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    'He kept hitting me in the head with the gun,' rape victim says

    Motorists came to the aid of a woman who was raped in Copeland Park with her daughters nearby.

    By AMY HERDY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000


    TAMPA -- Her sanctuary became her hell.

    photo
    This is a police sketch of the man who raped a woman in Copeland Park in Tampa.
    As she clawed at her attacker, the 40-year-old mother feared the man would kill her and her daughters in the park where they played only moments before.

    "He kept hitting me in the head with the gun," said the woman, whose name is being withheld because of the nature of the crime.

    Suddenly, she broke free and, wearing only sneakers, fled across the basketball courts of Copeland Park to summon help.

    "The lady came running out of the palmettos, screaming and naked, with her kids behind her, screaming and crying," said Elaine Houser, a kindergarten teacher's aide who works at Shaw Elementary, which borders the park.

    "She was screaming, "He raped me! He's still there!' "

    Houser, who had been parking her car, drove to the school at N 15th Street and called 911. A couple driving by at the same time stopped, loaned her clothes and stayed with her until police arrived.

    On Thursday, Tampa police released a composite sketch of the young
    photo
    man they say raped the woman shortly before noon Wednesday during an outing at the city park at N 15th Street and E 109th Avenue.

    "We're talking broad daylight," said Tampa police Detective Tom Singleton, who said it may have been the first such attack in the park.

    As police responded, Shaw Elementary principal Todd Schofer put the school on a security alert, keeping everyone in their classrooms and locking the doors until shortly before dismissal at 2:15 p.m.

    A letter was sent home with each of the school's 1,040 students, Schofer said, telling parents about the incident and reassuring them that "at no time were the children in danger."

    Singleton said that despite the attack, the woman's main concern was for her children.

    He gave the following account of the incident:

    The woman was sitting on a bench as her four daughters -- 4-year-old twins, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old -- played on nearby equipment.

    A young man rode up on a dark-colored small bicycle. She described him as a thin 16- to 20-year-old black male, clean-shaven with short hair and wearing a multicolored plaid shirt and baggy blue jean shorts.

    The youth asked her for the time, which was about 11:30 a.m. He lingered briefly, then pulled what she described as a large, square handgun from his shorts and demanded money.

    When the woman told him she did not have any money, the youth looked inside her Kash n' Karry bags, which held snacks for the children.

    "Then he took her to the bushes just north of the playground," Singleton said, "forced her to undress and raped her at gunpoint. She fought him, scratching his arms and neck."

    The youth pulled a second gun, and the woman was able to break free. As she ran away screaming, he jumped on his bicycle and fled south toward E 109th Avenue.

    On Thursday afternoon, the woman moved mechanically about the one-room apartment near the park she shares with her boyfriend and children as she prepared supper.

    As one of her daughters lay curled in the fetal position on a mattress, another lay wrapped in a blanket on the floor, crying. She fretted about how they would cope.

    "They saw what happened," she said.

    The family moved to Tampa from Pennsylvania about six weeks ago, she said, hoping to get a fresh start.

    Her boyfriend had just begun a job Monday, she said, and already asked for time off to help her deal with the rape and care for the children.

    She was in the process of looking for a job, she said, until the attack.

    "Now I can't think," she said.

    At Thursday's meeting of the Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison suggested looking into the possibility of arming park rangers, as they were before 1998. He said the Tampa Police Department and park officials will appear before the council in two weeks to discuss it.

    Throughout the area, residents reacted with anger to the incident.

    "I feel bad for that lady's kids, that a person would do that in front of kids," said Angeline Holland, who lives nearby and whose children used to play at the park.

    "We won't come to this park again, at all," Holland said. "That sick-minded person should be shot."

    - Amy Herdy can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or herdy@sptimes.com.

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