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St. Petersburg police take action to prevent robberies along Pinellas Trail

ST. PETERSBURG — Crime on the Pinellas Trail has become frequent enough that police officials are now calling it an "area of concern."

It began with a few unarmed robberies last fall, then continued with a few armed and unarmed robberies in March and April. Earlier this year, police and city officials said a string of incidents were not a sign of a recurring problem. They're not saying that anymore.

"It has happened often enough that it's an area of concern that we are trying to address," said St. Petersburg Police Maj. Mike Puetz of the crimes against persons division. "It has been frequent enough to the point that we have directed resources toward it in a significant way."

Those resources include uniformed and undercover officers, as well as increased use of a volunteer road patrol.

While increasing in frequency, crime on the trail comes and goes in spurts, said Puetz.

In May, police made an arrest connected to a fall robbery. Through May and June, there were no reported incidents on the 2.1-mile portion of the recreational trail that extends from 34th Street to downtown.

Then in June, two more robberies. In July, two more.

This month, police arrested two more teens believed to be responsible for several of the most recent incidents, armed robberies that often included assault.

Puetz said only one of the recent cases involved serious injury — an assault involving a teacher who was robbed on the trail and required stitches for her wounds.

Most of the incidents occurred on the trail near an industrial corridor between 28th and 34th streets S that can be desolate. At least one incident occurred in a part of the trail that goes underneath an industrial building at 17th Street S. Three occurred near midnight when the trail is closed to the public. Three were committed by multiple suspects.

All three of the recent arrests involve young men who live within blocks of the trail and have had previous run-ins with the law.

On May 1, police arrested Darrius Woods, 18, of 4510 First Ave. S, and charged him weapons possession, and armed robbery in connection with four incidents on the trail beginning Oct. 31.

On Aug. 8, police arrested Cortez Smalls, 19, of 4659 Ninth Ave. S, on charges of robbery with a weapon and failing to appear on charges of obstructing an officer and throwing a deadly missile. Police said Smalls admitted one robbery on the trail.

Two days later, on Aug. 10, police arrested Eric Philpot, 20, on charges of robbery and aggravated robbery. Police say Philpot, of 1011 10th Ave. S, hit schoolteacher Kristine Meister, 46, on the head while she was biking the trail on July 26.

"We are aware that there is a problem there now," said Jerry Cumings, the Pinellas Trail supervisor who is also chairman of the Trail Security Task Force.

Cumings supervises eight park rangers, county employees who oversee the entire 37 miles of the trail, from near the Pasco County border to downtown St. Petersburg.

Only police officers can make arrests.

While no more than four rangers are on duty at any given time, patrolling from 7 a.m. until dark, Cumings said the rangers have tactically increased their presence in problem areas.

Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Luis Perez can be reached at lperez@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2271.

fast facts

How to protect yourself

• Travel in a group.

• Stay off the trail at night when it closes.

• Carry a cell phone; there are no emergency or pay phones on the trail.

• Be aware that headphones can make you vulnerable to an attack.

St. Petersburg police take action to prevent robberies along Pinellas Trail 08/15/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 15, 2009 5:30am]

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