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Suitcase City gets labeled for crime

Deputies face a crime increase as well as growing hostility from residents in the neighborhood near USF.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 9, 2000


TAMPA -- The uniform he was wearing did more than save Deputy Chris Madiedo from the bullet fired at his chest.

It also gave him the perspective he needed to shrug off the ill effects of being ambushed Monday morning by an unknown gunman on E 140th Avenue, known as a place to buy drugs near the University of South Florida.

"If this incident had occurred as a civilian walking to the store, I would have been mentally devastated," Madiedo said.

Madiedo, 25, was wearing a protective vest that deflected the slug aimed for his heart.

The incident, Madiedo says, comes with being part of the team that patrols the neighborhoods bordered by Bearss Avenue, Fowler Avenue, Interstate 275 and the USF campus, an area that has never shaken the derisive nickname of Suitcase City for its transient population.

Madiedo doesn't think he was singled out: "I feel any law enforcement officer wearing a white shirt and green pants would have been subject to the same action by this suspect."

Cheap duplexes and apartment houses developed haphazardly in the 1980s in response to USF's growing student body. Tampa's crackdown on drugs chased many criminals out of the city and into this unincorporated part of the county. Census figures in 1990 showed 29 percent of all families here lived in poverty. Eighty-seven percent of residents were renters.

The "Suitcase City" label arose during a meeting of off-campus student residents, recalls state Rep. Victor Crist, R-New Tampa, who has long pushed for changes in the area, including the recent opening of a $7-million community center.

"It was a descriptive term: "That place is a regular suitcase city,' " Crist remembers someone saying. Deputies picked up the phrase, and the news media followed suit.

Now, despite a decade of revitalization efforts that included a multimillion-dollar Weed and Seed grant and a new sheriff's substation where a crack house once stood, things are still looking bleak for the area.

Sheriff's records show that for the first time since 1996, violent crime is again on the rise near USF, despite being down for the rest of Hillsborough. Neighborhoods that were beginning to unify have seen an influx of new residents brought on by another federal project called Hope VI.

The Tampa Housing Authority moved about 1,100 families out of College Hill Homes and Ponce de Leon Courts public housing projects. Of the 445 families tracked by the authority, the largest group of them, 125, moved to the USF area.

Deputies say a wave of crime has followed, and a hostile attitude toward police they have not seen in years. Bottles have been thrown at patrol cars. Graffiti cursing law enforcement is sprayed on walls, and confrontations like Madiedo's are being viewed as simply part of this new and disturbing trend.

"It's a whole new crop of people, with no respect," said sheriff's Deputy David Leto, part of the Selective Enforcement Squad that patrols the area.

"When we go to a place now, crowds gather, and there's taunting," Leto said. "We didn't have that before."

Getting shot was something Madiedo had considered before, and his response was involuntary.

"I don't remember getting on the radio," he said last week. "I think my first reality response was in the EMS unit. My first thought was, "My parents are not going to be happy about this.' "

The morning of the shooting, 17-year-old Tiffany Howard heard a boom from her upstairs home at the Mapleleaf Apartments at 1401 E 140th Ave. Down below, Madiedo had just been shot around the corning of the building, falling in a nest of leaves and trash.

Howard remembers looking out her window and seeing swarms of patrol cars. Later that morning, aggressive questioning by a sheriff's detective made her cry, she said, when she couldn't provide any information.

The deputy got angry, Howard said, when she told him her survival philosophy. "I don't get involved," she said. "The cops go home at night. We have to live here."

It's an attitude Howard shares with other residents in an area where drug dealers cruise the streets all day long, on foot and on bicycle, making quick deals around buildings to motorists who then speed away.

"There's a code," said 20-year-old Dee Dupley, who lives two doors down from the shooting. "You give a certain level of respect to everybody."

Dupley, a day laborer who moved into the neighborhood a month ago with his wife and 1-year-old daughter, says he leaves the drug dealers alone.

"If you mind your business and stay on your property, you'll be okay," he said.

The deputies, he said, are a different story. Of all the neighborhoods he's lived in, Dupley said, this one is patrolled the most aggressively.

"I was here four days and got stopped on my bicycle for not having a light," he said. "The deputy asked me, "Have you ever been arrested?' to "Do you mind if I search you?' "

An aggressive policing attitude is something Maj. Al Perotti Jr. encourages in an effort to lower crime in the area he oversees.

Perotti, who heads the District 1 office that patrols the USF area, says Madiedo's shooting and an unrelated shooting involving another deputy has him torn.

"For the first time, I feel like I'm between a rock and a hard place," said Perotti, who fears sending a mixed message to his deputies.

"Be careful, but go out there and aggressively pursue people who are being lawless. And oh, by the way, they are becoming more violent."

Sheriff's records show that in District 1, violent crime is up 28 percent for the first two months of this year compared with the same period last year. For the rest of the county, violent crime is down 5 percent.

"We knew the picture was changing, with all the folks moving there from other parts of the city," said Chris Billingsley, head of the sheriff's crime analysis unit, "but this took us by surprise."

Meanwhile, deputies say they are not discouraged by Madiedo's encounter with the suspected drug dealer.

"It's not a bullying thing," said Sgt. Tony Kolka, head of the Selective Enforcement Squad at District 1. "We stop them, question them, arrest them if necessary. . . . We're not going to give in to them. We're not going to back up."

-- Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3474 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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