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City copes with recent shootings

A recent outburst of violence in suburban Carrollwood has residents feeling shaken. The town has seen two murders and two shootings since May 12.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2000


CARROLLWOOD -- Laurie Winkles was taking a shower Wednesday night when she heard a strange noise on her side door.

With her heart in her stomach, Winkles recalled, "I hopped out of the shower and said, "Who's there?' "

No one responded, and though Winkles later figured it was just an animal, she was unable to shrug off her dread.

And it's little wonder: Only two days before, her neighbor on White Trout Lake, Grover Freeman, was shot and killed in his home. Officials have charged his ex-wife Katherine Freeman, Winkles' close friend, with his murder.

The loss arrived on the heels of the May 12 slaying of Carrollwood pizza delivery driver Eduardo Natal and the near-fatal shooting the next morning of The Loop Grill co-owner and manager Mike Robie. A 16-year-old female employee of The Loop was spared during the same attack only because the suspect's gun ran out of ammunition.

"By all rights, there should have been three dead," said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Rod Reder, commenting on the girl and Robie's ability to survive getting shot ten times.

The recent spate of death and violence has left nearly everyone on the block, and the Carrollwood community, shaken with disbelief.

"First Valessa Robinson, and then the pizza murder, and now this," Winkles said.

"It's not what you would expect out of this area."

Hillsborough sheriff's records show that it's not just a cliche that murders are of out of place in the quiet streets of suburbia, it's the truth.

Tampa, with 297,000 residents, has averaged 45 murders a year, though there were just 31 last year, down from a high of 62 in 1994.

Carrollwood has an estimated 49,000 residents, since 1990 Six of those murders have occured in census tract 114.02, the area's most populated tract. Yet even that tract, where the Natal killing occured, didn't experience more than one in a single year this decade.

In the census tract where Grover Freeman lived, his death doubled the number of homicides over the last decade from one to two. The other homicide, in 1991, was the case of a husband killing his wife in their Orange Grove Drive home.

The fact that domestic homicides happen in higher-income neighborhoods does not surprise law enforcement in the least.

Domestic violence "goes on behind gated communities and in mobile home parks," said Reder, who used to work in the sheriff's domestic violence unit.

And domestic homicides have been steadily increasing since the mid '90s, he said.

The reason you hear more about domestic violence cases in low-income areas, Reder said, is because the neighbors report it.

"But out in the suburbs, houses are on large lots," Reder said. "The pool pump is running, the air conditioner is running, the windows are closed and you can't hear the screams."

The fact that investigators say Grover Freeman's death was the result of an apparent domestic dispute makes it easier to understand.

The shootings of Natal and Robie, on the other hand, have rocked the community for their randomness. The motives appeared to be robbery, yet both the suspects, E.J. Hinson and Harold Wolf, came from middle-class families. Only Hinson had a prior record, a grand theft conviction from 1998.

For Carrollwood residents, the recent events are difficult to explain to outsiders .

ReMAX realtor Becky Eckley, who lives in the Lake Magdalene area, said the shootings struck too close to home.

"Windy City (where Natal worked) is just like a neighborhood pizzeria, and at The Loop, we know the owner," she said.

As for new clients who are searching for a home in northwest Hillsborough County, "I'll feel the backlash for a while," Eckley said.

"They think we're tropical and laid back and beachy, and when they get here and read the paper it's a slap," she said.

The result, she said, is an increased migration toward gated communities.

"If they have a choice," Eckley said, "they're going to go for the gate."

For those who police the Carrollwood area, the recent run of shootings is considered a fluke.

"Even with the growth, that's not the norm," said sheriff's Capt. Roger Dixon of the District III office in Citrus Park.

Dixon, who has overseen patrols in northwest Hillsborough off and on for more than a decade, says he does not believe residents are at any more risk of violence in Carrollwood than anywhere else.

Carrollwood community resource deputy Bryan Pille agrees.

"It's not random," Pille said of the recent shootings. "Both were isolated incidents."

Pille said he has had only one Carrollwood resident call him and ask whether she should be concerned about the recent surge in violence.

"I told her, "This is not a killing spree going on,' " he said.

Winkles agrees, but said people should still be more cautious because there are always going to be flukes.

"Where do we draw the line between awareness and paranoia?"

-- Staff writer Bill Coats contributed to this report. Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3474 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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