Mother laments deputies tell her to investigate case
By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA -- It started as a common tiff between teenagers that centered on, what else, a girl.
Julio Pacheco, a junior at Hillsborough High School, had parted ways badly with a girlfriend. She complained to a friend, a male student at the school.
The escalation was swift.
Julio says the student jumped him on a basketball court a few days later, smacking him in the eye, mouth and skull. Saturday night, he was sitting in his grandmother's Mustang at an Exxon station on N Dale Mabry Highway, a popular teen hangout, when the girl's friend reached in and hit him again.
Julio, 16, jumped out of the car and was attacked by a group of youths, he and two witnesses said. His two younger brothers cried helplessly in the back seat.
In another place or a different time, the incidents might have been viewed as one more example of hot tempers among hormone-saturated youths.
In Tampa, however, memories are fresh of the 18-year-old boy who died last month from a single punch to the head at a local Steak n Shake. That was enough to prompt Julio's mother, Jackie Rojas, to call authorities about the attacks on her son.
But even if parents are hyper-aware of the potential danger in every raised fist, it remains business as usual at the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, where teenage scuffles are seen as routine.
"A fight between kids is so common; it happens all the time," said Lt. Rod Reder, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "If it weren't for school resource deputies, we would be totally overwhelmed."
Rojas says she is overwhelmed. She says deputies have made it clear that she needs to gather information on the case herself.
She said three different deputies told her to get the name, birth date and address of the attacker.
That floored her. "I said, "You mean I have to get his address?"'
Still, Rojas went door-to-door in her Egypt Lake neighborhood, enlisting the help of students and their parents. She found a yearbook and came up with a name.
On Monday, she went to Hillsborough High School to get the youth's address. An assistant principal turned her away, Rojas said, citing privacy laws.
When she next spoke to a detective, she was told to get the name and address of a witness who stepped between her son and some attackers. She said she hadn't been able to learn his identity.
She accuses deputies of not taking the case seriously.
"I believe they all think it's a little argument over a girlfriend, and it's not," said Rojas, 38, who owns an accounting business.
The detective assigned to the case, Marlene Stark, investigates burglary, which is how the crime is classified, since the assailant reached into the car to hit Julio.
"These are known kids. They know each other," Stark said. "It's not a situation of an unknown kid beating up another kid. It doesn't have anything to do with the Steak n Shake case she's referring to."
When asked if fights between youths take a lower priority than other cases, Stark said no. "It's just as important as any other case I work."
Stark said she was relying on Rojas to get some information.
"I spoke to her this morning," Stark said Thursday. "The only thing I asked about was a witness that wasn't in the report. (She was) going to get that information for me, as far as I know."
Reder said detectives routinely asked the public for help.
"That charge might be a burglary, but it might be reduced to a simple battery, one of hundreds we get every month in this county," Reder said. "We told the mother it's one of (the detective's) 60 or 70 assigned cases because she's overloaded. . . . We ask people all the time if they know the information. That saves us a lot of time. Do we ask them to do the investigation? No."
Reder said he understood the collective anxiety sparked by the deadly blow at the fast food restaurant, but he said it's important to maintain perspective.
"I know for a fact that that was a horrific event that did heighten parents' awareness," he said. But regarding Julio's case, "it's simple battery."
Julio, though, is afraid his attacker will get to him before deputies can detain the attacker. He says it's common knowledge among his peers that his mother called authorities.
"I didn't want to go to the cops to begin with," said Julio, who does construction work with his father and will attend Erwin Technical School next year.
"They're not doing anything about it," Julio said. "They just think it's garbage."
-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 226-3383.
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