, Jan 02, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-02 21:32:55-05

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

Christopher Martin believes someone left a tortoise, possibly blown up with fireworks, outside of his home on December 31.

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

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. And although Florida Fish and Wildlife haven’t determined the cause of death, she believes 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,” Hernandez added.

FWC officers told Martin the tortoise, no matter how it died, was intentionally placed in Martin’s back yard after it was killed.

Some neighbors say a message is being sent.

“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.

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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 Square Park Homes upset at certain homeowners.

The HOA that runs Aviana Resort 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,”

According to Florida Fish and Wildlife, officers received a call regarding a possible wildlife violation involving a Gopher Tortoise on New Years day.

FWC says the tortoise was allegedly killed by someone who placed fireworks in a burrow and left the carcass in the caller’s yard.

If there were any charges, investigators say it would be determined after the conclusion of the case.

FWC is investigating the case and asks anyone with information to call 888-404-3922.

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.”

Although it hasn’t been determined exactly how the tortoise was killed, neighbors say they’re worried for their own safety.

“If they are capable of doing that to a creature what are they capable of doing to us?” Ficarola said.

This article was written by Andrea Lyon for WFTS.