Rash of robberies rattles Brooksville
By JAMIE JONES, Times Staff Writer
BROOKSVILLE -- Luigi's Pizza has been serving steak hoagies and pepperoni pizzas to Brooksville residents for more than 30 years. Many of the same customers come to the S Broad Street restaurant every week because it's comfortable, and owner George Kirshy hopes to keep it that way.
But in recent months, reports of men wearing masks or ball caps and waving guns inside businesses along S Broad Street have concerned him.
Kirshy drilled a peephole in his back door and has asked employees to keep the door locked. He has also started leaving his blinds open from morning to night so Brooksville police officers can look inside when they patrol the area.
"We've been worried," said Kirshy, 50. "We want the robberies to stop."
Brooksville Police Chief Ed Tincher said that in the past year more robberies have occurred on S Broad, the city's commercial hub, than he can recall in any of his 24 years working in Brooksville.
Since January 2001, 30 robberies were reported in Brooksville, with 14 occurring on S Broad Street. In 2000, the city had 15 robberies, with five occurring on S Broad, Tincher said.
"We're doing as much as we can," he said.
Police officers are running extra patrols through the area, offering escort services to people making late-night bank deposits and also talking regularly with business owners about keeping their doors locked and eyes open for suspicious people, Tincher said.
"It's important for people to call whenever they see anything suspicious," Tincher said.
Brooksville, population 7,264, is not a bustling locus of crime.
But business owners and residents along S Broad Street said they have, in the past year, started thinking differently about their surroundings, in large part because of the armed robberies.
On Monday, a man with a silver revolver stole four drawers of cash from the AmSouth Bank on S Broad Street at about 2 p.m. On Valentine's Day, a man walked into Ye Olde Fireside Inn and held the manager at knifepoint while demanding cash.
In the past six months, robbers have hit KFC, Burger King, SunTrust Bank, the now-closed Huntington Bank, the Sunset Motel and several Brooksville residents, including one man who had just withdrawn cash from SunTrust.
Servers at Applebee's Neighborhood Grill and Bar, just east of South Broad on the State Road 50 bypass, said they have started walking out in groups after work in case someone tries to steal their tip money. SunTrust Bank has put up thick Plexiglas partitions between its tellers and customers. The Fireside Inn recently installed a new security camera to record any future robberies.
Not novel actions, to be sure, but new in some ways to Brooksville business owners.
"This town is getting bigger and better, and that gives people more places to rob," said Sondra Hatcher, a 34-year-old Applebee's server who lives in Brooksville with her husband and three children. "You've got to worry about protecting yourself."
S Broad Street is perhaps the most obvious target for those who wish to rob in Brooksville. It is the city's fast-food alley, its banking hub, the place many residents go to buy their groceries, rent movies, drop off dry cleaning, get an oil change or shop.
It has been a labyrinth for the past few years as construction crews work on a road-widening project. The orange construction barrels and blocked driveways provide both hurdles and opportunities for robbers, Tincher said. It is difficult for robbers to escape, and it's also hard for police officers to chase them, the chief said. Side streets also allow for quick getaways, he said.
Police have made arrests in some of the robberies.
Luckie Jermaine Barnes of Brooksville was charged with robbing a man in his room at the Sunset Motel. Two Hernando County men were charged with robbing the Burger King. Authorities said one of the men, Kenneth Smith of Hill 'n Dale, was a former employee.
But others have not been caught, such as the man who robbed the Fireside Inn in October. Authorities said he sat down at the bar, ordered a drink, then pulled out a gun and demanded cash. Police believe the same man returned last month and held the manager at knifepoint.
"We have had some brazen robbers," Tincher said. "I mean, this guy walked in and ordered a drink. He didn't sneak in wearing a disguise."
Some robbers have been from Brooksville. Others have come from nearby counties. Authorities believe the man who robbed the AmSouth Bank last week has robbed 11 other banks in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Polk counties in the past year.
The manager of Fireside Inn, Terry Bloxsom, said he walks the restaurant much more carefully now, always aware of who is passing him in the hallways.
He said he believes the robberies have hurt sales, with business slowing significantly the week after the first robbery was reported.
"We have a lot of elderly people as customers," said Bloxsom, 32. "I think it worried them."
Tincher said his detectives are working to solve the open cases.
"I don't know what we can do to stop them, except to find them," he said. "We want people to be careful. Everything a robber takes can be replaced except for your life."
-- Jamie Jones covers law enforcement and courts in Hernando County and can be reached at 754-6114. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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