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A gang, or just kids being kids?

Police say teens vandalizing their old stamping grounds are just mischievous, but residents are fed up.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published June 16, 2005

TAMPA - Fundador Cruz sat on the front porch of his Belmont Heights Estates home Wednesday afternoon, taming the heat with an ice-cold soda.

He likes the afternoons. They tend to be peaceful.

Come nightfall, things change, he said. His windows are closed, his doors are locked. That's when the ghosts come out.

They aren't really ghosts - they're the children who used to live here. Some are old enough to drive, yet too young to buy a pack of cigarettes.

They were forced from this neighborhood six years ago, so their homes, considered eyesores by city officials, could be bulldozed for "the latest in affordable luxury living," otherwise called the Villas at Belmont Heights Estates.

Cruz, 72, and other Belmont Heights residents blame their fading sense of security on these teens who call themselves the Goyams. As many as 70 of them have spent the past year vandalizing the rental community.

"The sign is right there," Cruz said, pointing to a Neighborhood Watch sign nearby that warns, "Criminals Beware."

"They have no respect for the sign."

Cruz said he came home from church on Sunday afternoon to find two teens having sex at the park in front of his home. By the time the police arrived, the teens were gone.

Residents and Belmont Heights Estates property managers say the Goyams - pronounced Go-Yams - have painted graffiti on neighborhood basketball courts, smashed utility service boxes, broken park benches and pulled apart fences.

Cruz said he's seen the teens walk up to residents' porches to plug in radios or charge cell phones. They walk around knocking on doors late at night for laughs. And they've turned off the power to electricity boxes of elderly residents - some of whom rely on oxygen machines, according to neighborhood advocates.

The Goyams, residents say, are a gang of teens who were born and raised in the neighborhood. They lived in east Tampa's College Hill and Ponce de Leon, in any of 1,300 apartments built soon after World War II. Those apartments were torn down as part of a $32.5-million HOPE VI grant to transform Tampa's public housing and revitalize the city's blighted core.

Residents say most of the Goyams now live in Sulphur Springs, where the city relocated their families.

The teens started returning to their home turf about a year ago.

Residents have complained to law enforcement, but Tampa police see the Goyams as just teens being mischievous, not dangerous.

They're looking for an identity, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

"Our gangs unit has described it as a clique," she said. "We do not believe it's a criminal gang."

She wasn't sure what Goyams stood for. Nor were residents. Some have heard it meant "God's Young American Males," borrowed from a legitimate group with a positive mission. Others have heard, "Go Young African Males."

"They've just grown in numbers, and it's really outrageous," said Barbara Hall, 64, a Neighborhood Watch coordinator who has lived at Belmont Heights for three years.

She said she's watched the group go from about three to nearly 70 members in the past year.

"It really breaks my heart that a lot of these are people who grew up here," Hall said. "I would think that they would appreciate the beautiful place that it has become."

Hall said she's met with police and property managers. She wants greater police presence in the area and better response time.

City Council member Kevin White, who represents east Tampa, said he recommended that residents look into hiring two off-duty officers. He told residents to ask for help from the Tampa Housing Authority, which hired a private company to manage Belmont Heights Estates.

But Jerome Ryans, executive director of the Housing Authority, said there's no money in his budget to pay for off-duty officers.

"The Housing Authority does not have any extra dollars to do anything," Ryans said. "We cannot expect the Police Department to do it all. I don't care if you put police on every corner, that's not going to solve the problem."

Ryans said that the surrounding neighborhood also has a problem with gangs. He said managers at Belmont Heights Estates plan to send letters to residents telling them if their children are involved in gang activity, they could lose their homes.

Ryans said he plans to meet with residents, property managers and police.

Mike Pilla, general manager at Belmont Heights Estates, said the vandalism hasn't cost much to repair, but he could stand to live without the daily maintenance issues.

On Wednesday, a maintenance worker used a steel-cutting saw to remove benches that Pilla said the Goyams continue to break. This time, they won't be replaced. And the basketball goals at E 24th Avenue and Ybor Street, a popular hangout for the Goyams, will soon be gone. Pilla said they plan to buy portable goals that will be taken inside after dark.

"The one thing we've given them to have fun, we're having to take away," he said. "This isn't new news, it's just getting worse. It's more annoying than anything."

Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

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