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Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office targets crime in Clair-Mel

CLAIR-MEL — One by one, young men were pulled from deputies' cruisers Friday morning in handcuffs. They were patted down and led to the back of a dark blue van where they sat as law and code enforcement officers continued circling the neighborhood.

It was a sight long overdue for community watch organizer Ola Lott, 70, who for months has been leading a one-woman defense of the quiet neighborhood she moved into more than three decades ago.

She walks the streets at night, checks in with neighbors, holds monthly community meetings, makes anonymous tips to the police. But lately, that hasn't been enough.

Drugs, guns, litter, code violations, brawls in the street. It's more than she can handle.

"A lot of folks don't want to speak up because they're afraid of what's happening, of all the violence," she said. "Am I afraid? Not enough to not stand up and say there's a problem here."

She brought her concerns to the attention of Maj. Clyde Eisenberg, who oversaw Friday morning's roundup. He told her there were some investigations under way in the area. He asked her for patience.

She obliged.

"It's paying off," she said, watching as another young man was pulled from the back of a deputy's cruiser.

The crime sweep began Friday at 7 a.m. in the brisk early morning quiet of Winston Park. Nearby, in the house at 7506 Coral Vine Lane, deputies executed a search warrant from a months-long investigation. Inside, they found 16 pounds of marijuana, three loaded handguns and four men, who were arrested.

More than a dozen people had been handcuffed, read their rights and loaded into vans by noon. More than 10 grams of cocaine and $1,000 in cash was also seized throughout the day.

By the end of the offensive, 25 people were arrested. Most were not violent offenders; charges ranged from drug possession to driving with a suspended license, animal cruelty to conspiracy.

But these arrests serve a greater purpose, officials said.

"Every now and then you need to send out a message that says in Hillsborough County, there is no safe place for criminals," Eisenberg said. "The community needs to see that we're here with them and we care just as much as they do about their neighborhoods, their quality of life."

Code enforcement officers also swept the area looking for misuse of property, vacant structures, litter and other violations. Officers removed more than 350 feet of graffiti, boarded up a condemned building and mowed more than 80,000 square feet of overgrown grass on abandoned properties. They also removed several tons of tires and litter from the area.

"There are a lot of good people in this area," said Bill Langford, manager of Hillsborough County Code Enforcement. "The overall goal for us today is to reduce the detriment to the community, to make it a safe place, to actually give back some pride to this community."

Pride is something Lott does not lack.

She dreams of her community being the place she moved into so many years ago, before teenagers began standing in the parks and on street corners selling drugs and shooting guns.

Lott has been called many names. Snitch, and much worse.

Sometimes it worries her. She wonders if words could escalate to violence.

But she won't back down.

"I would die protecting my community and my personal rights," she said. "I'm glad that I don't have to. The Sheriff's Office heard what we were saying and they came to help. Today, I'm very grateful for that."

Marissa Lang can be reached at mlang@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386 or on Twitter @Marissa_Jae.

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office targets crime in Clair-Mel 11/09/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 12, 2012 8:22am]

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