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Slaying sharpens focus on park

A move to relocate the Logan Gate park gains momentum in the wake of a teen's death.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published December 13, 2005


TAMPA - Security at the Carrollwood-area park where 13-year-old Stephen Tomlinson was strangled to death last week had concerned neighbors for years - so much so that they had persuaded county officials to study closing the park.

Their campaign's motto: "Put more eyes on our children."

This fall, county commissioners approved $25,000 to explore developing a different site along a busier road in the Logan Gate neighborhood to serve as the community's park.

"We recognize that (the current park) is in the worst possible place," said Donald Hardy, who heads the neighborhood's special tax district, which is spearheading the initiative. "It's secluded and it's at the end of a dead end and it's difficult to monitor."

In other words, he said, the perfect spot for a predator to lurk. The tax district board came up with the idea to move the park after another area tragedy, the Sarasota abduction and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia.

A group of teens discovered Stephen Tomlinson's body in a dark and wooded area of the park at about 7:40 p.m. Thursday. They said an older neighborhood teen ran out of the park screaming that someone was dead. The Sheriff's Office has not named that man, but has questioned a 19-year-old "person of interest" in the case. No arrests have been made.

On Monday, Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee announced that Stephen died from manual strangulation. He said investigators haven't ruled out leads on the "person of interest," but he issued a plea to the public for more information. "I feel like this case is solvable," Gee said.

Gee met with Stephen's father, Ron Tomlinson, before the brief news conference Monday night.

Ron Tomlinson had driven to the sheriff's Ybor City headquarters hoping for news of an arrest. "It's just frustrating trying to get some answers," he said after complimenting the Sheriff's Office for its hard work on the case.

So far, any plans for the Logan Gate park remains unsettled. But county officials have stepped up their attention to the matter in light of last week's homicide.

County Commissioner Ken Hagan, who helped guide the $25,000 of study money into the 2006 budget, met with parks officials early Monday and planned to visit the park with county and community leaders later this week.

The alternate location for a park, which is also owned by the county, stands in full view of just about everyone driving into and out of the subdivision. Hardy, of the Logan Gate tax district, contends that with the proper amenities such as a skateboarding area, it could lure neighborhood kids and keep them in a safer, more visible place.

"When they get past 11, 12 years old, you let them ride their bikes down the street," he said. "We want to put more eyes on our children, because we can't watch them 24/7."

Much of the past discussion about the park's future met with general apathy, Hardy said, noting that few neighbors have attended meetings on the subject. But in the aftermath of Stephen's death, many of his relatives and friends have called for lighting and fences to secure the park. His father wants to see the park improved to protect other youngsters from suffering the same fate as his son.

If the park were relocated, the need for lights should drop, Hardy figured. He lamented that it took such a terrible event as a murder to bring wider attention to the park.

Not all eyes were focused on the park, though. Many honed in on the family.

Many people around the Tampa Bay area called the Tomlinson family looking for ways to help in their time of need. The family planned to establish a trust fund to help pay for funeral-related expenses.

Patty DuPont, a dental technician who lives in Levy County, said she knew she had to help when she saw Ron Tomlinson's eyes in a newspaper photo.

"If everybody would do a little something, the world would be a better place," DuPont said.

Garden of Memories Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements, has donated the entire funeral package to the family, including a dove release.

--Times staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 13, 2005, 01:30:24]


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