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Violent crime gets through our illusions of safety

Published August 26, 2003

Pots and pans. Cable remotes. Dog leashes. Garden hoses. These are among the ordinary accoutrements of urban life.

These are among the other accoutrements: Deadbolt locks. Burglar alarms. Motion sensors and detector lights.

You possess these things and you think you're safe, and if not totally safe, then at least you figure you've done all you can.

The rest is left to chance, the chance that your luck will be with you, especially when you're out and in the dark and in what you figure would be greatest danger.

But Danielle Cipriani was not out. She was in her Tampa apartment in July 1991 when she was stabbed 88 times by an intruder.

The trial of the man who confessed to killing her, Melvin Givens, was under way last week when another crime occurred that further underscored the fragility of city life in Tampa.

School teacher Brenda Hill was not out in the dark. She was leaving a doughnut shop in the middle of the afternoon last Wednesday when she was grabbed by a man, Matthew Fowler, who was just out of prison; he allegedly stabbed her twice.

These were not crimes committed in that geographic fiction called a "bad neighborhood." Anywhere can be instantly transformed into a bad neighborhood.

Cipriani lived in West Shore Palms. The Krispy Kreme shop where Hill was attacked is just west of Tampa's Sulphur Springs.

The alleged attackers of these two women were clearly men on a mission.

Make that bizarre missions.

His lawyers have depicted Givens as an untreated schizophrenic so ill he couldn't form the intent to kill Cipriani. As for Fowler, Hill's alleged attacker, he blew off the incident with a muttered declaration to police that it had been "just one of them days."

Spend enough time thinking that guys like this are breathing the same air as you do and you don't want to leave your house again. You want to keep the shades permanently drawn.

Doing so might have saved Cipriani.

Givens told police he chose her after watching her through her window. She was engaged in that most mundane act of nighttime life, watching TV.

Living alone and loving Leno is, I guess, now hazardous to your health.

What can you do?

Some of us buy guns.

Some of us move to the suburbs, on the mistaken belief that bad men don't cross municipal boundaries.

We seek out the communities that describe themselves as gated, as though the minimum wage guard in the little house out front can spot the evil behind the wheel of cars coming through and stop it.

The bad guy could be packing his own gun.

He could cross over into Carrollwood.

He could sneak past the guardhouse.

Government numbers show that if you're an adult, you're more or less likely to be killed by somebody you know as by stranger. Still, these are the crimes that stick with us - the murder of Cipriani, the attempted murder of Hill. They stick with us because they are acts so clearly random, so beyond our control.

I sometimes think that the bay area is particularly dangerous.

Then I think that the impression is false, that we are still just small enough that the police disclose to the press some serious crimes that larger police forces, in larger cities, would prosecute, but otherwise ignore.

In other words, I sometimes think that talking about crime is a matter of perception, that the bay area picture isn't nearly as grave as last week indicated.

But last week in Tampa was a whopper.

Last week was one of those reminders to check your reflexes in elevators and parking lots, to make sure the car and house doors are properly locked, to remember that no possession - no car, no wallet, no jewelry - is worth a life, and that, in the face of terror, there is only so much you can do.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or 226-3402.

[Last modified August 28, 2003, 15:53:56]

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