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By MIKE WELLS, VALERIE KALFRIN and ANTHONY McCARTNEY
The Tampa Tribune
LITHIA - For 13 years, John Winter brought the morning sunshine into hundreds of thousands of homes no matter what the weather.
The 39-year-old News Channel 8 meteorologist’s death on Thursday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound shocked the region as investigators tried to piece together what happened.
By midevening more than 200 viewers had phoned WFLA-TV, dozens had sent e-mail and nearly 4,000 messages had been posted on the station’s online guest book.
Co-workers said they would miss Winter’s humor, talent and genuine nice-guy demeanor.
“John brought a lot of joy to a lot of people,” WFLA General Manager Mike Pumo said. “We don’t know what demons were in John’s life, but we do know what he was like here and how this affects the viewers.”
That public’s reaction comforted his co-workers.
“John seemed to have a special attachment to the viewers,” News Channel 8 chief meteorologist Steve Jerve said. “The person you saw on television was the person in reality. John really liked the viewers. He appreciated them as much as they appreciated him.”
Winter was talking on the phone with a friend shortly before he committed suicide, station officials said. The friend was on his way to Winter’s home.
At 3:30 p.m., an anonymous caller contacted the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to ask that a deputy go by Winter’s home in Lithia to check on his well-being, sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter said.
When deputies arrived, Winter’s vehicle was in the driveway, Carter said. Deputies knocked on the home’s doors, but he did not answer.
As deputies forced their way through the front door, they heard a gunshot.
Winter’s body was found inside the garage. No one else was in the home, Carter said.
He left behind a note, but Carter said she did not know what it said.
Shortly after deputies arrived, Winter’s friend arrived at the house.
The friend told deputies he had not spoken to Winter for several minutes before then and that Winter would not answer his phone upon repeated attempts to call him, Carter said.
By 8 p.m., Winter’s body had been removed from his single-story home in the Tealrise subdivision. Moments later, a sheriff’s deputy escorted out Winter’s new dog, Badges, who joined the family after his beloved dog, Davis, died recently.
Winter came to News Channel 8 more than 13 years ago and had the most tenure of any member of the station’s weather team.
Before coming to WFLA, Winter worked at KGBT in Brownsville, Texas. In his two years there, he was the meteorologist on the morning and noon broadcasts. He carried the American Meteorologist Society seal and was a graduate of the University of Kansas with a Bachelor of Arts degree in meteorology.
Winter grew up in Seminole and attended Seminole High School. His interests included weightlifting and various charity activities.
Winter had no children. His survivors include his wife, Karen, and two younger sisters.
In addition to doing the weather, Winter had another passion - his advertising company, Big U Media, which he co-owned with News Channel 8 technical director Bobby Fontaine. According to the company’s Web site, it is a media buying and production house that counted Ruth Eckerd Hall, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Cherry’s Restaurants among its clients.
Dennis Pavluk, an anchor and reporter for WFLA, 970 AM, said a few listeners called the station Thursday night after hearing about Winter’s death. Winter broadcast weather reports for the station.
“One lady cried,” Pavluk said. “She wanted to know what happened. Then I had another caller: ‘Did I just hear right?’”
News Channel 8 evening anchors Stacie Schaible and Bob Hite shared the sad news with viewers at the top of their broadcast. After Schaible finished giving the tribute to Winter, the screen went black for a moment before Hite continued the broadcast.
“You announce news like that and you want to let it sink in,” Schaible said. “It also lets us regain our composure. It’s tough to come out of the gate with news of the day after you’ve just come out with news like that.”
A script was written quickly, and both anchors were tearful during the show.
“I didn’t want to have to read it, but you do the best you can,” Schaible said. “It was hard to go on. You just want everything to stop.”
“We were both, Bob and I, pretty numb,” she said. “We were sick to our stomachs, really. The hard part was watching everybody else in the studio crying while you try to go on with anchoring the news. Every piece of you wants to crumble, but everybody still has a job to do.”
No one saw this coming, she said.
“When he left work [Wednesday] night, he was his normal, upbeat self,” Schaible said. “That’s what boggles us so much.”
News Channel 8 meteorologist Jennifer Hill said Winter was “the happiest, nicest man you can know.”
Getting through Thursday’s broadcast was excruciating, she said. Producers tried to cut down the amount of time the anchors were on the air, Hill said.
“It was the hardest thing ever,” she said. “I couldn’t even talk on the air, at first. But I stayed in the zone and didn’t even think about it. Everybody’s hands were shaking.”
