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    Masked bandit, quick getaway

    As a golfer lines up her putt, a raccoon snatches her ring and tote from a golf cart, then disappears.

    By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 20, 2003

    PALM HARBOR -- The golf cart was unguarded for an instant, but that's all the furry bandit needed to strike.

    [Times photos: Scott Keeler]
    THE VICTIM: Helen Hutzler lost her tote bag and a ring as she putted on the fourth hole.
    Helen Hutzler had just missed a putt on the par-3 fourth hole at the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort Tuesday afternoon. Suddenly a woman in Hutzler's foursome yelled that a raccoon was making off with something green from their cart.

    Wait a minute, Hutzler thought, my tote bag is green. And worse, her gold wedding band was stashed in the tote bag.

    By the time she turned around, the raccoon was gone.

    So was her tote bag.

    So was her $1,200 ring.

    The raccoon "just went flying into the woods," said Hutzler, 63, a New York resident who spends her winters golfing at the resort. "I didn't see it at all."

    THE CULPRIT: Raccoons, and other animals, are well-known to Innisbrook golfers.
    Hutzler tried following the four-legged bagnapper but the woods where it had disappeared were too thick and marshy.

    A nearby maintenance crew went into the woods but had no luck finding the raccoon or the bag.

    "At first, I was very upset," Hutzler said Wednesday. "I was all choked up."

    The wedding band has small yellow diamonds, she said. Her husband, Fred, gave it to her as an anniversary present about four years ago. The couple own a concrete company on Long Island and visit Palm Harbor every year.

    Hutzler figures the raccoon was drawn to the pretzels and sliced apples in a plastic baggie inside the tote bag.

    "They usually go for the food," Hutzler said. "I was just hoping that it wasn't my pocketbook with my wallet in it and my keys."

    Resort officials have documented the theft in an incident report, said Ramona Hurley, who does marketing and public relations for Westin Innisbrook. Usually, it's the fox squirrels that are the culprits.

    This was the first time she has heard of a raccoon making off with someone's valuables, Hurley said. But it's no surprise to hear about a raccoon going for a golfer's food, she said.

    "You know how those critters are," Hurley said. "When you leave food in the golf cart, they can go for it. This one was especially clever, it sounds like."

    Of course, clever describes most raccoons.

    They are naturally inquisitive animals with a strong sense of smell and a knack for unlocking the latches on coolers at camp sites, said Sarah Miller, a wildlife extension assistant at the University of Florida's department of wildlife ecology and conservation. And they also pass on that knowledge to their young.

    "They don't have to repeat things several times before they catch on that something works," Miller said. "They are very fast learners so if there is human food available, whether it's in the trash can or in a golf cart, once they have learned there is something to be had there, they will repeat that."

    That seems to be what is happening at the resort's Island golf course.

    Longtime golfers know about the raccoons in the woods between the fourth and fifth holes, said Betty Ann Willis, who was in Hutzler's foursome and has been golfing for 40 years.

    "There are quite a few in through there," Willis said.

    Another woman in their foursome had been standing next to the cart while Hutzler putted. When it was the woman's turn to putt, "that's when the little scooter came out," Willis said.

    Stories of encounters with alligators, birds, squirrels and another animals are part of a golfer's life, Willis said. She has even heard a story about a golfer who had his wallet nabbed by a raccoon, which was enticed to drop its loot by a resort employee armed with a candy bar.

    "For a while, I picked up my purse and I took it on to the putting green with me," Willis said. "Because the last time I did that, (a raccoon's) footprints were all over the seat. He had been in there without me even seeing him."

    Hutzler called her husband who was in New York and told him about the theft.

    Longtime golfers know about the raccoons in the woods between the fourth and fifth holes, said Betty Ann Willis, who was in Hutzler's foursome and has been golfing for 40 years. "There are quite a few in through there," Willis said.

    "I called him and said, 'You aren't going to believe this,' " Hutzler said.

    He told her to file an insurance claim for the ring, but she figures that may be too much of a hassle. Instead, Hutzler is offering a cash reward for her ring, just in case anyone finds it.

    "I just hope I get my ring back," Hutzler said.

    Like most avid golfers, Hutzler finished the 18-hole course after the incident.

    "She did hit a beautiful drive in the next hole after her ring was taken," Willis said. "She said, 'I think there was some anger in that drive.' "

    -- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or .

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