ST. PETERSBURG — One culprit left a large boot print in Caesar Civitella's front yard but not much else in the way of evidence when he stole an anti-ballpark sign. Others were bold enough to steal signs from yards in broad daylight from lawns on Snell Isle.
Now, the theft of anti-stadium signs has grown so widespread that police have created a master report number to track the phenomenon.
Creating a master report is a step the Police Department takes to track crimes that fit a similar pattern, such as a series of broken car windows in a neighborhood.
For opponents of the proposed Tampa Bay Rays stadium, the thefts reveal how heated the debate has become.
"This is getting ugly," said Civitella, 84, who lives in the 200 block of Westwood Terrace N. "Who knows what type of characters these people are going around destroying, or in this case stealing something off your lawn."
Police are baffled.
"We have no witnesses or suspects at this time," said spokesman Bill Proffitt.
So far, police have tracked the theft of 12 signs, all but one in the northeast part of the city.
But that count doesn't include people who didn't report their stolen signs.
Preserve our Wallets and Waterfront, the group fighting the Rays stadium proposal, recently put a link on its Web page urging people to call police and report stolen and vandalized signs.
Hal Freedman, a member of POWW's steering committee, said that many sign thefts go unreported.
"I think it's probably just some people who don't get the fact that democracy has freedom of speech for everybody," Freedman said of the thieves.
Tracey Locke, one of the organizers for Fans for Waterfront Stadium, which supports the Rays plan, said she has heard numerous reports of pro-stadium signs' being stolen but was not aware of any thefts reported to the police.
Virginia Murray, 82, had four anti-stadium signs stolen from her yard.
"It just makes me a little bit angry that anyone would do that," said Murray, who lives in the 5000 block of Dover Street NE.
Anthony Skey, 70, a neighbor of Murray's, also had two signs taken from his lawn. He said he has heard of dozens of signs having been taken, including 15 in Snell Isle alone.
Whom does he suspect?
"The kind of person who wants the stadium," Skey said.
Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.