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Arrests spike as police blanket Seminole Heights in wake of three killings

By Jonathan Capriel , Times Staff Writer
A surge in police presence throughout Southeast Seminole Heights has included officers on horseback. Police are trying to solve three random but related shopoting deaths in the neighborhood during the month of October. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA — Police have little to say about their ongoing investigation into the Seminole Heights killings.

But a month after the killings began, numbers from the department reveal how police are going about it: Arrests in the area more than doubled in October compared to the same month a year earlier.

The number for the month shot up from 39 to 107 in the five police regions that encompass most of Southeast Seminole Heights, the neighborhood where three people were shot dead within 11 days during October in what investigators say were random but related killings.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Three young lives bound by death in Seminole Heights shootings

The numbers are a factor of the increased law enforcement presence in the neighborhood, said department spokesman Steve Hegarty. Officers are checking more license plates and stopping more people who are out at night.

Police also have knocked on more than 1,900 doors, talked to nearly everyone who lives in the area and created a neighborhoodwide survey, Hegarty said.

"We have a good idea of what the rhythm of the community is," he said. "If someone seems out of sorts, we are going to chat them up. If they say they live right around the corner, we are going to know if they are lying."

The first killing was Oct. 9, when 22-year-old Benjamin Mitchell was shot at a bus stop. Monica Hoffa, 32, was found dead Oct. 13 in an empty lot less than half a mile away. Police heard a gunshot Oct. 19 and found the body of Anthony Naiboa, 20, a few blocks from the first killing.

Since the last shooting, police have arrested at least three men on charges of illegally carrying a gun in Southeast Seminole Heights. The three also were charged with marijuana possession but are not suspects in the killings, police said.

Two of them were stopped for riding bicycles without lights and one ran over a curb while making a turn in a motor vehicle, police said.

About a third of all the October arrests in Southeast Seminole Heights were related to vehicle violations, like driving with a suspended license, driving without a license, driving an unregistered vehicle or without valid tags. Another third were related to warrants or failure to appear in court.

"There is a lot of pretty sophisticated work we are doing on this case, but there is also a school of thought that it will be the simplest or most rudimentary bit of police work that will solve it," Hegarty said. "Stopping people, running tags, arresting people on warrants — this is just your basic police work. But they might be the things that break the case."

Swarming the neighborhood with officers might discourage a killer from striking again, if there is one killer, said Christopher R. Herrmann, assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It isn’t likely, though, to help catch whoever is responsible, he said.

"If the killer has a clean driving record he may not care," Herrmann said. "But an obvious police presence may convince him to do his business elsewhere."

Police Chief Brian Dugan, while on patrol in Southeast Seminole Heights on Halloween night, said he was surprised at the level of criminal activity in the neighborhood even with the greater police presence.

"It’s kind of interesting to me that people know we are going to be out here and they are still doing things," Dugan said then.

The arrests have caught the attention of NAACP Hillsborough Branch president Yvette Lewis. Lewis said she plans to discuss policing procedures with Dugan when he attends an NAACP members meeting Thursday.

"We’ve not had a complaint come to our office so far," Lewis said. "People in the area have told me they’ve seen more arrests. Their whole thought is that they are trying to catch the person, but we are still going to be having a conversation."

The police surge is all the talk among people living in Seminole Heights, who find it both comforting and unnerving. Dozens of posts on the community Facebook page and elsewhere document police activity.

"Neighbors are posting pictures of like 15 officers on one block," said Stan Lasater, president of the Southeast Seminole Heights Civic Association. "They ask in the group, ‘Does anyone know what’s happening here?’ I’m seeing a lot of posts like these. "

Lasater said he does feel safer, but he’s not jogging at night like he used to along N 15th Street, where the first and third killings occurred.

Neighborhood resident Michael Lawrence said a helicopter spotlight caught him doing laundry in his backyard one night and police in unmarked cars have stopped him three times while he was out at night walking his dog, a 17-year-old Jack Russell-Basenji named Skip.

"They tell me I shouldn’t be outside," said Lawrence, 51, who works each day until 7 p.m. "That last time, I just pointed to Skip and told the cop, ‘Tell him that. He’s the one who wants to be outside.’"

Contact Jonathan Capriel at [email protected] Follow @jonathancapriel.