LAND O'LAKES — The note greeted parents this week in the lobby at Kids' Stuff Preschool. A "smash and grab" thief had been hitting vehicles in the area. Lock your car, it said, and don't leave valuables or small children inside.
Sheriff's deputies confirmed at least two such break-ins at day care centers in the area. At the Center Academy on U.S. 41, three men in a black sport utility vehicle were caught red-handed taking a purse from the back passenger seat of an unlocked car Monday morning.
Sharon Chaves had run inside to drop off her child's medicine when she glanced out the window and saw a black SUV next to her car. A slender black man about 5 feet 10 inches tall with a goatee was taking her purse from her unlocked car, a sheriff's report said.
Chaves ran outside, stood in front the SUV and put her hands on its hood. The driver then "tried to strike the victim with the vehicle in order to flee the scene," the report said.
As the three men inside the SUV fled onto U.S. 41., another purse hit the ground.
Deputies found business cards inside showing it belonged to Cristy Grimes of Land O'Lakes, the mother of a pre-kindergarten child at nearby Kids' Stuff.
She didn't know the purse was missing until deputies told her.
She said it must have been taken from Kids' Stuff. She had left a back window open during the trip that morning because her daughter said she wasn't feeling well.
She briefly ran in to drop her daughter off. Her laptop and wallet in the front seat were undisturbed.
Taking the bag "was easy because they didn't have to open any doors."
The thieves obviously didn't know much about what they were stealing, she said. The purse was a Coach bag valued at about $300.
Sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said the thefts could be the work of a South Florida ring.
"They go all over the state doing that," he said. "It's a possibility, but we don't know."
He urged everyone to lock all doors, roll up all windows and not leave valuables in vehicles. It takes only about 30 seconds for them to grab something from an unlocked car.
"Don't make it easy for the crooks," he said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.