DADE CITY — From June until November in 2007, a loosely-knit group of teens was burglarizing homes at a rate of nearly one a day.
From rural Blanton to downtown Dade City, the teens found unlocked doors and windows and let themselves in, out in plain daylight, while the owners were away working.
They ransacked rooms, hunting for jewelry, guns and electronics to sell to fuel their drug habits.
One fall day, they were caught in the act, spotted at a home on Meridian Avenue by a watchful neighbor.
They were kids, not even 18, and two of them quickly began to talk — implicating each other, even riding around with detectives and pointing out each house they'd looted.
Three were charged as adults in the rampage that robbed homeowners of irreplaceable heirlooms and left children afraid to sleep in their own rooms.
Two of the defendants pleaded no contest to a string of burglary charges and were sentenced last week, each getting walloped with 25-year prison terms and towering debts of restitution.
The third one, though, walked free — liberated by the erratic stories of his drug-addled co-defendants.
• • •
Levon Winston Hughes told authorities that he began stealing at age 15, at first pilfering things like video games on his own.
He got as far as eighth grade before he was kicked out of school for fighting. He was a heavy user of alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
Roberto Herrera, who knew Hughes from school, did cocaine with Hughes and heard him brag about all the things he could acquire by stealing from houses.
Hughes, Herrera said in a deposition, invited him along.
In court documents, Hughes, now 20, and Herrera, 19, named a revolving door of friends who joined them in the burglaries. Herrera's younger brother was along for some, as well, they said, as was a friend named Mario Alvarez.
The day the teens were caught in fall 2007, Hughes said that after they hit the house on Meridian Avenue, they drove toward Tommytown and dropped Alvarez off at home before stashing a flat screen TV in an abandoned house on Tait Avenue.
Dade City police, who had been piecing together clues and now had a hot trail, closed in later that day.
Hughes and Herrera were arrested Nov. 21. After learning Alvarez's name from them, sheriff's detectives put together their case and picked him up at home about a month later.
• • •
Alvarez had been in jail for six months when his attorney, Chip Mander, deposed the sheriff's detective who arrested the 17-year-old.
Mander — razor-sharp, resourceful and expensive — asked pointed questions about exactly how authorities determined Alvarez took part.
"So when you arrested Mario … you did not have any admission or confession from him, correct?" Mander asked.
"Correct," Detective Zak Arey replied.
"And you had no tangible evidence tying Mario to that burglary, correct?" Mander asked.
"Correct," Arey said.
"And you hadn't found Mario with any stolen items, right?" Mander asked.
In that often-heated deposition, Mander gleaned that the case against Alvarez rested on the words of Hughes.
• • •
Mander, who was away last week and could not be reached for this story, deposed Hughes and Herrera on the same afternoon this February, back to back.
Here is a sample of the discrepancies in their version of events:
At a burglary on Sweetwater Road in Blanton, Herrera said they used a white Buick SUV to get there. Hughes said it was tan.
Herrera said five of them did the job. Hughes said there were three. But both named Alvarez — Hughes even specified that Alvarez had carried two shotguns out of a bedroom.
Herrera said they would find random dealers on street corners who would buy their loot, often for cash or cocaine. Hughes said they had set up a prearranged meeting with a man they met in an orange grove near Tank Hill.
Both acknowledged their memories were fuzzy because of drugs.
"Were there times that you were just so blown out on drugs that you just don't even remember who you did it with and — ?" Mander asked Hughes.
"Yes, sir," Hughes answered.
For the Sweetwater Road burglary, Alvarez had an alibi: School security records indicated he was in Pasco Elementary that day to pick up a relative, prosecutors said.
On May 21, after determining they could not prove the case against Alvarez to a jury, the State Attorney's Office dropped all charges against him.
The next day Alvarez was arrested again, charged with tampering with evidence and possession of drug paraphernalia. He has been released from jail, and that case is pending.
• • •
Hughes and Herrera both had well-prepared attorneys and fervent family members arguing on their behalf at the sentencing last week.
"He did some pretty dumb things," Hughes' sister, Alexis, said through tears. "He's too young and he needs to learn and live."
Herrera followed his own family asking for mercy. "I pray only for the chance to make right these wrongs," he said, his voice shaking.
Ultimately, though, it was the words of the victims that had the greatest impact on Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa, who put Hughes and Herrera each on 15 years probation following prison, and ordered them to pay $130,000 total in restitution to the victims.
The victims wrote to the judge about how finding their homes ransacked affected them. One man, disabled with only one arm, is afraid to go home at night. A mother can't get her son to sleep in his own room because he's afraid someone else is going to break in.
One woman said she felt so violated she wanted to throw out everything the burglars had touched.
"They stole my husband's father's watch," she wrote. "It was old and didn't even run and had absolutely no value to anyone. But to my husband it was priceless, and now it's gone.
"It's all gone."