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Deputies descend to sweep streets

A roundup targets a list of 66 in hopes of snuffing crime here.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
Published November 4, 2007


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LEALMAN- Sheriff's cruisers were lined up like airplanes waiting to take off at a busy airport.

As one would take off, another one, two or three cruisers would pull into the parking lot at Lealman Intermediate School. The passengers were not happy travelers off to have a fun-filled holiday. They were alleged drug dealers stopping briefly at the school parking lot for processing before being whisked off to the Pinellas County Jail.

They were picked up Thursday night in a sweep designed to net 66 offenders. The sweep itself was part of a larger effort to quell crime in Lealman. The Lealman effort is the third this year for Pinellas County sheriff's deputies. They worked the Ridgecrest and High Point areas for 30 days each before moving in mid September to the area of Lealman bounded by 38th and 70th avenues N, 49th Street and the interstate.

Ridgecrest, High Point and Lealman were targeted because they had become "hot spots" for crime, said Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.

Hot spots are identified by analyzing crime data and listening to community policing and patrol deputies who know the area. The spike of offenses in those areas was enough to prompt deputies to put together the larger effort.

"Rather than do one aspect of law enforcement, this is more comprehensive," Pasha said. The concept is to take deputies from all departments and "take care of some of the individuals that are causing the problems."

In Lealman, deputies began with increased traffic and DUI enforcement. They also helped get about 35 homeless people off the streets by finding them places to stay or other help. While that was going on, undercover deputies were concentrating on drug, prostitution and other vice crimes.

When deputies had identified enough suspects, they set up the sweep, which began about 6 p.m. Thursday and ended early Friday. They wanted to catch those involved in drug sales at the street level, either as a seller or as one who sets up the deals. Men and women in their 20s to 50s were on the list. About 90 percent of the drug offenses involved crack cocaine. Others involved Xanax, oxycodone and marijuana.

Some of those targeted also were allegedly involved in other crimes, such as prostitution. Four of the 66 were in jail, and deputies caught 27 of the remaining 62. They also picked up seven people not on the list. Deputies spent the rest of the weekend trying to round up others, and warrants will be issued for those not found.

When finished, deputies expect to have made more than 300 arrests for offenses including DUI, prostitution, drug dealing, open container violations, underage alcohol sales, traffic infractions and active warrants.

When those accused of being dealers were picked up Thursday, deputies brought them to the school parking lot at 4900 28th St. N. Authorities chose the school because its parking lot was big enough for staging the 30 or so deputies who participated. It's also hidden from the street.

When those picked up arrived at the school, they were patted down, photographed and interviewed to see whether anyone wanted to help with further investigations.

"It's an intelligence-gathering time," Lt. Dale Jones said. Jones is in charge of Lealman patrol units.

The Sheriff's Office has targeted Lealman crime since at least 1998, when the office opened a community policing headquarters on 28th Street N. In 2000, the office reacted to the area's notoriety for the frequency of domestic violence incidents with the creation of a Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

Four years later, Sheriff Jim Coats, who was then chief deputy, spoke to Lealman Heights residents, who complained about prostitutes and drug dealers. Less than three hours later, deputies swept into the area and arrested 18 men and women on various charges including prostitution, aggravated assault, felony battery and grand theft.

Deputies also boarded up three properties with repeated code violations. Deputies thought they were being used as drug holes or prostitution houses. In less than a week, 32 people had been picked up and charged with such crimes as drug possession, prostitution and assault.

A month later, deputies ran an undercover sting in Lealman directed at picking up men who solicited prostitutes. Ten men were arrested and charged with drug possession and other crimes, as well as soliciting a prostitute.

Two years later, in 2006, more than 40 deputies arrested 32 people in a one-night sweep of street-level drug dealers.

"It's always been a busy area for us," Pasha said.

Ray Neri, president of the Lealman Community Association, watched part of Thursday's proceedings. Deputies routinely attend LCA meetings to hear of problems in the area and to keep in touch with residents.

"I'm so glad we've got the sheriff's department. These guys are dedicated. They got in there and are cleaning up our streets," Neri said. "They made a commitment a couple of years ago to do this, and it's just great to know they're going to continue with their commitment."

Pasha said plans are in place to keep crime rates down.

[Last modified November 3, 2007, 21:59:24]


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