ST. PETERSBURG — In a matter of days, 18 vehicles had been broken into. Gone were iPods, radios and GPS devices.
On March 26, police arrested a 36-year-old New York fugitive as he was reaching into a parked car downtown. He was charged with multiple burglary-related counts.
Authorities think that since late February, Francisco Garcia may have been responsible for break-ins of nearly 50 vehicles, including several at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
These acts were not done under cover of night, police say. Many took place in broad daylight. Police believe Garcia, a transient, was trading stolen items with drug dealers to support a crack cocaine habit.
St. Petersburg Detective Tim Brown said that in many cases, Garcia was operating from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., riding around downtown and as far as Clearwater Beach on a bicycle with a small bag to carry his booty.
"Witnesses said you would have never guessed this guy would be a burglar, or a crack addict," Brown said. "He would trade in two or three units (of stolen goods) at a time for more drugs."
Garcia was being held Tuesday at the Pinellas County Jail on 19 burglary-related charges. He is also wanted on a fugitive warrant in New York on drug charges. Brown said he will be extradited when his St. Petersburg charges are resolved.
Garcia's case is typical for people believed to be dependent on crack cocaine, a highly addictive drug that police estimate sells for about $1,000 an ounce.
It provides users with a high that lasts no longer than 15 minutes, and the withdrawal effects provide an intense craving for more because of the way it alters the brain.
"It's something that you chase, basically," said Marvin Coleman, vice president of community relations with Operation PAR, a mental health and substance abuse facility with headquarters in Pinellas Park. "You come down off that high and you want it back. It's an intense rush of a feeling. It speeds you up.
"Once you are trapped into the addiction period, you relatively do anything to get the effects and feel more of the drug. You'll hock, you'll sell the things you have. Once that runs out, you'll rob and steal so you can get more."
For the first two months of this year, officers recovered more than 126 ounces of crack.
At USF St. Petersburg, police officials held a small safety meeting on campus to promote student awareness after eight vehicle break-ins in a month. Campus police Lt. Reggie Oliver said that they see that many break-ins in a typical year.
Some neighborhoods are also getting involved to fight drug-related crime. Valerie Bickford, co-block captain of the Historic Uptown Neighborhood Association, said residents have taken several steps to discourage crime.
Bickford, the victim of a recent vehicle burglary, said several neighbors' bikes have been stolen. She said neighbors are working on beautification projects to deter criminals, and they recently shut down a notorious crack house.
"I really believe that when places look nice, people think twice, (and) when things look raggedy, people don't," Bickford said.
She said that police and code enforcement officers have been helpful, as well.
St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt said it's unlikely that the drug dealers who traded drugs for stolen gadgets pawned the items, which minimizes the chance of the items being recovered. Instead, he said, "it's likely they're selling them right on the street."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Austin Bogues can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8872.