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No easy explanations for Tarpon Springs violence

TARPON SPRINGS — A young man police say fatally shot his elderly grandparents in January told investigators he thought it would be "cool" to kill someone.

A month later, a 20-year-old with a history of drug abuse and criminal behavior allegedly forced his friend to kneel down, then pumped rounds from a semiautomatic weapon into the man in his driveway, killing him.

The following month, a 21-year-old man shot to death his uncle, his grandmother and his uncle's girlfriend before shooting himself.

The toll in Tarpon Springs so far this year: six killings in a city that averaged about one murder per year for the last decade.

In each case, police said, the accused perpetrator was a man between the ages of 20 and 22. In two of them, the suspect targeted family members, and in the other case, the suspect who allegedly wielded the gun took aim at a man who was his coach and mentor.

"Most of these individuals have grown up in other places, but it shows that Tarpon is not exempt from these types of issues," said Mayor David Archie. "It's a sad situation. It's troubling. It's not the norm for a city our size."

But the spate of violence has left some trying to grasp the elusive answer to a perplexing question: What's going on this year in Tarpon Springs?

• • •

In a small, tightly knit place like Tarpon Springs, news and theories spread quickly. In the last three months, Tarpon dwellers have had a lot to buzz about.

Steve Georgiou, 83, and his wife Flora, 78, local business owners, were found shot dead in their home in January. This week their grandson, 22-year-old George S. Georgiou, was charged with the crime. Local residents said George seemed fascinated with guns and often wore camouflage clothing on walks around the neighborhood.

For weeks, people have speculated about what motivated the February killing of Joseph Brignoli, 33. The martial arts instructor was gunned down at his Tarpon townhome by Christopher Kubiak, police said. Kubiak's mother told the St. Petersburg Times that the two were friends and that Brignoli had offered to help Kubiak turn his life around.

This week, minutes after firefighters were called to a raging fire in a local gun shop, police responded to a security alarm at a home a couple of miles away and found four bodies, one of them the gun shop owner, Michael Schriebman. Police said Schriebman's nephew, 21-year-old Louis E. Schriebman, set the fire and killed his uncle, his uncle's girlfriend and his own grandmother in various rooms of the house before sitting down on a couch and killing himself.

But some say the spate of high-profile, violent crimes began last March, when Arunya Rouch, then 41, laid in wait for her coworker at a Tarpon Springs Publix supermarket, then allegedly shot him to death in the parking lot. Rouch, wounded in a shootout with Tarpon police, is in jail awaiting trial.

• • •

While the frequency of homicides is uncharacteristic for Tarpon, statistics show the accused in the cases since January fall into an established category.

Historically, men have always been more likely to commit murder. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, using nationwide data from 1976 to 2005, found that nearly 90 percent of homicides are committed by males.

And young, adult males ages 18 to 24 are more likely to murder someone than any other age group, according to the data.

Men at that age tend to be more immature than their female counterparts, lack coping skills and are socialized to believe that violence is a viable solution to conflict, said Neil Websdale, a professor of criminology at Northern Arizona University who has studied domestic killings extensively.

"The gender component is very important in that men commit these offenses much more than women, I think because men are much more emotionally isolated than women and women have better coping skills," he said.

Researchers have noticed that multiple family killings or "familicides," like the Georgiou and Schriebman cases in Tarpon Springs, have increased dramatically during the recession, specifically since the fall of 2008, Websdale said. The suspects in such cases often seem to share a feeling they don't measure up to society's expectations.

"I often explain these cases in terms of men's power and control may be ebbing," Websdale said. "They feel, often, ashamed of who they are … as providers, as young men making their way in the world. They perceive themselves as failures and they have poor emotional skills around handling anger.

"Rather than handle this through various emotional skills the way most people handle it, like seeking support from others … they discharge that shame and dissipate it through rage," Websdale said.

Ideas about masculinity are perpetuated in movies, television shows, video games, sports contests, even military conflicts, where "we send men off to war to solve problems, so we model it nationally," Websdale said.

Mayor David Archie, executive director of the Citizens Alliance for Progress, a Tarpon Springs nonprofit, has spent his adult life working with youths. He suspects several factors may be at play in the outbreak of violence, including the instability of some individuals.

But Archie fears that today's youth have become increasingly desensitized to violence, especially with the popularity of realistic-looking video games that have killing as the main objective. Children need to learn early that conflicts are best solved through discussion, not violence, Archie said.

In the Tarpon incidents, "more than likely something happened in their lives that they feel like they need to resort to violence," Archie said. "It's not normal to resolve a situation with a gun."

• • •

Untimely deaths and homicides, particularly those involving family members, can shatter a community's sense of security, Websdale said.

"People are shocked and disturbed," he said. "We expect families to be crucibles of love, affection and caring. People have disputes and conflicts in families — this is life. But we don't expect it to go to this extreme. It challenges people's beliefs in the efficacy of family relations."

But despite the unusual rash of violence, there is no sense of panic in Tarpon Springs, said City Commissioner Jeff Larsen.

"I think most of the people I talk to recognize these are tragic but isolated events," he said. "I don't think people feel Tarpon Springs is unsafe. I think people are upset, almost hurt — that's what's happening in our community right now."

Times staff writer Lorri Helfand and Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

No easy explanations for Tarpon Springs violence 03/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2011 10:59pm]
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