ST. PETERSBURG — The e-mail urgently tells the reader to spread the message to those they love.
Credibility is added by the opening sentence, "This came to me from a good friend that works for Pinellas County Sheriff's Department." But the horrific warning is a false alarm, perpetrated by a likely rumor mill that has left some St. Petersburg residents on edge.
Authorities are working to debunk the chain e-mail that says a serial rapist has been on the prowl, targeting young women in the northeast section of the city.
"It's a bad rumor. There's nothing to fear about a serial rapist," said George Kajtsa, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Police Department.
The myth may have started from two isolated incidents. On Sept. 20, a woman reported that she had been a victim of sexual battery at a BP gas station. Investigators determined her claim was false when video evidence didn't match her story.
Then on Oct. 10, a woman was trying to buy drugs near 38th Avenue and 28th Street N, Kajtsa said. A friend had offered to set her up with a dealer. She was raped at gunpoint by the person who was supposed to sell her drugs, he said. The investigation is continuing.
Kajtsa said this rumor echoed an earlier e-mail hoax where an actual confrontation between a female jogger and a passing motorist with unknown intent led to rumors of a serial rapist.
The e-mail identifies several locations in the city where attacks purportedly have occurred, including one at the Red Mesa restaurant on Fourth Street N.
Peter Veytia, 56, owns the eatery and said that he has gotten phone calls from friends asking whether he had heard about the rumor.
"I'm not sure how far it's gone out," he said. "I don't feel it's going to be an issue with us. The majority of the people know where we're located and can see that it's a total falsehood."
But the false allegations have been frustrating.
"I'm disappointed that something like this can get so far that we have to address the issue," he said.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office discredited the e-mail's introduction that says it's been forwarded from someone in its office.
"Often times when these e-mails surface, people will include some reference to a person who works at a law enforcement agency or financial institution, that's going to lend credit to their account," said Sgt. Jim Bordner, a spokesman for the office.
Trying to find the origins of these types of hoax e-mail are often difficult, according to Bob Williams, felony division director for the State Attorney's Office.
Williams said it was unlikely that anyone could be prosecuted.
"You'd have to find some type of fraud or some type of injury," Williams said. "Or some type of harm caused to another person. Perhaps an e-mail hoax that incited violence, that disparaged someone's name, like if they had listed the name of the alleged rapist, and then sent that out."