The plastic bags slipped on doorknobs one quiet Friday ignited panic in Placido Bayou, a gated Northeast St. Petersburg community residents had always considered safe and secure.
The bags held fliers conveying a shocking revelation: One of their own was a registered sexual predator. Wallace Bennett Rummel, 77, whom some knew as a cordial, retired Presbyterian minister, had sexually abused two girls under 12.
"The initial reaction was panic,'' said Carrie Kilgroe, 41, the mother of two daughters and a son, ages 13, 11 and 8.
Word spread quickly through the affluent neighborhood where Rummel lives and where he committed his crimes. Kilgroe heard about the fliers from her husband. She called neighbor Tony Woods.
"I said, 'Oh, my God.' At the same time, my wife was dialing my phone. She was very upset,'' said Woods, who has two children, ages 7 and 9, and lives across from Rummel's 1245 Darlington Oak Circle NE home.
"We want him out. Our ultimate goal is we want to find a way to get him out. They've put the fox in the chicken house,'' Woods, 48, said.
While Rummel cannot live within 1,000 feet of a school, day care center, park, playground or other places where children regularly congregate, he can continue to live in his Placido Bayou home, with 41 children nearby. Under Florida law, local law enforcement agencies must inform communities of the presence of a sexual predator. That was what the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office was doing on Aug. 15 when it distributed about 300 fliers in Placido Bayou. That day it also notified 11 child care centers and schools within a mile of Rummel's home.
The retired minister was arrested in January and charged with two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation of two girls under 12. He was released on $100,000 bail. He pleaded guilty on Aug. 12 and was sentenced to 30 days in the Pinellas County Jail but was released under house arrest. He is now serving 10 years of probation, during which he must wear an electronic monitor. He also has to perform 100 hours of community service.
Rummel faced life in prison for the crimes, which took place from January 2000 to March 2002 and January 2004 to February 2006, said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Susan St. John, who said the abuse took place during visits to Rummel's home.
She said the victims were not required to testify because her office made a deal with Rummel's lawyer before a formal hearing.
"We also have to balance between what's needed for the community, vs. not traumatizing the victims any more than they need to be,'' she said.
Rummel served as pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in northeast St. Petersburg for 26 years and retired in 1997. Late last month, Presbyterian officials held a meeting with members of the church, which also has a preschool, after a local television station aired a story about Rummel. The Rev. Gerry Tyer, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, a jurisdiction of 76 congregations in seven counties, said he only learned of the situation after someone called to tell him about the television report. The denomination has opened a formal proceeding to address the matter, he said. He said he cannot discuss the Rummel case.
"I cannot comment on individual, confidential investigations,'' Tyer said. In all cases, however, there is an investigative process that could result in one of three censures, including permanent removal from ordination, he added.
Notifying Placido Bayou residents about Rummel fell to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Sexual Predator and Offender Tracking Unit, which also responded to the neighborhood's request for a meeting to discuss their concerns.
"I think that the whole neighborhood was very much in shock that they had a sexual predator among them, and then Mr. Rummel has lived there for many years and no one had any idea,'' said Sgt. Judy Vovan, who heads the unit.
"There were a variety of questions. Some of them wanted to know what kind of restrictions Mr. Rummel had. They also wanted to know how he was able to be in their community.''
Vovan said such crime can happen in any community.
"We have offenders that live in apartments or motel rooms and offenders that live in million-dollar homes,'' she said.
Chris Patton, president of the Placido Bayou Community Association, agrees.
"Regardless of the fact that we live in a gated community, we must not have a false sense of security. …,'' he wrote in an e-mail.
"This situation proves that this type of criminal could be a neighbor we have known and trusted for years. While we know that there is currently nothing legally we can do to prohibit perpetrators of these types of crimes from continuing to live in our community, we hope that our residents will take this opportunity to educate their children on how to protect themselves from these pedophiles.''
Rummel's attorney, Denis de Vlaming, said his client is not a danger to his neighbors.
"Some people are still supportive of him,'' he said. He's always been a good neighbor. … Do I understand that there is a concern? Yes. Do I think that anybody is in jeopardy? No.''
As far as he knows, de Vlaming said, Rummel has no plans to move.
"The common feeling is, this guy has taken something from us,'' Woods said.
"I think this has been upsetting, but at the same time, it has been such a teaching opportunity for our children … that creepy people exist. That scary people who want to hurt you exist,'' Kilgroe said.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283.