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Bus stop arrest alarms parents

The arrest of a man on stalking charges has led parents to closely monitor their children as they roam the neighborhood.

By LORRI HELFAND
Published January 30, 2005


LARGO - Tom Halsey lives around the corner from his stepson's bus stop. But since a man was arrested last week on charges of stalking a girl at the stop, Halsey has been parking his Buick Regal across the street and waiting for his stepson every afternoon.

"It was definitely shocking to hear about," said Halsey, who witnessed the arrest.

He's not the only one who's shocked. Other parents and children say they're shaken up by the incident. They see this attempt and recent reports of similar crimes against children as a confirmation that times are getting more and more dangerous, especially for children.

Shelly Hicks, who lives down the street from Halsey, said she's horrified about what happened.

"Both my kids ride a school bus and I was freaked out," Hicks said.

She plans to escort her 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son from now on, she said.

"I've got to take them to the bus stop. For sure," Hicks said.

Hicks and Halsey both grew up on the block and remember fearlessly roaming the neighborhood without supervision.

They said this incident and others are proof that crimes like these are on the rise.

A year ago this week, 11-year-old Carlie Brucia was abducted from a car wash near her Sarasota home. Earlier this month, a 14-year-old girl was stalked at a Tampa Heights bus stop, prompting her father and uncle to beat up the perpetrator. And two weeks ago, an 11-year-old boy, who was later found, was kidnapped from a Marion County school by a convicted sex offender.

Some neighborhood parents have always watched their kids like hawks. Others said the recent stalking episode prompted them to keep a closer eye on their kids.

Ann Moritz said she's been vigilant with her twin 10-year-olds for a while and insisted they go everywhere together.

"I have them taking karate lessons so if a stranger comes, they know what to do," Moritz said. I can't allow them out when it's dark out. It's so much different than when I was growing up."

While she takes an active role in protecting her kids, Moritz said certain bus stops are unsafe and there needs to be more law enforcement supervision, even if it is only periodic.

Largo police Chief Lester Aradi said that type of surveillance is not practical.

"We have hundreds of school bus stops. Under the concept of community policing we want the parents to be our eyes and ears. Obviously taxpayers couldn't afford to hire enough officers to be at every bus stop," Aradi said.

Largo Middle School principal Bill Cooper, a Pinellas educator for more than 30 years, said parents, educators and children need to report anything even remotely suspicious.

"Everyone has to understand you don't take anything for granted at our school. And every school in the county knows that things that don't seem so important can be very dangerous for a kid," Cooper said.

While kidnappings have been getting a lot of media attention, they make up just 1 percent of crimes against children nationwide, according to a June 2000 Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Justice bulletin.

About 58,200 children were abducted by nonfamily members who were strangers or acquaintances, and 115 of those were stereotypical kidnappings that involved a child transported more than 50 miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or killed, the study found.

While parents and educators are adamant that these incidents are on the rise, research doesn't necessarily confirm that.

"There's no evidence to indicate any change at all," said Heather Hammer, a researcher who contributed to several studies by the Office of Juvenile Justice.

State statistics that track all categories of missing children show a decrease over the past decade. In 1994, 64,341 children were reported missing to law enforcement, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Missing Children Information Clearinghouse. By 2004, that figure dropped to 51,025.

Numbers may have declined because of increased education and awareness, according to Donna Hodges, government analyst for the Missing Children Information Clearinghouse.

Detective Tara Hansen of the Largo Police Department Youth Services said people may feel these crimes are more common because of increased media attention.

"To the public eye, it seems like there's a lot more going on. That's because the media is putting it out there," said Hansen, who led the investigation of the bus stop incident.

No matter the statistics, she said, parents need to keep an eye on children and teens to thwart these incidents and others.

"Make sure you have communication with your kids, know your neighbors and have a plan if something like that happens," Hansen said.

Monday afternoon, Halsey and several of his neighbors were astounded when they witnessed the arrest of Michael Easley after he approached two Largo Middle School students on their street.

Halsey went outside to smoke a cigarette when he saw a gold car zoom past his house and park crosswise on the street. Within seconds, several unmarked police cars and a Largo Police cruiser converged on the end of the block.

Halsey's stepson, 12-year-old Jacob Pierce, already knew who the man was.

"Oh, that's the guy who's been stalking everyone," Jacob told his stepfather. "He used to drive a van. Now he's in a little red car."

Halsey lectured Jacob about how dangerous the situation was. He was floored that Jacob knew something was going on but told no one. "I didn't think it was that serious," Jacob said.

Since November, several students at the stop had seen Easley waving, blowing kisses and honking his car horn at one girl. No one reported it to police until the Friday before the arrest.

Hansen said it's common for kids not to speak up. "They think it's no big deal. We can handle it," Hansen said. "We're fortunate that nothing happened here."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com

SAFETY TIPS FOR KIDS

1. Always travel in pairs.

2. If someone suspicious approaches, yell or draw attention to yourself.

3. Report any suspicious activity to parents, school officials or law enforcement.

4. Have a safety password. Don't tell it to anyone and don't go with anyone if they can't tell you the word.

Source: Sgt. Stephen Slaughter, Largo Police Department Youth Services.

[Last modified January 30, 2005, 00:10:19]


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