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Behind that panhandler's sign could be a felon with violent past

TAMPA — A cheery woman with a blond bob and fleece vest stopped her Lexus near a Kennedy Boulevard Starbucks and handed LeRoy Boyd a sausage biscuit. She had seen his cardboard sign: HUNGRY.

But Boyd, 59, wasn't lacking for food. He had several McDonald's meals stashed in the bushes.

He also had a past that might raise windows. State records show he's been convicted of aggravated battery on a police officer, public fighting and carrying concealed brass knuckles and a knife.

He's not the only felon these days coaxing motorists to open purses and wallets.

Amid a surge of roadside begging in Tampa, the St. Petersburg Times checked the records of 28 people accused of recent violations of panhandling ordinances.

Most had prior criminal arrests, and at least 13 had been convicted of violent crimes, including battery, sexual battery and false imprisonment. Others had been picked up on lesser offenses linked to life on the street: trespassing, petty theft and public consumption of alcohol.

Brian Childress, accused of aggressive panhandling last month after he pounded on a woman's car window on Fowler Avenue, has done three stints in state prison.

"Oh, my God," the driver, Rachel Smith, said when told. "That's really scary."

Tampa police say their encounters with panhandlers have nearly doubled since last year, and so far this year, they've arrested about two dozen people on aggressive panhandling charges.

Should motorists be concerned?

Assistant Tampa Police Chief John Bennett and Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry Mc- Kinnon had similar answers.

If you roll down your window for a stranger, you expose yourself to danger, McKinnon said.

"Drivers are just going to have to weigh that risk," Bennett said.

• • •

There's no telling how many panhandlers might have clean records. They don't all give real names when asked. It's also unclear how many are homeless. Some, when arrested, list home addresses in booking records.

But among them are people who have been engaged in criminal activities for decades, records show.

There's Edward Silva, 53, arrested along Tampa's Nebraska Avenue for soliciting on the right of way. He spent about 16 years in prison for burglary, sexual battery, aggravated assault and battery on a law enforcement officer.

There's Preston Eugene Masters, 69, accused of violating the panhandling ordinance off Interstate 4 at 50th Street. He spent time in prison for burglary, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.

Police also recently booked Willie Hightower Jr., 64, near Interstate 275 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard on a charge of soliciting on the right of way. He's done time for aggravated battery, burglary and drug charges.

• • •

Motorist Smith, 47, said she's always been nervous around panhandlers. Nov. 7 was no exception.

On her way to church, a man with an orange vest approached Smith's car as she waited at a red light. She avoided eye contact, but he knocked on her window and demanded 3 cents.

Smith was afraid even without knowing the man's past.

Childress, a 45-year-old habitual felon, had been arrested more than two dozen times. He's been sent to prison three times for burglaries and convicted of battery, grand theft auto and criminal mischief.

"It's very, very scary just to have someone come up to your window," Smith said. "And it's even more scary if they're criminals."

• • •

Local governments differ in their tolerance levels.

Tampa allows panhandling but requires people to wear safety vests. Last week, the Tampa City Council voted down a request to put a panhandling referendum before voters in March.

Hillsborough County bans it within 4 feet of the right of way.

This summer, St. Petersburg outlawed panhandling at the city's busiest intersections. As of Nov. 20, police had made 112 panhandling arrests. At least 22 of the suspects had already done prison time, eight of them for violent crimes, records show. Their convictions include burglary, battery, drug charges, arson and DUI manslaughter.

When the city cracked down, reports surfaced of solicitors crossing the bay to Tampa.

As street corners get more crowded, and cardboard signs collide, police see early signs of rivalry among the panhandlers, and that, too, causes concern. "If we don't get this under control you're going to start seeing turf wars," Bennett said.

In August, a panhandler called 911 to tell police a man had taken his spot at the popular Spruce Street and Dale Mabry Highway intersection.

When an officer arrived, he told the interloper, 48-year-old Tom Allen Speakman, to find another corner.

Speakman spent most of the '90s in prison for attempting to sexually batter a child, state records show. He's a registered sex offender.

Three months later, Robin Marie Swoveland stood on a median near the same intersection. She's been panhandling about two years, she said, and in five hours she makes about $85. She does the begging while her boyfriend and their bichon frise wait in a motor home parked nearby.

Swoveland, 53, says she doesn't have a criminal history, but she realizes that some panhandlers do. "Let's put it this way," she said. "My boyfriend spent 20 years in prison for bank robbery."

Staff writer Jamal Thalji and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

At your window?

Brian Keith Childress

Age: 45

Prior record: He's been sent to prison three times for burglary, and he's also been convicted of battery, grand theft auto and criminal mischief.

Last arrest: Nov. 7, soliciting by intimidation or harassment at Fowler Avenue and 30th Street.

Edward Silva

Age: 53

Prior record: He was sentenced to five years in prison in 1980 for burglary and 10 years in prison in 1989 for sexual battery. He spent another year in prison in 2005 for aggravated assault with a weapon, battery of a law enforcement officer and resisting an officer with violence.

Last arrest: Nov. 1, soliciting on the right of way at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Nebraska Avenue in Tampa.

Willie Hightower Jr.

Age: 64

Prior record: He was in and out of prison for most of the '80s and '90s, convicted of burglary, aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, drug charges and robbery.

Last arrest: Oct. 23, soliciting on the right of way at Interstate 275 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Preston Eugene Masters

Age: 69

Prior record: Most of his 86 arrests in Hillsborough County relate to open containers, soliciting, trespassing and not appearing in court. But he's also been in and out of prison since the mid '70s on convictions including burglary, false imprisonment and aggravated assault with a weapon.

Last arrest: Oct. 3, soliciting on the right of way, among other charges, at Interstate 4 and 50th Street.

Behind that panhandler's sign could be a felon with violent past 12/18/10 [Last modified: Sunday, December 19, 2010 12:08am]
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