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Dear criminal: Smile for my camera

As costs drop and ease of use rises, more and more homes are being protected by surveillance cameras.

Published September 16, 2006

Christina Lodrini bought one for $25 at Wal-Mart after someone fired shots into her Clearwater home.

Barbara Stiles placed one inside her Largo apartment when she suspected someone was stealing her prescription pain pills.

And Stan Morse is using one to combat a spate of car break-ins in his northeast St. Petersburg neighborhood.

In each instance, a surveillance camera captured someone in the act. Authorities arrested suspects in the Lodrini and Stiles cases last week, and Morse says he thinks the culprit from his neighborhood soon will join the club.

"He will be caught and there is no defense," Morse said. "The only place he's going to wind up is in the slammer. It's just a question of when."

By several measures, the market for home surveillance video is growing as the technology gets cheaper and easier to use, say retailers and those who track the industry.

Video surveillance, both commercial and residential, is the fastest-growing segment of the electronic security market, said Joe Freeman, founder and president of J.P. Freeman Co. Inc., a national security consulting firm.

Over the next five years, Freeman said he expects $21-billion will be spent on video surveillance - more than twice as much as was spent the previous five years.

One in five Internet users wants the ability to monitor security cameras in their homes while they are away, according to a recent study by Parks Associates, a Dallas company that does research and analysis of digital technology.

Additionally, the number of households with security systems is expected to grow from 20.9 percent in 2004 to nearly 30 percent in 2009, a Parks study found.

"There has been a 25 percent growth per year in video surveillance," said Jack Mallon of Mallon Associates, a New York investment bank that serves the security industry. That number covers both commercial and residential sales.

Law enforcement officials see home video surveillance as a valuable aid, Tampa police spokesman Larry McKinnon said.

"It's really very compelling when you go to trial to actually see the guy committing the crime," McKinnon said. "You know the old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words."

And it helps that the cameras are getting cheap and easy to use.

"They have become so inexpensive that you can pick one up for 100 bucks, and the quality of the camera has been astounding," said Sgt. Charles Degenhardt, who supervises the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office burglary unit.

Not only is the video "absolutely admissible," it fills in holes in cases, Degenhardt said.

"Everyone has mannerisms, a different way of walking," he said. "Even if you don't have a very good face shot, if the person is known to the victim, it goes a long way to identifying and gives us a good place to start."

Local retailers and security companies say systems can range from as little as $25 to $1,000.

Over the past five years, sales of surveillance cameras and equipment have increased five-fold at Privacy Electronics in Pinellas Park, said Mike Peros, who has owned the store with his wife, Carol, for 20 years. Now they account for about half his sales.

"You can pick up a camera for $39 that you can hook into your consumer VCR and record," Peros said.

Simplicity is a key selling point.

"There is the ability to take (a camera) home and plug it in and use it immediately," said Christina Keeling, owner of APSI Biometrics in downtown Clearwater, which offers such items as doors that open using fingerprint recognition and covert surveillance cameras.

Other systems allow users to view their homes from their computers from anywhere in the world for as little as $500.

While on vacation in Spain last week, John Ellison watched on his laptop as men entered his home in northern England. Alerted to his home alarm by his cell phone, he logged onto his laptop computer to see what was going on. Ellison then contacted police and watched the intruders get arrested live via his laptop.

When choosing a camera for surveillance, Jody Soutullo, video technician for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, said consumers should make sure that the camera has a time and date stamp.

Soutullo also recommended recording in black and white instead of color because it doesn't require as much light to capture an image.

Lodrini used a $25 model 0875 Homeland Security Camera, which recorded in black and white and connected to her television, to monitor her front yard after someone shot into her home on two occasions.

Lodrini's camera allegedly caught her former business partner, Courtenay H. Savage, shooting into her home at 4 a.m. on a third night, authorities say.

After watching the tape, Pinellas deputies arrested Savage, a former Hillsborough County law enforcement officer, on Sept. 7. She now faces 19 charges and was being held Friday in the Pinellas County Jail with bail set at $405,500.

"We are all safe, and that's the main thing," Lodrini said shortly after the arrest. "The kids are safe, and someone has been arrested. That's all I can say."

After watching surveillance camera footage submitted by Barbara Stiles, Largo police arrested Thomas William Cummings on Sept. 6. He is accused of taking Stiles' pain pills, and the video was the key evidence, officials said. He was being held in the Pinellas County Jail Friday in lieu of $20,000 bail.

In St. Petersburg, Morse's professionally installed camera caught the image of someone breaking into his car in the early morning hours a few weeks ago.

"If everyone had a videocamera these people who choose a life of crime would be sitting in a slammer where they belong," Morse said. "You can't quibble that it's an eyewitness identification because the person is staring right into the camera. You could say my memory is faulty a year from now, but now you can't even question that. It's on tape."

Times staff writers Dave Gussow and Kris Hundley and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at or 445-4174.

[Last modified September 16, 2006, 01:46:36]

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