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Law sought to close gap in child protection

Police had to let a would-be abductor of a girl go because he had no similar conviction on his record. That would change.

By Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, Times Staff Writer
Published November 15, 2005

TAMPA - Maj. George McNamara was mowing his lawn when he got a call from an officer that Saturday afternoon in August.

A Dade City man was in handcuffs, after an 11-year-old girl identified him as the stranger who tried to lure her into his purple Ford pickup as she rode home from the neighborhood market near Ybor City.

But officers were pretty sure they had no statutory cause to arrest the man.

The Florida law for luring or enticing a child under 12 says a suspect can only be arrested if he was previously convicted of a sex offense against a child. This man had no such conviction.

McNamara got a book of Florida statutes from his patrol car and flipped through the pages.

The man hadn't touched the girl or threatened violence, so they couldn't charge him with assault or battery. She didn't get into the truck, so they couldn't charge him with kidnapping or interfering with custody.

"I'm leaning over the car, reading the statutes and going, "We can't do anything to this guy,"' McNamara recalled this week. "As the father of a 10-year-old girl, that concerned me very much."

Officers let the 38-year-old suspect go. Then they set about changing the law.

The resulting legislation would make it a crime to lure or entice a child for malicious purposes - even if it is the first offense.

The proposed Senate bill is the latest child protection legislation proposed in the wake of the kidnapping and murders of two Florida girls, Jessica Lunsford and Sarah Lunde.

Under Senate Bill 640, anyone over 18 who entices or lures a child under the age of 12 automatically would face a misdemeanor charge. Anyone with a previous conviction for enticing a child would face third-degree felony penalties if convicted again.

Tampa police Capt. Sophia Teague, author of the year-old Florida law that makes it a crime to harass neighborhood watch members, wrote this bill too.

"The statute as we read it today is flawed," Teague said. "What about the guys who haven't been caught yet? In this case, the officers were so quick, they caught him before he actually kidnapped her. And yet we can't charge him?"

Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, is sponsoring the bill.

"We need to close this loophole," Miller said. "It seems like a no-brainer."

Barbara Guzman, mother to the 11-year-old girl, didn't even know until a week ago that police let the suspect go.

"I thought he was in jail," she said. "He tried to abduct my daughter."

Her daughter encountered the man about 2 p.m. Aug. 27. She was leaving the Super-Mart at Floribraska Avenue and Jefferson Street when a stranger in a purple truck approached her.

He waved a wad of cash and told her, in Spanish, to get in the truck, according to a police report. She told him she was not supposed to talk to strangers, but he kept riding alongside her. She tried to pedal away, but he blocked her with the truck, Guzman said.

The girl broke free when her neighbor, Joseph Anthony Baxter, noticed the man talking to her and called for her to come home. The man turned the truck around and drove off, police said.

Guzman called 911. Officers stopped the truck near Robles Park a few minutes later.

Inside the vehicle, they found a wad of cash like what the girl had described, according to a police report. They also found a loaded .32-caliber gun. The man had a concealed-weapon permit, McNamara said. Still, McNamara told the officers to take the gun.

And as much as it frustrated him, McNamara told the officers to let him go.

Monday, he said he hopes SB 640 passes so he never has to let such a suspect go again.

"I want those who endeavor to commit these crimes in the future to know: We're coming to get you."

--Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 15, 2005, 03:00:33]


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