Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

After murders and rape, Largo work-release center faces controversy and review

LARGO — For the second time in four months, an inmate of a Goodwill-run work release facility has been accused of committing a violent crime.

Pinellas authorities say Dustin Kennedy, 28, attacked and raped a 17-year-old girl as she walked to her school bus stop two weeks ago in Clearwater.

Kennedy was arrested Wednesday at the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center on U.S. 19 — the same facility Michael Scott Norris escaped from Sept. 30. Soon after, police say, Norris killed two men in the Kenwood neighborhood of St. Petersburg and set the home where they were working on fire.

Now an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times raises questions about oversight at the 280-inmate facility, which is the state's largest work release center and has reported the most escapes in each of the last three years.

Both Norris and Kennedy were inmates under the control of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Yet when Kennedy was arrested Wednesday, detectives said he had two cellphones belonging to the rape victim and had kept them for nearly two weeks — even though cellphones are not allowed in the center.

While an inmate, Norris made regular visits to a St. Petersburg gym to work out. He also struck up a relationship with a female staffer at the work release center. She was fired as a result.

Norris left the center — apparently without authorization — several hours before he was to report to his job on the day of the murders.

Since Norris' arrest on murder charges in October, Goodwill has refused to comment on security procedures. The state Department of Corrections said Thursday there would be a review, but did not provide specifics.

State records show inmates escape from the center, at 16432 U.S. 19 N, about once every two weeks — 27 times in the year that ended June 2012, and 26 times in each of the previous two years.

In a work-release center, an "escape" doesn't fit the popular image of a prison break. Because inmates have jobs outside the facilities, they are allowed literally to walk out the doors, but only when they are going to work.

If they do not return, they are classified as escapees, and once caught are sent to the nearest county jail.

Norris was considered an escapee, since he did not return after his scheduled shift at a St. Petersburg restaurant. But Kennedy returned to the center on time and was not classified as an escapee.

Police believe Kennedy raped the girl when he was walking back from seeking work at a lawn care service near the facility.

• • •

Work-release inmates are all scheduled to leave state custody soon. The program is designed to give them a better chance to rejoin lawful society.

But they are supposed to be supervised and follow strict rules.

They aren't allowed to have cellphones, can't have their own vehicles, and they aren't allowed to leave their centers for recreational purposes.

Norris spent only about a month in the facility, but he appeared to have left for purposes other than work. He also managed to get a cellphone.

One of the center's supervisors was interviewed by St. Petersburg police and said Norris was cocky and known as "the big man on campus." Norris also "was very flirty with every female he came in contact with" and even struck up a relationship with a female employee of the center named Alice Henry.

"Henry was fired from the work release facility for this reason, as there is to be no fraternization between the staff and the inmates," the police report says.

Norris' manager at Jonny Reno's restaurant at the Pier said he knew Norris worked out at a local gym, which he "thought was a bit strange considering Norris was on work release."

The manager of City Gym at 44 Sixth St. S told police that for about a three-week period, Norris "would come to the gym 3-4 times each week for about an hour before he went to work downtown." Nothing in police reports indicates the manager knew Norris was a work release inmate.

While under suspicion for the murders, Norris spoke to St. Petersburg police and "stated that he would leave the work release facility early and go hang out with his girlfriend . . . (he) made it sound like this was a daily routine and he stated that he was not supposed to be doing this, because of his work release restrictions," according to the police report.

• • •

Some of Florida's work-release centers are run by the state and others by outside contractors, such as Goodwill.

In one of the most recent state monitoring reports, the Largo center was found to be complying in virtually all areas of its contract. The September report said the center had particularly improved in the area of checking up on inmates through their job supervisors.

Contacted by the Times, Goodwill said it had been asked Thursday morning by the state Department of Corrections to refer all questions to the state.

"We have no comment," Goodwill spokeswoman Chris Ward said. "I've told you what I'm going to tell you."

DOC director of communications Ann Howard wrote in an email: "I'm more comfortable with me handling this so we don't say or do anything inappropriate related to the criminal/sheriff's investigation."

Howard said there would be a review to "take a look and make sure everything was followed" according to proper procedures, and to determine "what protocols were mishandled," if any. She did not know who would conduct the review and what form it would take.

• • •

Local authorities continue to investigate the rape and murders.

Pinellas sheriff's detectives said DNA evidence links Kennedy to the rape, which happened about 6:20 a.m. Dec. 18. The teen girl was walking to her bus stop in the area of Whitney Road and Whitney Drive, near the Goodwill center, police said, when Kennedy, who spent time in prison for burglary, grabbed her from behind, choked her, and dragged her to a ditch, where he raped her.

The incident prompted the Sheriff's Office to increase patrols in the area. Some parents began driving their children to school.

Residents in St. Petersburg's Kenwood neighborhood also were on edge after the murders of Bruce Johnson and Arthur Regula, whose bodies were found inside a burned out bungalow on Sept. 30.

That morning, police said, Norris left the Largo center, ostensibly to go to work at the restaurant in the Pier.

Instead, he is accused of going to the Driftwood Motel at 1600 34th St. S, breaking into an ex-girlfriend's apartment and getting a Glock semiautomatic handgun.

Detectives said Norris, convicted of dozens of burglaries around the Tampa Bay area several years ago, then broke into a brown bungalow at 2635 Fourth Ave. N, apparently choosing it at random. Johnson, an interior designer, and Regula, a tile tradesman, were inside.

Police said Norris shot them, then set the house on fire. Prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty against Norris.

Residents who live near the Largo work release center protested years ago when it was first proposed. On Thursday, they told Bay News 9 that inmates scare people away from local businesses.

"You shouldn't have 300 felons in a residential neighborhood," said Steve Interdonato, who owns a bike shop next door.

Wayne Nundy lives near where the girl was attacked.

"It's a bunch of bad apples and it doesn't take but one or two of them to get out and innocent individuals get injured," he said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or [email protected] Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or [email protected]

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