The members of News Channel 8’s weather team consider themselves a family, Jerve said.
“We watch out for each other,” Jerve said. “We cover for each other. It’s puzzling and it’s confusing because we lost a family member and a friend.”
“There’s just nothing that makes sense about it, especially with John,” Jerve said.
Bill Ratliff, News Channel 8 morning co-anchor and managing editor, said Winter “was the spark that made the newscast work so well with his wit and acerbic humor.”
“He will be missed not only because he was a very good meteorologist, but he helped us get through the mornings,” Ratliff said. “He brought a lot of smiles to a lot of people.”
Todd Chappel, 42, attended Seminole High with Winter. The two worked together twice, first at a McDonald’s near the beach, where Winter charmed customers in the drive-through. They reconnected as friends in the 1990s when Winter joined WFLA and Chappel worked at The Tampa Tribune. Chappel is now the Tribune’s senior photography editor.
The Tampa Tribune and News Channel 8 are both owned by Media General and share newsgathering resources.
Winter also was a groomsman at Chappel’s wedding years ago.
Chappel heard from the newsroom Thursday that Winter had died. “My wife keeps saying, ‘I’m in shock.’ Our neighbor came over. She was crying,” he said.
After graduating from the University of Kansas, Winter worked for a TV station in Kansas before moving to Texas. When Winter joined WFLA-TV, Chappel said, it was a sweet homecoming.
“It was kind of fun, actually,” Chappel said. “We ended up together, back in the same building. We kind of came full circle.”
Winter seemed to shine in the spotlight, Chappel said. “I think he loved the attention - and he was good at it. It just came so natural to him.”
News Channel 8 reporter Jeff Patterson and Winter volunteered together in the Rough Riders, a social club that honors the memory of Teddy Roosevelt. They handed out dozens of teddy bears to children in hospitals and also attended the Special Olympics, where Winter would hug the participants and help distribute awards, Patterson said.
Winter could laugh at himself easily and shared a dry wit, Patterson said. He remembered teasing Winter about a week ago regarding a tie he had tied incorrectly for his broadcast. “The skinny end was longer than the fat end,” Patterson said. “We were giving him a hard time, and he’s laughing about it. … That’s what makes this even more difficult to understand.”
Patterson declined to say whether he knew Winter was troubled. “Right now, I’m just focused on good memories of John,” he said. “He was a friend, and I am just missing him really terribly right now.”
News of the apparent suicide moved through the neighborhood quickly. As residents returned home to find deputies and medical examiners outside Winter’s home, many couldn’t help but place a hand over their mouths as they slowly drove by.
Among the residents of Tealrise, Winter was a celebrity.
The neighborhood children loved him, and he always took time to say hello. One of the community’s first residents, Winter was well-known and liked by the people who began to fill in the houses around his.
For Nicole Ciaccio, who moved in a few months before the start of the tumultuous 2004 hurricane season, having a weatherman living across the street was a welcome bonus.
“When we saw him board up his windows, we’d board up our windows,” she said Thursday night.
She recalled how residents called Winter at News Channel 8 to get personal weather updates; he gave out his cell phone number so he was available to answer questions when he wasn’t working, Ciaccio recalled.
She struggled Thursday with what to tell her young son about Winter’s death. The kindergartner came home from school recently, excited to tell “Mr. John” about learning about the weather at school.
Neighbors marveled at his perfectly manicured lawn, which he would maintain himself. Hours after his death, the lawn remained perfectly cut - mowed the day before - and the trees pruned precisely.
Many neighbors said Winter showed no signs of strife. He was always cordial, Rick Zoppi said.
Mags Oldman recalled how Winter would walk his beloved dog, Davis, up and down the street. When the ailing dog - suffering from cancer - grew too tired to walk, Winter would still take him outside, cradling him like a baby, Oldman recalled.
When Davis died, Winter replaced him with a fox terrier that looked almost identical. She said much of the neighborhood was in shock. “Why?” she questioned. “How did we miss something so big?”
There were no good answers Thursday - even for those who talked to Winter a day earlier.
Morris Jones, who installed security and sound equipment for Winter, said he spoke to his friend Wednesday. They talked about plans for the week.
“You’re planning things, then the next day you’re gone,” Jones said in disbelief hours after Winter’s death.
“I just hope he’s at peace,” Oldman said.
Editors Howard Altman and Kim MacCormack contributed to this report. Reporter Mike Wells can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 657-4534.
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