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Victim sees home invasion as a reason to party

Luanne Panacek says a home invasion made her realize she hadn’t connected to neighbors. She says tight-knit neighborhoods are safer.

MARTHA RIAL | Times

Luanne Panacek says a home invasion made her realize she hadn’t connected to neighbors. She says tight-knit neighborhoods are safer.

TAMPA — When she fell asleep, the house was silent and dark. Then at 3 a.m., glass broke, the alarm sounded and light streaked through cracks in her bedroom door.

Luanne Panacek grabbed the phone on her nightstand and called 911.

That's when she saw the door crack open and the stranger's silhouette. She lunged to shut the door, then shoved a stopper under the knob as tight as she could.

By the time Tampa police arrived that morning in late January, the intruder had vanished with Panacek's laptop, identification and credit cards. She wasn't hurt, at least not physically.

Inside her Forest Hills home, the smell of marijuana hung thick, a reminder of the robber in the hooded sweatshirt. Police dogs traced the scent to a nearby house party of teenagers and young adults — the demographic Panacek decided more than 30 years ago to make her life's work.

"The irony of that," she says now.

Friends offered places to stay. They even offered her guns. "Lots of people," she says.

She turned down their gestures. That's not what the lifelong children and families advocate needs. That's not what the community she has called home for the past 21 years needs.

What she needs — what it needs — is a block party.

• • •

Panacek knows her response isn't typical for victims of home invasions. But she has to start practicing what she preaches.

For nearly 12 years, she has been the chief executive officer of the Children's Board of Hills­borough. Part of what the taxpayer-funded agency does is help people recognize that a good quality of life isn't about access to expensive experts and services. It's about connections to people.

"That begins at home with your family, friends, neighbors," Panacek said.

Yet, she said, she has become the neighbor she complains about in staff meetings and in personal conversations.

The neighbor who waves, says hello, but does not engage.

The neighbor who minds her own business and stays out of everybody else's.

On her own block, "there are people across the street I didn't talk to until the day after this all happened," she said. "This incident was a catalyst for me to see that."

She's embarrassed. Not as Luanne Panacek, the CEO, but as Luanne Panacek, the neighbor.

"I've been a slacker," she said. "I've been too busy to make connections."

She wonders if her house would have been targeted if she simply knew her neighbors.

"I don't know if I blame myself," she said, "but there are things that we can do to support one another that won't cost anything but maybe our time."

• • •

Between trips to the driver's license office and calls to banks, creditors and police, Panacek is planning the shindig of all shindigs. She wants to throw it around May or June. She envisions food, games, prizes, fellowship. She'll provide hamburgers, sodas and entertainment. All she wants is for people to bring a covered dish and themselves.

"Even if they come together for that one day," she said, "they're less likely to break into somebody's house that they know."

A self-described Pollyanna, Panacek admits her plan sounds simplistic and naive. The 55-year-old grew up in suburban Chicago at a time when, as she puts it, "people owned their neighborhood, not just their house."

Neighbors knew and looked out for one another. They left cars and houses unlocked.

Panacek hasn't done those things in years. These days, she knows better, and the break-in made her change her routine even more.

She stopped leaving the key in the dead bolt. (The intruder broke the glass, then unlocked a back door with a key in the dead bolt.)

She now keeps her purse, laptop and cell phone by her bedside.

She switches on the porch and sensor lights.

She thinks twice before taking out the trash at 2 a.m.

She's more paranoid about midnight dips in her own swimming pool.

She locks the screen door that leads to the pool and backyard deck. "That's ludicrous, right?" she asked. "I mean if you want to get in the screen door, you can get in the screen door. But I lock it because there's one little iota of additional safety. Somebody is slowed down a little bit."

Panacek isn't sure if the days of her youth will ever return, but she wants to do her part, one neighborhood at a time.

• • •

When the cops arrived at her doorstep, police dogs led them to someone at the house party with a spotless record. He denied any involvement in the robbery and consented to a search of his house and vehicle. His prints did not match ones found in Panacek's home.

Within two hours of the break-in, the actual intruder went on card-swiping binges at McDonald's, Walgreens, three gas stations. Panacek keeps a log of every charge on miniature Post-its.

None of the establishments had video footage and with Panacek's vague ID, Tampa police still have not made any arrests and the investigation remains open, police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said.

Still, Panacek plans to go door to door and extend personal invitations to the block party. She realizes she may invite the stranger in the hooded sweatshirt back to the scene of the crime, but that doesn't scare her.

She won't mention the home invasion at all.

Instead, she'll begin her spiel like this:

"Hey, how are you doing? I'm going to have a block party and I want you to come."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Victim sees home invasion as a reason to party 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 10:21pm]
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