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Robbers hit residents in their homes

Police call it armed robbery when a thief confronts a homeowner. In media talk it's home invasion.

To victims, it's a nightmare. And it happened again Wednesday night.

At least 26 home invasion robberies have been reported in Hillsborough County since Jan. 1, according to law enforcement officials. Half have been against people involved in other criminal activities, such as drug dealing. But the others have been against unsuspecting homeowners.

"Before, we used to tell people to be careful at the shopping center or in a parking lot. Now, we would echo that at home," said Hillsborough Sheriff's Capt. Gary Terry.

So far there have been no serious injuries. But authorities fear the robberies could become violent, Terry said.

Wednesday, three men forced their way into Benito Hernandez's home on N 12th Street, Tampa police said.

One of the robbers grabbed Hernandez, 35, by the throat and put a gun to his head as his teen-age son and daughter watched, police said. The men stole money and other items before running out just before 6 p.m., police said.

Three families in homes at opposite ends of Hillsborough County were terrorized Tuesday night by different groups of gunmen, who burst into their homes in search of jewelry and cash. No one was injured, although shots were fired inside a Ruskin home. Three men were arrested Wednesday and two others were being sought.

The three robberies Tuesday occurred in just over two hours.

At 8:35 p.m., two men knocked on the door at Maria Saldona's Sun City home. She answered and was pushed aside by two men who forced her and a friend, Ramon Martinez, 21, to the floor, according to Hillsborough Sheriff's reports. The men waved handguns and fired at least four shots as they drove away in a stolen sports car, authorities said.

Several miles away, at 9:10 p.m., the same pair invaded the home of Roman Heredia. As he tried to slam the door on them, one fired a shot at the ceiling. Another shot was fired into a bedroom, missing Heredia's wife and daughter.The men then rummaged through the house for cash and jewelry.

In a south Tampa neighborhood, between three and four gunmen confronted homeowner James M. Osborne, 47, as he took the trash out at his W Chapin St. home, Tampa police said. They forced him inside the two-story house, then held Osborne's wife Cheryl captive when she stumbled on the robbery at 10:50 p.m. The couple's 17-year-old son, returning home from a basketball game, also was held at gunpoint, police said.

One of the alleged gunmen, Denton Washington Clark, 25, of Tampa was arrested sometime after 1 a.m. Wednesday after a car chase that reached speeds of 100 mph. Clark ditched the car and hid in a field near Progress Village, east of Tampa near Brandon, before being found by a police dog. He was charged with six counts of kidnapping and two counts each of armed robbery and burglary.

Another suspect, Harry Craig Jr., 31, of Tampa was picked up at 2:15 a.m. after police stopped his car. His partner, Vincent W. McGriff, 21, of Tampa was arrested Wednesday morning at a Dale Mabry motel room, where police also confiscated more than $250,000 in gold jewelry and cash, police said.

Wednesday's home invasion brought to 17 the number of incidents this year in the city of Tampa, police said. Sheriff's deputies have recorded nine in unincorporated Hillsborough County.

Officials in Pinellas County said they have been watching for copycat crimes, but have not had any problems. Neither have officials in Pasco County.

_ Staff writer Bill Duryea contributed to this report.