NEW TAMPA — Shortly before 3 a.m. last week, an intruder slit the screen patio enclosure to a home in Arbor Greene and entered through an unlocked sliding glass door.
While the family of five slept, the thief grabbed a pillowcase from the 3-year-old's bed and stuffed it with a Nintendo DS, a Wii and a Star Wars collection. The intruder also stole car keys and the family's minivan.
The homeowner said he was awakened by sounds on the patio, apparently as an intruder tried to steal a flat-panel television mounted in the lanai.
A quick sweep of the house revealed that the intruder had already been inside.
North of Tampa is not releasing the homeowner's name because the thief was still on the loose by press time early this week. "You feel vulnerable, you feel violated," the homeowner said. "We had always felt safe in our own home and our community. When you realize that this is happening, you wonder, where are you safe?"
This brazen scene, which played out Oct. 1 on Timberland Point Drive, has this gated community on edge.
The intruder or intruders apparently cut the screens to nine other homes in the neighborhood but could not enter because the doors were locked, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.
"Whether you have children or not, to think that someone was in your home while you were sleeping is absolutely scary," Davis said. "We're lucky we're talking about a robbery and not something else."
The crime serves as a reminder that even upscale neighborhoods are not immune. Fenced-in yards, alarms and gated communities all provide a false sense of security, Davis said. The house that was hit also had an alarm system, but it was not set.
"The bottom line is, crime can happen anywhere," she said. "You should never have a feeling of safety."
Unsure of how the intruders got into their community, neighbors offered their own theories.
"Was it prearranged with a resident from the inside?" said John Brickley, chairman of the taxing district board. "Or did they walk through the conservation areas? The fact of the matter is, if you are determined to come in here, you're going to get in."
Security is a top priority in New Tampa. In gated communities throughout this area, security is usually the second-largest expense after landscaping. Hunter's Green and parts of Tampa Palms have guards who monitor gate activity.
Arbor Greene pays U.S. Security Associates $130,000 a year to guard the front gates 24 hours a day, Brickley said. Between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., guards will not allow cars through the gates without taking down a tag number and calling homeowners to verify visitors. In addition, the taxing district sets aside $10,000 a year to pay the Tampa Police Department to have officers patrol their streets several times a week, Brickley said.
"We're very happy with U.S. Security Associates and the gates," Brickley said.
Brickley said alerts were sent to all residents notifying them of the crime, as well as reminders to activate security alarms, lock doors and report any suspicious activity.
The homeowner said he had locked the sliding glass door that night, but apparently it was not shut completely. Had he given it a tug, he would have realized that the latch never took.
"Obviously, we thought we were doing the right thing," he said. "Our biggest lesson to people is to never let your guard down."
Detectives were using video footage this week in their investigation. They had video of a couple using the family's credit card at a Ross store, as a child of about 3 accompanied them.
Another video, this one taken from the security camera at Arbor Greene, helped detectives determine a time. It showed the victims' stolen Honda Odyssey minivan being driven through the gates and leaving the community at 2:58 a.m., Davis said.
One minute later, a Tampa police cruiser can be seen driving into the community to do a standard sweep of the neighborhood.
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or [email protected]