ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Messer, 52, didn't see it coming. One moment he was pedaling east along the Pinellas Trail extension near 17th Avenue S, and the next moment a heavy backpack was slamming into his face.
Jonathan Rose was struck with fists. It was just before sunset, and Rose, 27, was pedaling at 34th Street S and Eighth Avenue, where the trail extension begins.
In both cases — the first happened two weeks ago, the second in late October — two men stood on either side of the trail, pouncing as the victims rode past. No one was seriously hurt in either case, and the suspects have not been apprehended.
Police and trail administrators said the incidents are examples of the type of low-level crime that infrequently occurs along the trail and should not be viewed as a larger pattern of crime.
At the same time, some officials acknowledge that the Pinellas Trail extension leading to downtown St. Petersburg, which opened to much fanfare in October, has been the subject of rumors that it is unsafe.
Joe Kubicki, the city transportation director, said he heard the concerns firsthand and deflected them right away.
"They need to go out, ride it and use it, and when they do, they'll see it is very much a comfortable place to ride," Kubicki said.
An industrial view
Built along a right of way that belonged to the CSX railway, the new portion of the trail runs through the Dome Industrial Park on the way to downtown. At times, the blacktop runs through isolated streets flanked by warehouses. At 18th Street S, it dips beneath the Interstate 275 overpass and through an industrial building in the shadow of Tropicana Field.
It was in the tunnel that Messer was accosted about 11 a.m. on Jan. 11. "One guy was on one side of the trail; another guy was on the other side of the trail," Messer said. No words were spoken, and he didn't see the swinging backpack. "It felt like books," said Messer, who regained his balance before riding away.
Rose was attacked about a mile west just before dusk.
Kubicki and other officials said trail users should observe posted rules that the trail closes at dusk. They also recommend traveling in groups when possible, and using the same alertness to surroundings as in any urban area.
"Unfortunately, we do have crime on the trail," said Jerry Cummings, the Pinellas Trail supervisor, who is also chairman of the Trail Security Task Force, a county board that meets quarterly to discuss safety on the trail. "The majority of it is minor crime, graffiti, vandalism."
The trail in St. Petersburg is set up to allow access to police patrol cars, Cummings said, and shrubbery where someone can hide is kept trimmed and fences are kept repaired. There are no emergency or pay phones anywhere along the entire 37-mile Pinellas Trail because officials have not found them to be necessary, Cummings said.
Though Pinellas County park rangers and volunteers supervise the entire trail, eight police agencies, including St. Petersburg's, also patrol it as it wends through their jurisdictions. Only police officers can make arrests.
The task force, which receives reports from the police agencies, reviewed a case that occurred in western St. Petersburg. Two 14-year-old boys walking along the trail were mugged for a few dollars after someone jumped out of the bushes and demanded a "crossing fee," according to a police report. That incident happened near the trail entrance at Seventh Avenue S and 58th Street in Gulfport. No one has been arrested.
Far more common than assaults along the trail are cases of people not picking up after their dogs, bicyclists not wearing helmets, and motorists and bikers ignoring signs to stop or slow down, said Scott Daniels, president of Pinellas Trails Inc., a nonprofit citizens group that advocates for the trail.
The numbers picture
Crime statistics released recently by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement showed that crime reports in Pinellas — including robbery, burglary and larceny — were up 9.1 percent in the first half of 2008 compared to that period in 2007. At the same time, reported aggravated assaults fell sharply in St. Petersburg, the statistics showed.
St. Petersburg police provided statistics showing they were called to the trail within city limits 72 times in 2007, including one call for unarmed robbery, four for armed robbery, three for a suspicious person and three for ordinance violations.
In 2008, the number of responses was 102, with eight unarmed robberies, two armed robberies, four cases of suspicious persons, five cases of disorderly juveniles and two ordinance violations.
Police spokesman Bill Proffitt said the figures include cases that began near or ended away from the trail, as well as miscellaneous calls. Proffitt added that officers had not identified a trend in robberies or other crimes.
Rose, an accountant who lives downtown, said he stays off the trail because he doesn't feel safe there. He pedals along streets instead. But Messer, a human resources consultant, said he would not change his habit of using the trail for leisure several times a week.
"When you look at the big picture, there's not so much harm done," Messer said, "but the reality of it is … there are areas where you probably need to pay a lot of attention."
Luis Perez can be reached at (727) 892-2271 or [email protected]