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Suburban Life

Crime happens behind gates, too

TAMPA PALMS — As grow houses go, this would be a small one.

Police on Sept. 22 reported finding 16 marijuana plants, 200 grams of marijuana packaged for resale, drug paraphernalia and $6,225 at the apartment in gated Vista Grande.

Shawn Crane, a 24-year-old restaurant server, was arrested. With him that night, and also charged with possession, was neighbor and fourth-grade teacher Wildalynn Harris.

The incident underscores the proliferation of homegrown marijuana businesses in Tampa's suburbs. More than 60 such establishments have been busted this year in Hillsborough County, in a vast area stretching from Balm to Odessa.

It's also a reminder that even behind gates, crime happens. Vista Grande, near the fashionable and also gated Ashington subdivision, has logged more than 100 police calls this past year.

Some were false alarms. A few involved burglaries or car burglaries, and even an assault. Many were disturbance calls, which can be as simple as loud music on a Friday night. The Web site for Vista Grande says, "You'll feel as if every day is a vacation." A vacation in Cancun, maybe.

There are far fewer calls along Ashington Landing and Emerald Chase Drive, typically false alarms.

The grow house case also supports the notion that crime — or at least police activity — is higher where a lot of people rent. Neighbors of the Hillsborough County grow houses were quick to blame absentee landlords who rent to anyone with a checkbook.

That's not the case at Vista Grande, said Dave Watkins, regional vice president of Greystar, the management company that took over this past year after a failed attempt to convert to condos.

Renters must pass a criminal background check, then a credit check, Watkins said. He was surprised that anyone would grow marijuana in a place where, for example, pest control workers make regular visits.

While a savvy dope grower will claim to be allergic to the pesticides, Watkins said that his company likes to perform at least an annual inspection to see what kind of upkeep the apartment might need.

Renters include University of South Florida students and young professionals, a couple of teachers from Freedom High School and Liberty Middle School — people who, as Watkins put it, like to party on the weekend.

"It's as safe as any place else,'' Watkins said. "But we can't guarantee anybody's security. The gates are there for traffic control. We are not responsible for anybody's safety or security.''

We get it: This isn't Mister Rogers' neighborhood. Nor is it a scene out of Scarface.

The police affidavit says this about the teacher: After entering the apartment with a search warrant, they found Harris "sitting in the living room with a clear plastic baggie containing approximately 75 grams of marijuana on the floor in plain view, approximately two to three feet from the defendant's feet. On the end table, adjacent to the sofa the defendant was sitting on, was an ashtray with six marijuana blunts and an electric bong.''

Was she using, buying, or just hanging out? We don't know.

Administrators scrambled to replace Harris at Turner Elementary School. They brought in a retired teacher to take over, said schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe. They told the class that Harris had personal problems — about the right amount of information for kids that young.

"There were children I spoke to who absolutely loved her,'' said parent volunteer Rachel DeLuna.

The School Board suspended Harris without pay on Oct. 7, pending the criminal case against her.

She has pleaded not guilty.

Marlene Sokol, who covers suburban issues, can be reached at sokol@sptimes.com or 269-5307.

Crime happens behind gates, too 10/16/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 24, 2009 9:34pm]

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