LEALMAN — Four men dressed in black pause in the driveway to talk. Then, two stride into the back yard while the other two go to the front door. Before one of them has a chance to knock, they're called to the back.
Moments later, the four return. Between them marches a scruffy man wearing a T-shirt, blue jeans and handcuffs, who gives a cheery "Hi, Mom!" grin at two waiting news cameras. The scruffy guy does not seem at all worried about his predicament, even when a search of his pockets turns up enough cocaine and OxyContin to add charges of sale and possession of narcotics to the charges that had first brought him to the attention of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Two of the guys in black drive him back to Lealman Intermediate School while the other two continue to a different house, seeking another suspect.
It was all part of a large-scale sweep of the eastern side of the unincorporated Lealman area. The sweep was in response to complaints lodged in June by residents in a Lealman Heights neighborhood, which is located roughly between 34th and 37th streets N and 40th and 54th avenues N. The residents complained to the Lealman Community Association that their neighborhood was being overrun by prostitutes and drug dealers and that they were receiving no help.
The LCA meeting brought out Sheriff Jim Coats, who has been proactive in the area and conducted such sweeps before, in addition to the traditional law enforcement efforts in the area. While the sweeps had cleared out prostitutes and drug dealers, they had returned. Coats promised to see the neighborhood would be cleaned up.
And, so, last Wednesday, Coats came back to Lealman to oversee a sweep that was intended to net 60 offenders, mostly drug dealers and prostitutes. The deputies ranged out across Lealman and brought their captured prey to the Lealman Intermediate School parking lot, where they were checked off a list, put into a van and taken to jail.
"The citizens helped a lot," Coats said. If the citizens had not helped the department's community policing officers, he said, the sweep would not have been so "dramatic" and effective.
The sheriff's response thrilled Michael Armstrong. Armstrong had been one of the Lealman Heights residents who complained that nothing was being done to help the law-abiding folks who live there.
"I feel like Christmas, better than Christmas. I couldn't ask for anything better. It's been a long time coming," Armstrong said. "I know there's a lot of neighbors going to be happy about this."
Armstrong said it was clear what was happening when he left his home to come to Lealman Intermediate. Sheriff's cars were everywhere, he said.
"I had to almost zigzag out of my neighborhood," Armstrong said. "I've never seen anything like it."
A bulletin board on one of the mobile command vehicles had several mug shots attached. The mug shots were of those offenders who had already been picked up.
"The bald-headed guy, I think he lives right behind me," Armstrong said. The man's neighborhood nickname was "Mow Mow" because he would never mow his lawn. Armstrong said neighbors never realized that the failure to mow his lawn was the least of his wrongs.
Armstrong said he hoped the sweep would encourage more residents to become involved in crime watches and other methods for keeping their neighborhoods safe.
Coats agreed, saying that it's residents working with deputies who do the best job of keeping crime down.
The sweep, which was scheduled to start around 7 p.m. and end at 9 p.m., netted 21 of those who were targeted. Deputies said once they swooped in, the word got out quickly. Some were fleeing on foot or bikes. And by about 8 p.m., the area was a "ghost town."
But deputies did not stop there. They continued picking up offenders throughout the weekend.
The total number of arrests was unavailable at press time.