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Police round up gang members in investigation of smash-and-grab burglaries; some face felony charges

Corey Johnson, left, is led into the Tampa Police Department District 2 office Wednesday morning by Cpl. Michael Mazza, after officers rounded up suspected gang members and people suspected of using stolen cars to break into stores.

SKIP O\u2019ROURKE | Times

Corey Johnson, left, is led into the Tampa Police Department District 2 office Wednesday morning by Cpl. Michael Mazza, after officers rounded up suspected gang members and people suspected of using stolen cars to break into stores.

TAMPA — Local law enforcement agencies knocked on doors and pulled 11 gang members out of bed Wednesday morning, among 22 suspected of smash-and-grab burglaries.

Several had already been arrested, and police searched for the last two suspects Wednesday afternoon.

Nine of the 22 face felony charges with life sentences.

The bust culminates a six-month investigation by the Tampa Police Department and Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. Police at a news conference Wednesday said they hoped the charges force young people to reconsider choices as authorities dismantle a major part of the Drak gang.

In 10 of 14 robberies, four to seven suspects drove stolen sport utility vehicles through the front of commercial properties. Breaking in with a motor vehicle is a felony with a life sentence, said Tampa police Capt. John Newman.

Sometimes robbers left the stolen car in a mess of glass and mangled metal.

They were out in minutes, taking plasma TVs, jewelry and computers.

A few Rent-a-Centers were hit. A few Radio Shacks. A couple of homes. Robbers grabbed merchandise worth thousands to sell for hundreds in the black market.

Larry Butler still finds bits of glass every day in the carpet of A-1 Pawn Shop on Nebraska Avenue. The break-in was in March.

Butler, the store manager, said his alarm company called shortly after 4 a.m. He got there and found five or six police cars around a "disaster area." A laptop, car stereos and gold earrings were gone.

It took six weeks to replace the storefront windows for $5,000. Shelves are still bent, and he can't put up all his merchandise.

Business suffers.

He used to close most days with at least a few hundred dollars. On Tuesday, he made $37.

"Yeah, it's still a nightmare," Butler said. "I hope they all get life. Keep them off the streets for a while. Give them a chance to learn something."

The burglaries, well planned, marked a diversion from typical gang activity involving narcotics and weapons, Newman said.

The investigation was a crackdown on burglaries, not gang activity. But breaking into property with a car isn't common. After three hits, police connected police reports and interviews with suspects identified as gang members. All were Draks, a gang based in Sulphur Springs.

Most of the men identified Wednesday have lengthy criminal histories. The oldest is 29 years old.

The men arrested Wednesday figured they'd be out of jail soon. Most were held without bond. Newman suspects they'll soon be surprised by the severe penalties they'll face for burglary with a vehicle.

"Traditionally, people think it doesn't have much teeth," Newman said. "Today, in this investigation, it's over."

Ileana Morales can be reached at imorales@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Police round up gang members in investigation of smash-and-grab burglaries; some face felony charges 07/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, July 2, 2009 3:25pm]
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