Rape puts Bloomingdale residents on edge

VALRICO — A week ago today, residents woke up to headlines screaming "rape" and "assault."

An 18-year-old girl had been attacked at the Bloomingdale neighborhood library, stunning the quiet community of stucco houses and nature trails.

"It was terrorizing, traumatic," said Hillsborough County sheriff's Deputy Pete Maurer, the area's community resource deputy.

Immediately, the denial started. It must have been a homeless person. Or someone just passing through.

Not one of us.

But residents were shocked again when, early Saturday morning, a 16-year-old Bloomingdale High School student was arrested in connection with the case. The school, considered one of the best in the area, is next to the library.

Deputies think Kendrick Morris, described as a quiet boy who played junior varsity football, also committed another rape last summer.

"It's kind of unbelievable," said Brooke Engman, whose son is a junior at the high school. "When I first heard it, I didn't believe it could really be (Morris)."

Engman's son plays football and knew Morris in passing. She was shocked that a rape suspect had been among the student body for an entire school year.

"(My son) says he's just a normal kid," Engman said.

Morris has a previous record of cruelty to animals.

The victim was dropping off books at the night depository about 10:40 p.m. April 24 when she was attacked.

The library is on Bloomingdale Avenue, but it sits back from the road. The depository is well-lit but not clearly visible from the road. The building is surrounded by bushes and woods. At night, it's isolated, lonely and eerily quiet.

Jim Shelton, principal librarian at the facility, said all regular programs continued this week.

"Of course, we all have a little higher sense of awareness about our surroundings," he said.

The county is now considering installing security cameras at book depository sites.

"I was shocked that there weren't cameras at the library," said Dani Akers, who lives about a mile away.

Heather O'Connell, coordinator of the Bloomingdale Cove Crime Watch and a frequent library visitor, pointed out that book depository boxes are locked during the day, forcing people to use them at night. She thinks the library should change that, too.

Bloomingdale is a planned community made up of 40 subdivisions and about 5,000 homes, according to the Bloomingdale Homeowners Association.

It runs mostly along Bell Shoals Road south of Bloomingdale Avenue.

Some were quick to point out that although Morris attends Bloomingdale High, he was not technically "local."

He lives about 10 miles away in a Tampa neighborhood called Clair-Mel City, yet Bloomingdale was his assigned school.

Steve Ayres, director of pupil services for Hillsborough County schools, said Bloomingdale is one of a handful of schools in the county that doesn't have contiguous boundaries. Kids from the Clair-Mel area were originally sent to Bloomingdale as part of desegregation efforts, Ayres said.

They remain assigned to the school because Spoto High School, closer to Clair-Mel, is over capacity.

Although violent crime is rare here, Maurer said it's not unheard of.

The incident is a reminder that people shouldn't let their guard down, even in the idyllic suburbs, he said.

"Pay attention to your surroundings," Maurer warned. "The world is not a perfect place. Unfortunately, it takes a bad incident to heighten awareness."

Akers, 32, works at a Sweetbay supermarket just down the street from her home and the library.

The rape and beating was on everyone's mind, she said.

"Everybody that came in the store over the weekend talked about it," she said.

Akers said she'll watch her two daughters, ages 8 and 6, more closely now.

When asked how she felt about the attack, Akers took a deep breath and uttered one word: "Scared."

Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or 661-2439.

Jessice Vander Velde and Saundra Amrhein contributed to this report.

. Fast facts

What happened?

10:40 p.m. April 25: The victim pulls up to the library to drop off books. She tells a friend there's a "weird guy" sitting outside. Deputies find the victim nearby a short time later, badly beaten.

April 26: Deputies knock on doors and stop traffic in the area around the library, searching for leads.

4:15 a.m. Saturday: Kendrick Morris, 16, is arrested at his home in Clair-Mel City, near downtown Tampa. Officials say he will be charged as an adult.

Tuesday: Morris is charged in another rape case, this one last year, near his home.

Rape puts Bloomingdale residents on edge 05/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 4:35am]

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