The turtle thief moved slowly.
Stalking the retention ponds clustered along Lake Avenue, carrying a net and a big black bag, he eyed a line of red-eared sliders sunning on a pond bank.
He sprang. Before they could react, the turtles were in his grasp. The thief tossed his gear in what looked like a small blue Daewoo and made his getaway.
Dave Smith, a driver for Palms of Largo, an assisted living facility, was the first to see him. Like the other drivers for the large complex, he often waited nearby to shuttle seniors to their doctors' appointments.
In their down time, they had grown attached to the dawdling little turtles. Together they liked to watch the turtles sunning themselves. Once Smith sneaked over to take pictures.
But as the turtles began to vanish, the drivers saw the suspicious man more and more. Who was this guy? And what could he want with their turtles?
The hunt was on. The drivers shared intel. The turtle napper appeared to be in his late 50s, early 60s. His skin was tanned and weathered. He was a mystery in blue work coveralls and a gray fisherman's cap. No one knew his name.
Then one day in May, a fed-up driver named John Schumacher confronted him. The man defended himself, said he was there to catch crawfish. A few days later Schumacher saw him again at the water's edge, turtle in hand. Something in his black bag squirmed.
Enough was enough, Schumacher said. The thief needed to be stopped. The turtle posse needed answers. And the turtles needed revenge.
"This turtle thief/killer has lost his membership card in the human race," Schumacher said. "I don't want to lose mine by just standing by and letting this happen."
• • •
Born in Brooklyn, Schumacher, 51, spent four years in the Navy as a hard-drinking boatswain's and gunner's mate aboard the USS Sacramento. He is not one to back down from a fight.
But for all his toughness, he has a soft spot for animals. He feeds birds and raccoons. He adopted stray cats, naming them Jaws, Orca and Howard. He wears his love for animals all over his body: 60 tattoos, including a lion, a toucan, a parrot, a sparrow, a phoenix, Bambi the deer and his dog, Rocky, which he had to put to sleep.
His mother calls him St. Francis, after the patron saint of animals. When he brought hurt birds to a sanctuary, friends called him Dr. John.
"Man can take care of himself. Man can say, 'Hey, look, I'm hurt,' " Schumacher said. "Animals just can't. They can't speak for themselves. Someone's got to speak for them."
He felt especially protective of the turtles. When the sliders, named for the graceless way they slip off rocks, walked onto the road near the ponds, Schumacher often stopped traffic to get them to safety.
Guarding against the turtle thief, though, proved tough. Schumacher had thought a lot about what he wanted to do to the guy, the details of which aren't fit for a family newspaper. As for finding the thief? He didn't know where to begin. Was the man selling them to pet stores? Catching them for their meat? Smuggling them to China, where turtles are used in aphrodisiacs? Or was he just an insatiable turtle lover, building his collection?
"He could have his own turtle pond with 10,000 turtles in it," driver Dave Loucks guessed.
Wildlife officials, Schumacher said, seemed uninterested in taking the case. The police responded when called, but missed the thief in action. Schumacher wrote letters to aquariums and politicians and animal-rights groups, pleading for help.
"What's he going to do next," Schumacher said, "go in your back yard, take your dogs and sell them for experiments?"
• • •
The drivers were getting desperate. Dozens of turtles had disappeared, and the posse was no closer to nabbing the thief.
Schumacher turned to his aunt, a psychic in Chicago, for clues. She said the thief was selling the turtles to restaurants but she wasn't sure where. "The guy's bad news."
"I don't want to hurt him," Schumacher said. "I just want the guy to go away. Put models together. Go build fireplaces or something. Just stop."
The days slowly passed. Then, one Sunday two weeks ago, Schumacher was leaving a Publix supermarket at Belleair Plaza in Largo when he looked toward a nearby retention pond.
It was him. The turtle thief. He stood at the water's edge, his net cast over a railing.
Schumacher felt his anger grow. The thief turned and saw him. He must have recognized him. Hunter eyed hunted from across the parking lot.
The thief yanked up his net, tossed it in his little blue Daewoo and sped off. Then he disappeared. The drivers haven't seen him since.
Still, Schumacher watches the ponds while he drives, always scouting for clues. He hasn't found much.
In the meantime, he moved two turtles out of the road. He stays close, just in case they need his help.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or email@example.com.