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Two years after rampage, off-campus safety still a concern at University of South Florida

TAMPA — Marc Miller no longer attends the University of South Florida. He doesn't feel safe there.

One night in 2014, he and two friends left an off-campus apartment on E Fletcher Avenue across from the university. Suddenly, a car blocked their path. Two armed men jumped out, Miller said, waved guns in their faces and robbed them.

One assailant pistol-whipped and choked Miller, according to a sheriff's report, because he didn't empty his pockets fast enough.

"I had never felt unsafe on campus or even off campus," Miller, 20, said. "It really changed how I looked at my own safety, for sure."

That armed robbery took place a year after USF officials pledged to improve the safety of students who live off campus. That's because in 2013, a gunman raped, robbed and terrorized off-campus students living off Fletcher — right where Miller was robbed.

When it comes to off-campus safety, USF still has work to do.

• • •

That 2013 rampage perpetrated by 24-year-old Charlie "Chris" Bates rattled the USF community.

More than 100 law enforcement officers hunted for the armed Bates after he sexually assaulted four USF students, held an entire party at gunpoint and stole a car.

He died Sept. 6, 2013, after leading deputies on a high-speed chase. They rammed his car off the road and killed him in a gunfight.

Shortly afterward, university officials set up the "Off the Grid" task force to come up with a plan to better protect students living in the student apartment complexes off campus.

USF's then-dean of students, Michael Freeman, set up the task force along with then-student body president Jean Cocco. It consisted of student representatives, university administrators and law enforcement officials from the USF Police Department and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.

Freeman said recently that their talks produced results. Those included trimming back hedges where criminals might hide. They also got better street lighting along N 46th Street, by the USF golf course. They distributed safety tips to students. And USF police officers and Hillsborough deputies started conducting joint patrols.

But the task force has stalled.

It hasn't met in 10 months, not since Freeman left USF in January. The student members graduated. Was the task force effective? There was never an evaluation.

Danielle McDonald, who took over as dean of students in May, said she's trying to re-form the task force.

• • •

The work facing the next task force hasn't gotten any easier.

A recent survey of USF students found they feel less safe in the surrounding community compared to their peers on other college campuses.

According to an anonymous survey conducted by the American College Health Association in 2014, only 17 percent of USF students said they felt "very safe" in the surrounding community during the day.

By contrast, the same survey showed that 54 percent of students nationally said they felt "very safe" in the communities surrounding their college campuses.

The response was even worse when USF students were asked if they felt "very safe" in the community at night: only 3 percent said yes.

USF police Capt. Michael Klingebiel said those low numbers don't reflect the reality of crime near the university, but high-profile incidents that have captured students' attention.

"You get a couple instances of violence, and that sticks with them," he said. "They now have an actual memory of something occurring in a place they assume to be safe."

• • •

The student survey, though, also may reflect some of the realities surrounding USF: The university area contains some of the county's highest-crime neighborhoods.

There were 27 violent crimes reported on campus in 2014, according to USF police. But there were more than 1,000 violent crimes that year in the entire university area, according to the Sheriff's Office crime mapping system.

"It's always been like this," said Hillsborough sheriff's Capt. David Fleet, whose district includes the university area.

On Tuesday, for example, armed robbers stole cash and cigarettes from a gas station just southwest of the campus. Meanwhile, authorities said two USF football players were arrested last week in connection with gunshots fired on campus.

Michael Fanelli, a 21-year-old senior, lives near where the 2013 crime rampage occurred. He said USF students who live there have come to accept that crime comes with living off campus.

"If the police had a better presence here," he said, "it would probably help reduce the crime."

And what happens off campus affects the campus itself. When Miller was beaten and robbed in 2014, he actually lived on campus in the Juniper-Poplar Hall dorm.

• • •

Off-campus safety has always been a concern for students, Cocco said.

"When I was in office, my biggest fear was the safety of students living off campus and on," said Cocco, 23, who graduated in May.

He said USF could do more to partner with the county to help the university area. He also wants the university to consider adding the Tampa Innovation Alliance, which is led by former county commissioner Mark Sharpe, to the next "Off the Grid" task force. And the former student body president said student government could talk more to students about their safety concerns, instead of leaving that job to a task force.

Miller returned to Ludlow, Mass., after the robbery. Now, he's at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Even after counseling, Miller said he never felt safe at USF again.

"When the police came to talk to me, they didn't seem that concerned with me being robbed," Miller said. "They made it seem like, 'Yeah, this is what happens around here at night.' "

Two years after rampage, off-campus safety still a concern at University of South Florida 10/18/15 [Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2015 9:12pm]
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