On the job with probation officers Rebecca Wolf and Joe Sabella

Published January 15, 2006

It's 8 p.m., and probation officer Rebecca Wolf has gathered up the things she'll need for her night on the town: pens, heavy flashlight, cooler with bottled water, Tupperware with brownies and a clipboard with a list of people who, though they don't know it yet, will be her hosts tonight.

She starts her car and flips on the police radio. Her first stop is an easy one, a "placement" investigation. A man soon to be released from prison has provided the Department of Corrections the address of a place he plans to stay while on probation. Wolf drives by to make sure the address exists and that it is suitable. Police records are checked to make sure the home is not a site of frequent trouble. It passes muster for now, and she moves on.

Wolf is 53, 5-foot-7 and slight. Tonight she will confront about a dozen probationers, some of them large men, in their homes in some of the worst parts of town - sex offenders mostly, but here and there a drug dealer, including one who killed a rival with a shotgun.

Probation officers worked in relative obscurity for years, and that was fine with most of them. It made it easier to move around in unfriendly neighborhoods. Recently, however, disturbing crimes committed by men on probation - the murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in Sarasota and the savage Xbox killings in Deltona among them - have put probation officers uncomfortably under the spotlight.

In both cases, there were opportunities to take the accused off the street before they committed their most notorious crimes. The public outcry helped prompt a "zero tolerance" crackdown on even minor violations of probation, which in turn put added pressure on the probation officers.

No one wants to screw up. A probation officer and three of his supervisors were fired for for missing opportunities to lock up the violent ex-con suspected of masterminding the Xbox home invasion.

"It sometimes feels like it's zero tolerance for us," says Wolf.

Her rounds continue. She visits a heavyset sex offender living alone in Gulfport. Wolf steps inside and begins walking through the rooms of the house, looking for ... whatever - another person, pornography, something to suggest unhealthy desires are being indulged. While she looks, she peppers her host with questions: Are you making your meetings? Staying current with your cost-of-treatment payments? Staying away from kids?

She finds nothing to trigger her alarms and so moves on.

* * *

It's 10 p.m., but no mercy is shown those probationers who have retired for the evening. "Looks like they're asleep," Wolf says, approaching a darkened house. "Let's get 'em up."

She knocks loudly and insistently, with her hand, then with her heavy flashlight. "Who is it?" comes an angry voice from inside.

"Rebecca," she hollers back. Finally someone opens the door. Wolf is all smiles.

"Hey, how you doin'? You've fixed this place up nice. Everything okay? You going to your classes?"

If she likes the answers and sees no "red flags," the visit can be over in a few minutes. But if her suspicions are aroused, she will take her time walking through the house or plunk down in a chair for a lengthy chat.

"I'm part cop, part social worker," says Wolf. "I have to be ready to play it either way."

That might mean words of encouragement or an on-the-spot arrest.

* * *

Probation officers generally are armed when they're on the street, and Wolf favors a hammerless 9mm Glock. The heavy flashlight is a formidable weapon, too.

She says she was reluctant about carrying a gun for a long time, "figuring I was as likely to be hurt by my own gun as I was likely to be saved by it. I've found that if you treat people right - like I compliment them on the work they've done in their garden, or on how good their dinner smells - they'll appreciate that and watch your back."

But the approaching retirement of her partner, Joe Sabella, caused her to rethink the issue, and she decided she ought to "carry."

Treating people well is not just a way of protecting herself. Wolf believes it is the best way to deal with probationers, too - best for them, best for society.

"Everybody benefits from encouragement, everybody. People who feel better about themselves - who have hope - are less likely to violate their probation."

Probation officers break into two groups: "social workers" and "robocops," and Wolf fits more comfortably in the first category. "But anybody will tell you, I've made a lot of arrests," she says.

She has been a probation officer for 16 years. Before that, she says, she was a doctor's wife, "doing the social thing," a businesswoman and a teacher.

* * *

At the next stop, no one answers her knock. The guy who lives here likes to play a little game, she says. He likes to leave his house through his garage, unseen, then come up suddenly on her from the side.

"He's just trying to rattle me a bit. It doesn't work."

This time, though, apparently, no one is home. This visit is not a curfew check, so that's okay. She'll come back.

* * *

At the next address, Wolf pulls over and waits for her partner, Sabella. It seems prudent, since this probationer is a sex offender who has threatened to kill himself and has been showing signs of instability lately.

Some kids in the neighborhood were accosted by a man on a bicycle who fell forward on the handlebars, and the man at this address has injuries that might have come from such an incident. The kids' description of the bike rider seems to match, too.

Sabella arrives wearing a tight black T-shirt over a muscular upper body. His gun is plainly visible in a belt holster.

Probation officers become skilled in reading subtle shifts in personality and behavior, he says, the kind of changes that might signal a growing turbulence in the mind of the sex offender.

The probationer lives in a one-room apartment in a west St. Petersburg home. The apartment is cramped, and the air is close. His clothes seem not to have been washed in some time. Most of his visible possessions are in brown cardboard boxes, stacked and scattered everywhere.

He seems unperturbed by his visitors, though, and makes no objection while the two officers make small talk and go through his meager possessions. Objecting would have no effect anyway, because probationers have given up their constitutional search-and-seizure protections in exchange for their freedom.

"We'll be watching this guy closely," says Sabella.

* * *

Two weeks later, Mervin Anderson, on probation for lewd and lascivious conduct with a child under 16, steps over the line.

Sabella has received a phone call from Anderson's psychologist reporting danger signs. Anderson skipped a mandatory group session and when asked about it told the psychologist it had not been "convenient" for him to attend.

This suddenly cavalier attitude to his rehabilitation sets the red flags waving.

Making matters worse, Halloween is approaching. Thousands of kids, many unsupervised, will be on the street, knocking on thousands of doors all over Florida. Halloween is always a work night for Wolf and Sabella.

As he approaches the Anderson residence, Sabella sees the house ablaze with come-hither lights as trick-or-treaters hike up the walkway. One condition of Anderson's probation is that he is forbidden contact with children.

Anderson sees Sabella and Wolf approaching: "You've already been here two times this month," he says. "What are you doing here again?"

Sabella answers: "You're under arrest."

Staff writer David Ballingrud can be contacted at 800-333-7505, ext. 8245, or by e-mail at ballingrud@sptimes.com