NEW PORT RICHEY — Virgin Mary statues watch over Ninth Avenue from windowside gardens and colorful bicycles wait for little riders to come home from school. A half-dozen basketball hoops stand at the end of driveways. Neighbors say the children usually recognize a stranger. By all accounts, things like this never happen here. On Friday, it did.
Rick Taylor, 56, said he was standing in his driveway around dusk when a dark-colored sport utility vehicle pulled up. The man inside looked to be around 60 with graying hair, a dark shirt and a light jacket, Taylor said. Through the SUV's open window, the man asked Taylor about houses for sale on the street.
Taylor directed the man down the road to 6038 Ninth Ave., a beige home with a "For Sale" sign planted in the overgrown front lawn. He watched the SUV drive down the street and park in the empty house's driveway.
Moments later, Taylor said he heard shouts of children coming from the house. Other neighbors scrambled outside.
The stranger had lured two children to the back yard with the promise of gum and candy, touched them "inappropriately" and fled, authorities said. Deputies are still looking for the man, who has not been identified.
Pasco Sheriff's Detective Daniel Toner said the man began talking to two 9-year-old children, asking them about houses for sale. He drove around the block once and later parked in the driveway of the empty house. He got out of the SUV, where the same children, a boy and girl, walked up to meet him. He put his hands behind the children's backs as he escorted them up the driveway into the back yard and shut the gate behind them.
The man touched the children, but they were not injured, Toner said.
Amid the commotion, the children fleeing the house, parents coming out to see what was wrong, Taylor said he saw the SUV back out of the driveway and head east down the road, but wasn't able to get the vehicle's license plate number.
Toner described the man as wearing dark pants and single-strap sandals. Investigators don't know whether the suspect is local or was traveling, or whether he is dangerous.
Toner said the children immediately told their parents what happened.
"They know the difference between a good touch and a bad touch," he said.
Toner said the Sheriff's Office has recently gone public about the case only because detectives were busy gathering witness accounts.
From them, he has heard that children in the neighborhood had seen the car up to 10 times in recent weeks. Investigators don't believe there have been any more incidents. The children didn't know the man in the SUV.
News of the incident spread quickly throughout the neighborhood, within a mile of three elementary schools and across Madison Avenue from Gulf High School.
Neighbors described the community as "close-knit" and "family-oriented." They spoke warily of a herd of TV news trucks that had gathered.
Ray Nelson, 63, said he hasn't heard of an incident like this in the 20 years he has lived on Ninth Avenue. Though he lives next to the property where the incident occurred, he said he was inside his home at the time and didn't see or hear anything.
The Taylors have also lived on the street 20 years and know most of their neighbors as well as the children who play on the street most afternoons.
"These kids are great kids," said Rick Taylor's wife, Cathey. "They know what cars belong here and what cars don't. I guess all of us are just going to have to keep watching the kids."
Contact Alex Orlando at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.