Agents kept file on 'creepy'

A Pinellas real estate agent was attacked last weekend by a suspicious man despite an alert to agents and St. Petersburg police.

Published March 8, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - They called him "the creepy thin man." One real estate agent remembered his "steely blue eyes." Another described him as "flaky" and "skittish."

For at least a month, about a dozen Pinellas County real estate agents were suspicious of a prospective buyer who appeared to be luring them to vacant properties with tales of an inheritance. He never followed through with any deals and invariably disappeared after the initial contact.

Many now think the "creepy thin man" was the same man who attacked and robbed real estate agent Julie Roberts at a vacant house Friday and then stole $500 from her at an ATM.

"When I saw his picture at the ATM machine, a cold chill went through me," said Roxanne Krauss, a real estate agent who showed him a vacant house on 28th Avenue N on Oct. 17. "I thought, "Oh my god, this looks like the same person.' It was like a "Thank you, Jesus' moment." The weekend assault prompted some of the more than 17,000 agents in the Tampa Bay area to review safety and become more vigilant in identifying buyers, a precaution that many may have neglected in Tampa Bay's highly competitive real estate market.

Some plan to attend a safety class, hastily pulled together by the Pinellas Realtor Organization, with key speaker Roberts this Friday. The group is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the man accused of attacking Roberts.

"Everyone is concerned that this could have been them," said Carol Austin, executive vice president of the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors Inc. "Could that person have contacted their office? No one really knows for sure."

The Pinellas Realtor Organization was the first to note the suspicious buyer, who was making some female real estate agents uncomfortable in early February.

It started logging the complaints Feb. 10 and put them in a computer folder titled "Creepy thin man."

The group called police that day to report the odd behavior and then issued an alert three days later, warning agents to watch for "suspicious activity."

The reports from female real estate agents, a dozen in all, are similar.

He gave the name Tom Meyer or Tom Carter or Chris Meyers. He was 25 to 35 years of age, about 5-foot-6 or 5-foot-7, with dark hair. He seemed to have no fear of walking into realty offices and chatting up associates.

He often wore a ball cap and was stylishly dressed. He already had an approved loan. He wanted to see vacant property and asked agents to meet him almost immediately.

This caused agent Elena Briand, 42, to ask her brother to join her at a vacant house on 40th Avenue NE on Feb. 3, something she had never done before.

"I don't like it when people push me like that," she said. "The whole thing, it wasn't right. The next day, he was supposed to come back with his wife and he didn't show up. And I brought company this time and I saw a car pull off in the distance. It was uncomfortable."

The man told several agents that he had inherited money and was in the salon business.

He visited Connie Carberry's office Jan. 25, telling her that he owned a hair salon in Belleair and that his grandmother in Tampa had left him an estate. He wore a black leather jacket and had "steely blue eyes." He wanted to make an offer on a vacant house in St. Petersburg that he had seen only from the outside.

He had a hard time focusing, and she wondered if he was on drugs. And when she researched the estate and his purported salon, the information didn't add up. She was going to raise her concerns with him the next day, but he never showed up and she couldn't reach him by phone.

"We couldn't figure out his purpose for being there," said Carberry, 53, an agent for 25 years. "Why would someone want to spend two hours of their time with us, let alone two hours of our time?"

Police looked into the complaints but could not locate the man. They eventually decided there was nothing they could do.

"The guy never committed a crime," said Bill Proffitt, a St. Petersburg police spokesman.

Police say a photo of Roberts' alleged attacker at the ATM has generated tips but so far they are not sure who he is.

Realtor groups are urging their members to take precautions when showing homes by getting photocopies of drivers' licenses and recording license plate numbers of potential buyers.

"It's such a competitive business nowadays that people take these safety tips for granted and we urge Realtors not to do that," said Mike Mayo of the Pinellas Realtor Organization, which has about 8,500 members.

William Glenn East, CEO of the Northeast Florida Association of Realtors and a Jacksonville broker, created a realty safety program in 1998 after one of his associates was sexually accosted showing a house.

"It's becoming more and more common - that's the scary part," he said.

In the past four months, real estate agents in Hudson, Colo., West Chester, Pa., and San Antonio, Texas, were raped while on the job.

Roberts, 48, did not ask for her attacker's identification. She won't make that mistake again.

She had gotten the alert about the suspicious client, but heard he had rotten teeth and claimed to be a salon owner. The man she showed a vacant house to last week did not have bad teeth and he claimed to be a relocating drug enforcement agent. He was well-dressed in a black leather blazer and dress slacks and seemed to have no qualms about going into her office and talking with her colleagues.

"That's when I got my guard down," Roberts said Wednesday as she nursed a broken elbow. "He was okay with going to my office and meeting people and being seen. That's how he got me."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report.