LEALMAN — Sheriff's deputies drove drug dealers and hookers from a Lealman Heights neighborhood four years ago after residents complained they were afraid to let their children play outdoors.
Now, the drug dealers and hookers are back, and neighbors say the Sheriff's Office has ignored their pleas.
So tonight, the Lealman Community Association plans to hold a forum to let residents from across the Lealman area air their grievances about crime.
Association leaders plan to make sure the sheriff hears those concerns and tries try to find a permanent solution to the drug and hooker problems that plague parts of this unincorporated area.
"The sheriff several years ago was very effective in kind of slowing this down," said Ray Neri, the association president. But during the past three years, the problem has returned and gotten worse, he said.
"It's like a cancer coming in and for three years approximately, these people have seen it increase and increase and increase in this one area (and) we're seeing spread to other areas," Neri said.
Pinellas County sheriff's spokeswoman Cecelia Barreda said the department plans to have representatives at the meeting to hear the concerns. Until then, she said, the department has no comment.
Neri said he recently began hearing complaints that crime, especially prostitution and drug dealing, was accelerating.
Last week, a group of residents came to the LCA board with complaints about their neighborhood, which is generally bordered by 34th and 37th streets N and 40th and 54th avenues N. The stories appalled board members.
"It's intolerable," Neri said. "Their own children are kept captive in their own houses because their parents won't let them go out in the street to play. No one should have to live that way."
Neri said he understands that covert operations may be taking place as deputies try to catch the ringleaders, since if only the peripheral criminals are caught, the problems can just move elsewhere.
"This is like trying to get rid of a nest of roaches," he said. "If you lift up the rug, they scatter everywhere."
But that's little comfort to the law-abiding families who are "held hostage" while their neighborhood crumbles around them, Neri said.
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The LCA traditionally holds a candidate forum in October of each election year and plans to follow that tradition this year.
But Neri said the association's leaders have decided to allow any candidate who comes to any of the meetings a chance to speak to the group for five minutes. That chance for free comment will begin tonight.