They prey on the area's most vulnerable residents - women over 50 years old, many of whom live alone in quiet subdivisions. At least 18 times in the past three months, men who authorities believe are working together have stolen purses from women in Holiday, Tarpon Springs and New Port Richey.
The robber usually strikes as the woman walks to her home from her car after returning from shopping. Then he disappears, often leaving victims too stunned and scared to give authorities more than a general description.
The robbers have stolen more than cash and credit cards from these women, according to Pasco and Tarpon Springs authorities. They have run off with sentimental possessions, such as photographs and address books - and a sense of safety instilled by neat homes on palm-lined, residential streets.
"We've got a couple of these ladies who lived alone who won't return to their houses," said Detective Ron Surmin of the Tarpon Springs Police Department. "They're scared."
'I never expected that'
One of the victims, a 66-year-old Holiday woman, said she no longer will get out of her car if she sees a strange person in her neighborhood. Her name is being withheld for her protection.
"I make sure there's nobody in the street when I get out of the car," said the woman, who was robbed Jan. 31 by a man she saw walking by her house as she drove in from a friend's home. "I was kind of shocked. I never expected that."
The robberies began in December, and all but one have been in the Holiday and Tarpon Springs area. Two of the Pasco victims suffered minor injuries, including one woman who was hit in the face and knocked to the ground. But most of the robberies have been so quick that the robber stole the purse and ran into the darkness before the victim realized what had happened, authorities said.
Detective Gary Kling of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office believes that the robbers have followed the women home from shopping and waited until the victims were between their car and house before striking. In some cases, the victims remember seeing unfamiliar people walking or driving near their homes shortly before the robberies.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers warned people to be aware of
"If you think somebody's following you, the last place you want to go is home," he said. "Go to what we call a safe place - a busy convenience store, a busy gas station, somewhere (where) there's a lot of people around - and call us."
The Holiday woman said she saw a man walking in front of her home as she pulled into her driveway about 9:15 p.m. She wasn't worried because the man had passed her home. But before the woman could unlock her front door, he turned and ran up to her.
"He slammed me into the door with one hand and grabbed my purse with the other hand," she said. "He turned around and ran so fast, he was out in the middle of the street, and all I saw was the back of him."
That is why getting more than general descriptions is difficult, Surmin said.
"It's dark. They never see these people coming, and they're really taken by surprise," he said. "They just see the back of a shadow taking off."
In the seven Tarpon Springs incidents, Surmin believes the robber was waiting for the victims at their homes. "They did not see anybody coming or hear anybody coming."
The robberies occur in the dark, usually before 9 p.m., when most
subdivision security patrols begin, Kling said.
The robbers have taken about $1,000 and credit cards in the Pasco
robberies, he said. Tarpon Springs police did not have totals, but they said aside from a robbery before Christmas of a woman with $600, the women's purses have contained $25 to $50.
The most recent robbery was Feb. 7 in Tarpon Springs.
Kling thinks the same people also are connected to about 10 thefts of purses from cars and homes in the Holiday area.
In a Pasco robbery of a 67-year-old woman Dec. 27 at the Colonial Hills subdivision, the robber tried to use an automatic teller machine card the next day that he found in the woman's purse, Kling said. The machine took a picture of the man as he unsuccessfully tried to punch in the access number.
The photograph matched one of the three descriptions Pasco has compiled of the robbers: A white man 18 to 25 years old, 5 foot 10 to 6 feet, 140 to 150 pounds, with medium-length brown hair.
A white man 16 to 20 years old, 5 foot 6 to 5 foot 8, with a slim build.
A black man 25 to 30 years old, 6 feet tall, 155 to 165 pounds.
Victims in Tarpon Springs who have been able to identify their assailants said the man was black and in his late teens to early 20s, Surmin said.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Pasco County Sheriff's Office at 847-5878 or the Tarpon Springs Police Department at 938-2840.