DOWNTOWN — Tampa police to University of Tampa students: Stay off the N Boulevard bridge at night and remember that you live in a downtown that comes with dangers.
The reminder comes after three UT students were robbed at gunpoint near the base of the bridge this month. It's near the spot where another student was robbed Feb. 27, 2010. And it's where UT track star Ryan McCall, 21, was shot dead on Aug. 18, 2009.
"The campus is safe, but it's located in an urban core," Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said. "They're in a downtown, so we urge the kids to not walk over that bridge at night but to take a car, take a taxi, to have a designated driver when they go to parties so they can come home at night."
Students often have the mentality that bad things can't happen to them, so they opt to walk back to campus in the early morning hours.
"We want to urge them that that's not a good choice," McElroy said.
Police are still looking for three suspects involved in robbing Dillon Maag, 19, Courtney Loftus, 18, and Esteban Roman, 19, about 12:30 a.m. Sept. 18 while they were walking back from a party. When they approached N Boulevard and Ross Avenue, two men jumped from behind telephone poles, police said.
One pointed a gun at the students and the other punched one of them. The men took the students' wallets. About an hour later, police said, the stolen credit cards were swiped at the 7-Eleven at 2302 W Waters Ave. Surveillance video shows two men at the counter using the cards. At one point, one of the men yells at the store clerk about being overcharged.
One suspect is described as a black man between 19 and 25, about 5 feet 10 inches and 160 pounds with short hair and a diamond earring. He wore a gray V-neck T-shirt and dark jeans.
A second suspect is described as a 5-foot-11, 165 pound, black man. He wore jeans and a mask and carried a black firearm.
The third was a 5-foot-9, 150-pound white man who wore a plaid shirt, jeans and black Chicago White Sox ball cap.
Police said they may have been driving a dark early 1990s sedan.
Police have active leads, McElroy said, but welcome more information.
As soon as the crime was reported, police Chief Jane Castor — a UT alumna — notified retired Tampa police Sgt. Kevin Howell, who is UT's campus safety director.
That same morning, UT sent e-mails to students, faculty members and staffers reminding everyone to be extremely aware of his or her surroundings while off campus and to take cabs instead of walking at night, UT spokesman Eric Cardenas said. A glitch prevented the e-mail from reaching all 6,738 students. The administration followed up with another safety message last week from Dean of Students Stephanie Russell Holz and the student body president.
UT administrators feel confident that they are adequately informing students of the dangers off campus. Incoming freshmen must go through a safety presentation, and resident advisers give safety talks to returning students who live on campus. An ongoing safety campaign stresses the use of prepaid cab cards and campus escorts.
"We'll just continue to be vigilant about putting that message out there," said Holz, who ate lunch Wednesday with one of the students who was robbed.
She said she hopes to get him to be a safety speaker. "We're trying to use students to get the message across."
Police gave UT officials pointers on how to keep students safe after the McCall shooting, and McElroy, the police spokeswoman, said they now hope to put together a safety video that the university can use to reach every student every year.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.