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Ridgecrest standing strong

Fed-up residents are helping deputies with leads.

By NICOLE HUTCHESON
Published May 6, 2007


LARGO - In law enforcement circles there's a saying: The community is the eyes and ears of the police.

And that vigilance is exactly what authorities say resulted in 18 recent drug-related arrests in Ridgecrest.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office beefed up its patrols of the Largo neighborhood after a community meeting in April.

At that meeting, residents expressed concerns about a spike in drug behavior and the safety of their neighborhood. Soon after, the Sheriff's Office launched an investigation.

"We were hearing the main problems, as they see it, were drug sales and the spin-off property-type crimes that come with it, " sheriff's Capt. Wayne Morris said.

Residents complained of having their homes burglarized or having lawn mowers or other items stolen from their property.

Ridgecrest, an unincorporated area just south of the Largo city limits, has seen a spike over the years in street-corner drug sales, Morris said.

But, in recent months, the problem escalated.

"In the past they could do a sweep and that would take care of it, " Pinellas County Commissioner Calvin Harris said. "Now it's requiring a lot more attention."

The breaking point

Community members say the problem became even more alarming in March.

For more than 20 years, the Ridgecrest Community Center had hosted a daily senior luncheon. Anywhere between 30 and 50 seniors from across the county were bused into the center on 119th Street for the lunch through the Neighborly Services program.

But in March, program organizers and participants grew leery after they heard gunfire near the center.

"The staff were frightened, and it just wasn't a safe place to be anymore, " said Denise Doman, the program's nutrition services director.

Doman now hosts the lunch at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Clearwater.

"We feel remorse that we had to leave the area, " Doman said. "And the clients feel remorse; it's been a place they'd gone for many, many years."

Edward "BeBe" Hobson, associate pastor at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Ridgecrest, said losing the senior luncheon opened a lot of eyes to the severity of the problem in the neighborhood.

"This was an embarrassment, " Hobson said. "We were allowing these drug dealers to make us lose programs for our community."

A few weeks later, Hobson scheduled a community meeting at his church to discuss the crime problem. Fliers were circulated, and deputies were invited. About 150 people showed up.

Residents told how their safety had been violated. Some had been robbed on the way to their cars. Others had items stolen from their yards. A few had been robbed at gunpoint in their homes.

"That meeting made people begin to feel like they're not in it by themselves, " said Hobson, who works for YouthLife, a nonprofit outreach program for middle- and high-school-aged children.

A neighborhood watches

The meeting also changed the relationship between the community and law enforcement, said Morris.

"They have seen enough and they're willing to do whatever it takes, " Morris said.

Community members supplied law enforcement with tips and leads.

They also rallied to show that they had no intention of turning their streets over to criminals.

Every year, Greene Chapel AME Church, another church in Ridgecrest, hosts a community march. This year, pastor Bernard Smith decided to hold it on Good Friday - April 6. The march included about 20 church leaders and dozens of residents, and he made a point to take the march to drug-ridden corners.

"I think God honored that march because we were hoping that something would happen, and it did, " Smith said.

Meanwhile, sheriff's officials said they gathered evidence.

Of the 18 peopled arrested on drug-related charges from April 27-29, 12 were male, six female. They ranged in age from 17 to 54. Ten others were arrested on charges that they had outstanding arrest warrants, possessed drug paraphernalia or were driving under the influence.

Law enforcement officials and community members say the recent bust is just the beginning of what's to come.

"People are now writing down tag numbers and calling the cops, " Hobson said. "We hope the word will get out: 'Don't try to buy drugs in Ridgecrest because people are serious about cleaning up the neighborhood.' "

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com or 727445-4162.

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What's next

Sheriff's officials say their investigation is continuing. Ridgecrest will hold another open forum on crime at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, 13225 118th St. N, Largo. Call (727) 585-9080.