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Bold burglars traumatize neighborhoods

Thieves strike during the day, then seem to vanish, police say. Burglaries are up 50 percent.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2002


PALMA CEIA -- Like many homeowners, Sheri Norris never thought much about security. She lives in a small house in South Tampa and figured that only big, expensive places need protection against burglars.

Looking back, that seems a mistake.

Norris left for work as usual the morning of Jan. 8 and returned to find her kitchen window broken and her valuables gone. She suspects the burglar scoped out her Palma Ceia house, waited until she left, then made his move.

He took only what he could carry: family jewelry, CDs, a camcorder, a leather jacket, bank checks and even tennis shoes.

"He went through every closet and drawer," she said. "There was stuff everywhere."

Norris, 31, reported the incident to police and the next day installed an alarm in her house on Morrison Avenue. A month later, she feels safer, but traumatized.

Police say this type of break-in isn't uncommon. In the past few months, South Tampa has endured a rash of daytime burglaries, possibly pulled off by the same few people.

"I think these guys are professional burglars who have been around the block," Detective Jack Diaz said. "They may have been arrested before and they know what they need to do to get by with the crime."

Police records show 333 homes south of Kennedy Boulevard were burglarized between Dec. 1, 2001, and Jan. 31. That's a 50 percent increase over the same period last year, when 222 break-ins were reported.

The suspects typically enter through a back door or window left open or easily smashed. They rummage through the house, looking for small valuables they can hide in their pockets or carry in a bag.

They leave behind the big stuff, the stereos and televisions.

They strike during the day while people work, shop or run errands. They probably stake out streets and wait for residents to leave, Diaz said.

Police suspect a handful of burglars are largely responsible. Some may work in groups of two or three.

The police have arrested several burglars in the past few months, but believe the daytime thieves remain at large. Catching them is difficult because they hit when no one is around and disappear without a trace.

The burglars often wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints. Some spend hours in a house, even helping themselves to lunch. One left a cigarette butt in a toilet. Their presence can go undetected all day.

Police urge neighbors to be on the lookout for unfamiliar people or cars that seem suspicious. On the day Norris' house was burglarized, a neighbor noticed a man walking with two heavy bags and looking back over his shoulder. She didn't think to call police.

Sgt. Bob Wright, who leads the burglary detectives, said break-ins have been a problem for years. The stolen goods are typically traded for drugs or sold at pawnshops.

Police say security alarms, loud dogs and inquisitive neighbors make the best defense. Neighborhood watch groups also help, though seldom with daytime patrols.

"You can't completely burglar-proof your home, but you can make it difficult for them," Wright said. "If a person wants to break into your home, they will."

To reduce the number of burglaries, the police department has assigned members of the Street Anti-Crime unit, known as SAC, to patrol South Tampa streets during the day. The officers wear regular clothes and drive unmarked cars, looking for anything suspicious.

So far, the department has received no solid leads or tips. Diaz hopes for a break.

So does Norris. Since the burglary, at least one other house on her street has been hit.

"After it happens your guard is up," she said. "He has taken my feeling of security away . . . but if he does come back, the alarm will go off and notify the police."

- Susan Thurston can be reached at (813) 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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