Community favors making area 'senior safe'

Published March 23, 2007

A recent spate of sex crimes against elderly women has residents of Sun City Center and north Tampa's John Knox Village closely following a proposed law that could ban sexual predators from their communities.

The ordinance would prohibit sexual predators from living within 1,000 feet of a "senior safety zone," said Sheree Fish, managing attorney with the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office.

What's more, sexual predators living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities would have to disclose their status. The facilities would need to monitor and segregate them from other residents, Fish said.

Violations of those requirements on both by the predators or the facilities could result in fines of up to $500 and up to 60 days in jail.

The law would apply only to sexual predators, not registered sex offenders.

The first public hearing on the proposed ordinance is scheduled for April 4 before the County Commission at the County Center.

Meanwhile, Paul Wheat, president of Sun City Center's community association, is taking steps to be sure it qualifies as a "senior safety zone."

"I believe we need to get something done," Wheat said.

Still, the recent crimes in Pinellas and Pasco counties didn't appear to involve neighbors or registered sexual predators.

The suspect in the Pinellas assaults, an unemployed 42-year-old drifter, appears to have followed one or both of the women from a bus stop.

Virgil DeBose was charged March 16 in the attack on a 78-year-old woman in her condominium. Pinellas County authorities say he is also a suspect in the rape of a 58-year-old woman and an assault on an 85-year-old woman.

Separately, a 68-year-old Zephyrhills woman was raped after two men broke into her mobile home several weeks ago in what police say was a random home invasion.

Though the attacks appeared to have been caused by outsiders rather than community residents, supporters of the ordinance say they welcome every extra measure of protection.

"It will put them on notice," said Tom Vann, president of the John Knox Village Residents' Association, who has lobbied for the ordinance.

"We know they can come in at any time, but if we can have some type of prevention, that could be some kind of deterrent from this happening in senior areas," Vann said.

Robert Thornton, community resource deputy for Sun City Center, agrees that the ordinance is a place to start.

"We have to build a foundation with something before we can address larger problems in society," he said. "It's not going to be a silver bullet."

In his four years in Sun City Center, he can't recall a sex crime, other than a man with mental health problems caught last year running around naked on the golf courses.

He credits the community's volunteer patrol squads and self-vigilance for its safety.

"We need to maintain our vigilance and do things proactively to make sure these crimes don't occur," he said.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.