VALRICO — Investigators searching fields and alligator-infested ponds Friday night found clues that led them to identify a suspect in the rape of an 18-year-old woman who was returning books to a suburban library.
The young woman was attacked Thursday night at Bloomingdale Regional Library, 1906 Bloomingdale Ave. Because she remained unconscious at Tampa General Hospital, investigators had little information about her attacker.
Late Friday, deputies found her purse and credit cards, which had been taken from her car. They were flown to a crime lab to be examined. At 11:15 p.m., Hillsborough Chief Deputy Jose Docobo said investigators had identified a suspect, whom he would not name. "We are in the process of locating him to serve a search warrant," Docobo said.
The brutal assault in the heart of east Hillsborough's suburbs led to a massive search that continued all day Friday, with deputies scouring the area for clues and knocking on the doors of local sex offenders.
The rape victim, identified only as a local high school student, arrived at the library about 10:40 p.m. Thursday, deputies said. She was talking to a friend on her phone as she parked about 3 feet from the library's night drop boxes.
She told the friend there was a weird-looking man sitting on the bench near the depository. Then she screamed, there was a bell-like sound, and the phone went dead.
Investigators are sorting out what happened next, but they know this much: Family and friends rushed to the scene, and someone called 911. The teen was found about 200 feet from the library, unconscious and badly injured. There was blood on the pavement near her car.
She was airlifted to Tampa General Hospital in critical condition. Sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said she had recently turned 18.
Friday afternoon, deputies were combing the field behind the library, poking at scraps of litter and beating shoulder-high brush aside as they scanned for evidence. The search moved to a nearby pond, where armed SWAT team officers stood guard until trappers captured alligators so divers could go into the water.
Dozens of deputies took to the surrounding neighborhoods in search of witnesses and evidence. By nightfall, they combed portions of Bloomingdale Avenue, closing lanes as they searched. They were prepared to continue looking through the night.
Nearby residents like Janine Williams had no information for them. Although Williams lives in a neighborhood across from the library, she hadn't seen anything suspicious. She has lived in the area for 20 years.
"You think you live in a nice, safe neighborhood, but there's no such thing as that anymore," she said.
The victim isn't a student at Bloomingdale High School, which is just west of the library, said principal Mike West. But because of the school's proximity, he sent a letter home with students Friday. He advised parents to tell their children to lock their car doors and report anything suspicious.
Friday afternoon, Docobo said a 30-year-old woman had come forward to say that "she was approached by this individual" near the library before Thursday's rape. But investigators later determined that tip was unrelated to the 18-year-old's case.
Deputies had little information to go on as Docobo talked to the victim's parents at the hospital.
"They are beside themselves," the chief deputy said. "I assured them, on behalf of all the men and women in the Sheriff's Office, that we'll do whatever we can to solve this for them."
The parking lot at the Bloomingdale library, which opened in 2005, is well-lit and the drive-up deposit boxes are designed with safety in mind, said county spokeswoman Marcia Mejia.