Tampa parking garage attack shows security gaps

Katrina McCants, 19, keeps her keys out and takes other precautions while using the Palm Avenue garage in Ybor City where a woman was brutally attacked almost two weeks ago. 

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Katrina McCants, 19, keeps her keys out and takes other precautions while using the Palm Avenue garage in Ybor City where a woman was brutally attacked almost two weeks ago. 

TAMPA — The click of high heels quickens in the Ybor City parking garage. Shadowy corners loom, two bodies wide.

The women know what happened here the week before, in the middle of a slow summer day. One carries pepper spray. Another, a knife.

At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday, police say, someone grabbed a 38-year-old woman from behind, put her in a choke hold, pushed into her car. She was punched in the face and brutally attacked.

A lone security guard stood one level below, unaware.

The episode raises the question: In "broad daylight," in patrolled garages, do we feel safer than we should?

• • •

The Palm Avenue garage is a four-level, 1,200-space mammoth, divided into two modules and connected by bridges over Ninth Avenue. On the afternoon the woman was attacked, one security guard patrolled the entire garage, city parking manager Jim Corbett said.

The garage has no security cameras, he said, because having them would require employing someone to sit and watch the monitors.

"It's more cost-effective to have somebody on foot," he said. It takes a security guard about an hour to pace the entire garage.

This protocol applies to the same-sized Centro Ybor garage blocks away: one guard during the day, two at night.

The guard on duty that day gave Corbett a report after the attack. He said he was on the lot's first level when he saw the victim coming toward him down a ramp, clearly shaken. The cashier called 911. The guard calmed her down and took her back to her nearby office.

Nobody has been charged, pending the examination of physical evidence, but a teenager in custody on an unrelated warrant is suspected of the crime.

The attack happened Aug. 19, during one of the most violent weeks in Tampa history, but at a very quiet time in Ybor City. Hillsborough Community College hadn't yet resumed classes. The garage was only 10 percent full.

Now that HCC is back in session, the lot is 75 percent full, Corbett said, adding that the college employs a second security guard to patrol half of the garage. But he said the city has taken no other steps to secure the garages.

If you're wondering whether that mall you frequent uses security surveillance in its parking garage, your best bet may be to just look around. Private mall garages contacted by the St. Petersburg Times declined to say whether their garages use cameras, citing security.

Byron Reid is the director of Total Surveillance Inc. in Tampa, which, among other services, installs security cameras in garages. He installed high-tech equipment in the ones at the new SkyPoint and Element condos in downtown Tampa. But often, he said, the equipment he sees in garages is antiquated. Owners tell him cost is the culprit, he said.

"It's absolutely because of money," he said. "Most people know they need it."

• • •

This year, a woman was raped on a Saturday afternoon at a park in Spokane, Wash., within sight of several families.

In 2006, a mother of two was raped at gunpoint in front of her children in a Marriott Hotel parking garage in Connecticut.

It's natural to feel a little more comfortable in places where others could potentially come to our rescue, said Tampa police spokeswoman Andrea Davis. Not to say the victim did anything wrong, she said, but we're our first line of defense in protecting ourselves.

Steve Kardian is a 28-year veteran police sergeant and women's self-defense expert. You may have seen him on Inside Edition showing how predators get the best of women in vulnerable situations. His advice:

Rehearse a plan in your mind. Don't wait until you're attacked to figure out what you'd do.

Pay attention. Texting, chatting on a cell phone and other digital distractions will only make you more of a target.

Fight back. This thwarts 90 percent of attacks. Predators are worried about two things, getting caught and getting hurt. They won't want to waste their time on you.

Listen to your intuition.

Ever since she started working at the Police Department, Davis said, she has started looking suspicious people in the eye. It tells them you'll later be able to identify them. Women may feel guilty for assuming someone might be a danger. Get over it, she said.

"If you become the victim of crime, you'll wish you would've been impolite," she said.

• • •

It's easy to blame Ybor City. But violent crime there is down this year from last.

The Aug. 19 attack shocked Ybor residents and storekeepers.

Carrie West, owner of MC Film Festival, said a dozen people or more stopped by to talk about it.

The Ybor City Development Corporation brought in a police captain to brief them, and the neighborhood association has scheduled the police for its next meeting.

But Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood Civic Association, said most of the residents he has spoken to believe it's an isolated incident.

Don Barco, the owner of King Corona Cigars, hopes so.

"I have a daughter," he said.

On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of women walked into the Palm Avenue garage alone with rituals they hoped would keep them safe.

Katrina McCants, 19, keeps her keys out as a potential weapon and is choosy about sharing elevators. She carries a knife.

Meghan Souza, also 19, carries Mace. She has since the 2008 beating and rape of a teenage girl outside the Bloomingdale Regional Library in Valrico.

Souza went to high school with the teenage suspect. She worked with the victim. Now she goes to Hillsborough Community College, using the garage where the recent attack occurred.

Would that victim have been able to pull out pepper spray?

"It's scary," she said. "There's only so much you can do."

Books tucked under her arm, the petite woman walks up four flights of stairs and down an empty aisle to her car.

No guard is in sight.

Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report.

. FAST FACTS

Survival tips

• Rehearse a defense and escape plan in your mind as you approach a potentially hazardous area.

• Pay attention to your surroundings. Don't let a cell phone or texting distract you or make you appear unsuspecting and vulnerable.

• Fight back. This thwarts 90 percent of attacks.

• Listen to your intuition.

• If someone seems suspicious to you, look him in the eye, signaling that you can identify him.

Tampa parking garage attack shows security gaps 08/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 30, 2009 4:03pm]

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