PLANT CITY — In historic downtown, a brick-wall mural praises "the heart of Plant City."
This is the small-town dream ruled by the Strawberry Festival's sweetly sentimental tribute to the berry fields that stretch across the landscape. It's a place to raise children, the down-home Southern heart tucked between the bustle of Tampa and the grandeur of Mickey Mouse. It's a city, population 35,000, where antique stores dot the lamppost-lined downtown already adorned for Christmas.
This is the Plant City you know.
But a few blocks east of these idyllic streets, violent crimes ripped through a neighborhood last weekend and tore a hole in the picture-perfect image of Plant City. In a single day, there were three homicides — more than it sees in some entire years.
"We have to figure out, 'What do we have to do to make sure this doesn't the impact the city as a whole?" Mayor Dan Raulerson said. "This is not something Plant City will tolerate."
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Tucked up against Interstate 4, Plant City owes its growth to the railroad tracks that now seem to divide it. When Henry B. Plant extended the railroad into the area in 1884, he paved the way for the surge of agriculture that fuels his namesake city's economy and culture.
This time of year, farmers and migrant workers tend to leafy strawberry plants that will produce enough red, juicy morsels for Plant City to sustain its title as Winter Strawberry Capital. Those agricultural roots, the mayor likes to say, grow hearty folk who can boast the I get knocked down, but I get up again! attitude.
At its best, Plant City is celebrated for the country music sweethearts it lures to perform at its annual Florida Strawberry Festival, a homey hoopla of midway games, livestock shows and strawberry shortcake under mounds of whipped cream.
At its worst, it draws the spotlight for its boom of migrant workers or gaping sinkholes.
It's hard to think this slice of Americana could attract a spate of killings.
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In town, some people shrugged at the killings. They called the residential section near Ellis-Methvin Park a bad area.
"Seedy, trashy," said Joe Fuleki, co-owner of Miss Ruby's Antiques & Collections. "I don't know how else to put it politely."
It's the wrong side of the tracks, said Plant City resident Julie Harbin, 33. It's a neighborhood to be ignored. "Even they ignore it over there," she said.
The people who live in that neighborhood tend to just call it "quiet."
On the morning of Nov. 12, bullets were sprayed into a local hangout at 802 E Laura St. Abel Cruz Dimas, 18, of Lakeland was arrested and accused of gunning down 51-year-old Laronia Fay Bowers.
While police have said the killing did not appear gang-related, Dimas lists an affiliation with the national Hispanic gang Sur-13. Plant City police spokesman Tray Towles says officers encounter Sur-13 members, known as Sureños, at least once a day.
A second Nov. 12 incident left two bodies inside a home at 506 E Ohio St. Police say the victims, 59-year-old Faye Kitchen and Shannon Thomas, 33, were beaten so badly that they had to be identified by fingerprints.
"They told us we didn't even want to look at our brother," said Printon Tilley, 28, Thomas' brother.
Tilley surrounded himself with friends and family Wednesday, sitting on a table where he used to play cards with his brother.
"We want justice," he said. "We want answers."
Those feelings echo across the neighborhood, prompting a lot of talk lately. On Monday, people murmured about Ruben Brooks Jr., 47, bearing responsibility for the two beating deaths, Towles said.
That evening, Brooks was shot.
Like at every crime scene over the weekend, a crowd gathered near this shooting.
"It was a show of support (for the victims' families)," Towles said. "They want to know what's going on and what their police department is doing. As long as it doesn't get violent, we welcome that solidarity."
But Monday evening's throngs got rowdy, he said: Someone threw an object at the departing ambulance. A fight broke out, too. Two people were taken into police custody.
Generally, Towles said crime in the area has been low during the last two years: three robberies, 17 drug complaints, and 30 assaults. The only shooting, he said, was the one on Nov. 12.
A number that doesn't show up in his statistics: An unsolved homicide last year in the 1100 block of E Warren Street, about a quarter-mile from last weekend's killings.
All of the most recent slaying victims had criminal histories, according to state records, though police did not link past dealings to their deaths.
Residents acknowledge the neighborhood has its drug problems — users and dealers — but they don't usually say anything until they're asked about it.
But even in one of the grittiest of Plant City areas, the killings feel like a threatening blow to Norman Rockwell ideals.
And it's the down-home family values that carried it through three funerals this weekend, said Printon Tilley, with friends holding barbecues and fish fries to embrace the victims' families.
"We're trying to find some kind of way to heal," he said. "It's love right now. It's much love."
Stephanie Wang can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.