HOLIDAY — Hunkered around tables, talking excitedly about previous busts, the deputies looked more like a football team before a big game. But instead of shoulder pads, they wore Kevlar.
Combined, about 40 Pasco sheriff's deputies and Tarpon Springs police officers sat in the Baypointe Church activity center Thursday night while Cpl. Alan Wilkett briefed the group.
This was the beginning of a Volunteer Community Resource Team, or VCRT, operation, a sweep deputies take through higher-crime areas about 10 times a year. This would be the first to combine with an outside agency, Tarpon Springs police.
They would hit the streets of Holiday Lake Estates as a team. Crime has been on a steady rise in the area, and criminals have bobbed back and forth over the county line, thinking they were escaping jurisdictions, to evade officers.
Wilkett said he wanted them to be visible to criminals.
The game plan: Police on horseback would ride through neighborhoods talking to citizens and taking pulses of neighborhoods. Probation officers would check on their probationers. Patrolmen would watch for speeders. And the warrants unit would make its own roundup.
Wilkett rallied them like a coach: "There are good people in these neighborhoods we're working, and they want their neighborhoods back."
With that, they headed out.
But a group of seven officers stuck around. Detective Dennis Nottoli, a 50-year-old warrants deputy, had a schedule for them.
He had a suspect in mind. A man who hadn't checked in with his parole officer in some time and violated probation. He was a small guy, Nottoli said, and had run from them before. They had received a tip that the suspect would be at work. With this many officers, it would be the perfect time to nab him.
They rolled out of the church parking lot in a convoy, headed east on Mile Stretch Road, the sun setting in their rearview mirrors.
They surrounded the business where the suspect worked. Nottoli and three other officers went in the front door. They emerged a few minutes later.
The suspect wasn't working. The convoy headed to his house, a couple miles north. No dice there, either.
This was the frustrating part of warrant work, Detective Kip Mello explained. When deputies go asking for a suspect in one place, the suspect's friends or family will call ahead to deputies' next stop and tell the suspect to scram.
The convoy regrouped in a parking lot behind a 7-Eleven gas station. Nottoli, the quarterback, called them in for a huddle around his Ford Expedition.
They would try another suspect in Port Richey, he said. Nottoli had been to the house before. On a yellow legal pad, he laid down the play. Some officers would go in from the left. Some from the right. A few from the front.
The convoy rolled to a crumbling house at the end of a dirt road. The lawn was overgrown. Toys, garbage cans and children's bicycles spilled out of the car port. Shirtless men milled around and watched from nearby driveways while the officers executed the play, hands on holsters.
Nottoli knocked on the door.
"Sheriff's Office. Come on out!" he shouted.
Another tip led them to the suspect's father's house. They swept every room with flashlights, but didn't find him there, either. A few deputies sighed.
The two Tarpon Springs officers in the group headed back south. In Mello's car, his computer screen flashed with updates of other deputies in Holiday bringing suspects to jail.
Remaining deputies in the group moved on to two more suspects, a couple living in Hudson, James Remy and Angela Berlien. Between the two of them were 12 charges, mostly burglary and dealing in stolen property.
The convoy crept down Josie Lane in Hudson, lights off. The deputies parked in a line a block away from the house and quietly eased their car doors shut.
Nottoli told them it was the house at the end of the street, the one with a faint orange porch light. They took their places. Nottoli rapped on the door.
Berlien answered. Remy, shirtless, stood behind her. Nottoli asked them onto the porch. Other deputies turned the suspects around and cinched them in handcuffs.
Remy asked if he could give Berlien a kiss. Sure, the deputies said.
"Don't worry, babe," he told her. "Just keep your head up."
The deputies led them to the back of the truck while the couple puffed cigarettes.
With the suspects in the truck and headed to jail, the deputies circled up in the street. It was after 10 p.m. The operation was over. Some talked about the next day's shift, other's talked weekend plans, then they headed home.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.