Sunday, May 27, 2018
Public safety

Largo work release inmate pleads guilty to rape

LARGO — When the girl woke, she was half-stripped and in a ditch.

The man who raped her had dragged her there, wedging her between some bushes and a fence not far from busy U.S. 19.

On that morning last December, the 17-year-old had been on her way to the school bus stop. Her attacker pounced from behind.

So when detectives wanted a description of the attacker later, she couldn't give them one.

As it turned out, it wasn't needed.

Just weeks later, DNA evidence led Pinellas deputies to their suspect: a 28-year-old convict named Dustin Kennedy who lived at a Goodwill-run work release center on the other side of the highway.

On Friday, Kennedy pleaded guilty to the assault in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.

Kennedy did not make a statement other than to answer "no," and "yes, sir" to the judge's questions, which included whether he understood he was pleading guilty to aggravated assault, false imprisonment and sexual battery.

Kennedy's teenage victim, who attended the hearing, did not speak either. She clutched a tissue and cried during the 10-minute process.

Kennedy had faced life in prison for the crimes he was originally charged with — attempted murder, rape and kidnapping.

Assistant State Attorney Holly Grissinger said the victim, a foreign exchange student from Japan, understands the plea agreement and was "comfortable with it."

Kennedy is the second inmate from the Largo Residential Re-Entry Center to plead guilty to a violent crime this year.

In late February, Michael Scott Norris admitted he escaped from the center at 16432 U.S. 19 N last fall and made his way to St. Petersburg, where he killed two men renovating a Kenwood bungalow and then set the home on fire in an attempt to cover his tracks.

On Dec. 18, Kennedy was supposed to be going to work at a lawn service company less than a five-minute walk from the center. Instead, authorities said he crossed U.S. 19, which was not on his way, and spotted the teen at Whitney Road and Whitney Drive.

The brutal attack lasted less than an hour.

Kennedy grabbed the girl from behind, dragged her across the street and choked her until she passed out. He was, prosecutors said, trying to kill her.

Deputies initially asked for the public's help identifying the attacker. They arrested Kennedy on Jan. 2 after getting DNA results. At the time, he had two cell phones belonging to the victim, even though cell phones are not allowed at the center.

The Kennedy and Norris cases sparked outrage locally and at the state level. In the past six months, officials instituted several changes meant to improve security at the facility.

They set aside money to fund electronic ankle bracelets for work release inmates. They also are requiring private contractors like Goodwill to hire certified correctional officers.

And they no longer let inmates walk to the landscaping company,

Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

 
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