Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

I feel pretty safe here

Down a dirt trail and back under a stand of pine trees a group of campers played football on the open grass.

Sitting near the fire filled with burning oak, Kathie Wurtzler of Port Richey watched the group form a scrimmage line as one young man threw the ball the length of the camping area.

"No, I've never been camping before," Wurtzler said. "I feel safe with the people I'm with. There is safety in numbers." She and 13 other friends camped Friday and Saturday nights in the Holder Mine camp area of Withlacoochee State Forest.

The reason for Wurtzler's concern about safety is two events that took place within the last few weeks.

On Feb. 17, five inmates broke out of the Citrus County jail on the west side of the forest. They are believed to have gone north through the woods before coming out somewhere on State Road 44.

Eight days ago, an 18-year-old Florida State University student was beaten to death and his 21-year-old sister raped in nearby Ocala National Forest.

Four of the five jail escapees have been captured. Two were found in woods just north of the forest.

Meanwhile, two men have been charged with the murder and rape in Marion County.

Jennifer Spell, 16, of Holiday learned of the escape and the murder Saturday morning during her camping trip to Withlacoochee State Forest.

"My parents told me," she said. "At first, I was shocked, but I figured they would leave the area so it doesn't bother me. I feel pretty safe here."

There are two park rangers who cover the 41,000 acres that make up the forest. Within that area, they patrol three campgrounds and two daylight-only parks.

Although the area they cover is vast, most campers said they had seen a ranger patrolling in his truck and that was reassuring to them.

"We depend on the campers to let us know if something is out of place or if something is wrong," said park ranger George Kountz, who has worked for the Division of Forestry for 15 years. He said most campers are friendly, and he rarely has any problems with them.

When asked about the two events, he said they were exceptions. Most problems with unruly campers are easily solved. "We get great support from other agencies when there is any trouble," Kountz said.

Those agencies include the Highway Patrol, the Sheriff's Office and the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission's wildlife officers.

At the 700-acre Fort Cooper State Park, the two campsites are at the end of a road leading past a ranger's house. Also, the park manager lives at the park and is a park officer with arrest powers, park ranger Cheri Wells said.