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Park finds a new purpose

By AMBER MOBLEY
Published January 5, 2007


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CARROLLWOOD - Save the sound of basketballs bouncing on concrete, light yips and guttural barks of canines and thuds from cars clearing speed humps, Logan Gate Village is quiet.

For the most part, it has always been this way, residents say. People work hard, neighbors wave hello and otherwise go about their business.

But a murder broke the silence and halted the daily routine on the night of Dec. 8, 2005.

Stephen Tomlinson, a neighborhood boy in the seventh grade at Davidsen Middle School, was found strangled and beaten near the woods of a park deep within the subdivision.

He was 13 years old.

It was a Thursday.

Stephen's death was neighbors' worst fears realized, the culmination of years of concern.

The park was always a potential problem.

* * *

People were wary about the Logan Gate park years before Stephen's murder.

The subdivision's tax district board wanted to move the park after the Sarasota abduction and murder of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia in February 2004.

"Put more eyes on our children" became the mantra.

It was about this time that board members said they observed drug deals in the park's parking lot and other suspicious activity.

In June, vandals spray painted the walls and a park bench.

Phrases such as "I heart Nico", "Christal-N-Carlos" and obscenities covered walls near the rest rooms.

The board met with then-Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Stan Motley. They hoped to close the park and develop the green space near the subdivision's main entrance - Logan Gate parks 1 and 2 - into a recreational area with a skateboard ramp, covered play equipment and an exercise trail.

The price tag: more than $455,000.

Rebuffed by the parks department, the Logan Gate board then met with Commissioner Ken Hagan. Hagan got $50,000 into the 2006 fiscal budget dedicated to the redesign of Logan Gate parks 1 and 2.

Two months later Stephen was found dead in Logan Gate park 3. The most hidden of the three locations, it's deep inside the winding streets of Logan Gate Village near a dead end.

County officials called a public meeting soon after. Despite the park's history and the murder, it was clear that "people didn't want to give up on that park," said Mark Thornton, director of the Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.

Rather than closing the park, most neighbors asked for lights and fencing. In written comments, some asked whether the spot might be used as a dog park.

More than a year after Stephen's death, parks officials will unveil plans for the dog park at another public meeting this Thursday.

But that's not enough, Hardy says. The board still wants a recreational area at the other two parks.

* * *

Before Stephen was murdered at the park, families hosted children's birthday parties there, picnics were prevalent, moms and dads let their children play there. Teenagers played basketball on the court and football and soccer in the field.

Soon after Stephen's body was found there, people stopped playing.

Months passed.

Activity resumed.

And that's the way it has stayed since then, says Juan Rivera, who lives nearby.

"Kids come with their parents. People walk their dogs," he said. "I don't see kids just hanging out."

Sheriff's patrols increased after Stephen's murder, and statistics show a decrease in crime.

"Cops still go by a lot, even now," Rivera said.

Parks officials say that a dog park, coupled with improvements to the existing play equipment, will make the place even safer.

"Positive traffic to a park area is always a good thing," said department spokesman John Brill. "If there's any kind of bad element, or bad people, they usually leave."

Still, Brill said, the mere nature of parks - their seclusion and the fact they're generally not lighted at night because they close at dusk - makes it tough to fight clandestine behavior.

Logan Gate Village resident Tom Hanson still takes his 3-year-old son to the park. Hanson has lived in Logan Gate for four years and says that, overall, he has always felt safe.

"I don't want to downplay it at all," Hanson said about Stephen's death, "but when bad stuff happens you have to see if it's an overall trend. This was an isolated incident.

"We're all pretty shocked that something like that happened here," he said. "But we're also aware that things like that could happen anywhere."

* * *

As shocking as Stephen's death was, it was all the more unsettling when deputies charged another neighborhood youth with the crime.

Joshua Rosa was six years older than Stephen, a graduate of Alonso High School who worked at Sports Authority, attended Hillsborough Community College and sometimes went to church with Stephen.

Rosa was seen running from the woods the night Stephen died. Although he told deputies he was trying to save Stephen, they arrested Rosa on Jan. 6 and charged him with the murder.

"I could line up people single file from here to Lutz who would say that he is incapable of doing anything like this," said Rosa's attorney, Brian Gonzalez.

Rosa's family has declined to comment.

For Rivera, who was a police witness during the investigation, the tragedy "feels like just yesterday."

For Stephen's father, Ron Tomlinson, every day feels like the day his son died.

He is furious, aggravated and hurt that nothing at the park has changed in a year.

Some of the fencing at the park is rusted and falling down. There's hardly any padding under the play equipment. Vegetation on the north side of the park where Stephen's body was found still grows wild, still offering cover for secret activity.

Tomlinson said it's not unusual to see tire tracks near his son's makeshift memorial, a small white cross in the grass near the edge of the woods.

And the idea of a dog park doesn't sit well with him.

He wants a recreation center "to give neighborhood kids something positive to do." Perhaps they could name it after Stephen.

"If they don't do something, who's to say where Logan Gate will be in the next five years?" Tomlinson asks.

Park officials say it's not that simple. Money is limited, and they cannot put a rec center on every corner. The Logan Gate site is not very big, and few people outside the subdivision would be served.

Rosa, meanwhile, awaits trial on a charge of first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty, and his next court appearance is Jan. 17.

If convicted, he faces life in prison without parole.

Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

FEBRUARY 2005

Logan Gate Special Dependent Taxing District meets with County Commissioner Ken Hagan to discuss possible development of Logan Gate parks 1 and 2.

OCT. 1, 2005

Hagan gets $50,000 appropriated in the fiscal year 2006 budget for the redesign of Logan Gate parks 1 and 2.

DEC. 8, 2005

Stephen Tomlinson is found dead in a park inside of Logan Gate Village subdivision.

DEC. 14, 2005

Stephen's funeral.

JAN. 6, 2006

Stephen's neighbor Joshua Rosa, 19, is arrested and charged with the murder.

JAN. 24, 2006

Rosa is arraigned on murder charges in Hillsborough Circuit Court. The county holds the first public meeting for Logan Gate Village residents to discuss their thoughts on Logan Gate park 3.

FEBRUARY 2006

County staffers begin planning improvements for all Logan Gate Village parks.

OCT. 1, 2006

The county designates an additional $150,000 to turn park 3 into a dog park with additional fencing and lighting, improve the park's play equipment, and add a pavilion and benches to the other parks.

DEC. 6, 2006

Logan Gate Special Dependent Taxing District gives the County Commission $20,000 to help finance the park improvements. The donation brings the total amount of money designated to refurbish Logan Gate parks to $220,000.

DEC. 8, 2006

Anniversary of Stephen's murder.

JAN. 11, 2007

County officials are scheduled to present their plans for Logan Gate parks at a second public meeting.

JAN. 17, 2007

Rosa is scheduled to appear in Hillsborough Circuit Court again.

FEBRUARY 2007

Upgrades at Logan Gate Village parks are scheduled to begin. Changes could be completed within a month or so.

Share your opinion

County officials will present details of their plan for all three Logan Gate Village parks at a public meeting Jan. 11 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Carrollwood Meadows Recreation Center, 13920 Farmington Blvd.

[Last modified January 4, 2007, 21:46:30]


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