It was dusk, but the big meeting room of the Kate Jackson Community Center in Hyde Park was bright as day. Every TV station in town was there, each with a cameraman training his bright lights on the audience of 150 or so.
It wasn't as big a crowd as I had expected for a meeting where people could learn more about the Hyde Park rapist. But the meeting was front-page news in this paper. All over town, it was a well-covered story.
And it should be. The Hyde Park rapist, the second serial rapist to plague this section of Tampa in a decade, has attacked six women.
What I'm also wondering, though, is whether this very dangerous man would get so much public attention if it weren't Hyde Park, the neighborhood with some of Tampa's finest houses and best shopping, that he is terrorizing? What if it were happening in Jordan Park, the public housing development in St. Petersburg?
Now, several other factors play a role in whether a rapist like the one in Hyde Park gets public attention.
First, police have to decide whether they suspect a repeat rapist is at work and that they want to publicize their suspicions.
Whether police recognize a pattern depends on the level of their detective work, their ability to find clues and put the pieces together. Whether they publicize their conclusions depends on whether they think it will help their investigation, whether they feel people are in such danger they need to know, and whether they think the media will get excited about the story and write it, bringing some glory to the department.
What this means is that the media usually doesn't know unless the police tell them. The media is subject to the same vagaries of judgment that everybody else is. Last time I looked, only saints were utterly blind to the distinctions of race and class. This means, yes, some people get more coverage than others. This isn't as it should be, but it happens.
Then there is the public. If the neighborhood where the rapist is striking is poor, residents are struggling just to eat and cope with terrible crime of all sorts routinely, they will be less prone to speak up, as the people in Hyde Park have.
And if residents don't speak up, the media won't hear them. Nor will the police.
This isn't to suggest that the Hyde Park cases ought to be ignored, or even played down. But what is going on there needs some context. It is not a situation unique to Hyde Park.
Police haven't solved the case of the serial rapist who struck 18 times in the University of South Florida area in north Tampa four years ago. In St. Petersburg, there has been no arrest in the case of a rapist who might have struck as many as 12 times in and around Pinellas Point at about the same time _ although police are now exploring possible links to the Hyde Park case.
The next two examples involve murders of women, not rapes, but you will soon see the point.
Nobody held a neighborhood watch meeting when prostitutes started turning up dead in north Tampa in 1984. But the newspapers and the TV stations reported each grisly murder that turned out to be the handiwork of serial killer Bobbie Joe Long, later sentenced to death. Long's victims were white.
Between 1985 and 1987, another serial killer may have been at work in Tampa. Six women were found murdered. Three of them were dumped in cemeteries. A man named Michael Tyrone Crump was convicted of two of the six killings. Police never could link him to the others. A Tampa police captain said Wednesday that Crump also was suspected of some killings in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
All six victims in the city were black. Two of the victims were even prostitutes, like Long's victims. But curiously, Crump never got the media attention that Long did.
Maybe it was because police never could link Crump to all his suspected victims as neatly as Long was linked. Or could it have been because Crump's victims were black?
This is not a problem unique to Tampa Bay. Do you think the Central Park jogger case, where a white woman was brutalized by a gang of black youths in New York, would have gotten so much coverage if she hadn't been white and well-to-do? Or if her assailants had been white?
The Hyde Park rapist, incidentally, is believed to be black. All his victims have been white.