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Couple assaulted nine girls, police say

Neighbors of Thomas E. Criss and April Arey often complained about the noise coming from the couple's apartment. And they didn't like the parade of young girls in and out of the home at all hours.

There was more than a noise problem, Tampa police said Thursday. Criss, 35, and Arey, 38, were charged Wednesday with sexually assaulting nine girls between the ages 11 and 13 during the past year and a half.

The Palma Ceia couple, who have a 12-year-old daughter, are accused of luring the girls into their home with promises of alcohol and drugs, and then fondling them, encouraging them to watch pornographic moves and having sex in front of them.

In one case, Criss repeatedly had sex with one of the girls, police say. That girl, now 13, told her mother on Tuesday what had happened. She then provided a list of other girls involved and police interviewed them. Police spokesman Steve Cole said there may be more victims who haven't come forward.

Criss, who was arrested at the garden nursery where he works, was charged with four counts of sexual battery and four counts of lewd and lascivious acts in the presence of a child. Arey was charged with three counts of sexual battery by threat of force. They were held in the Hillsborough County Jail without bail.

The reason the allegations did not surface earlier, police said, is that Arey threatened to hurt the girls if they told anyone.

Nonetheless, the girls continued to go willingly to the homes at 3503 Santiago, 3417 Obispo and 6804 S Juanita streets, places where Criss and Arey lived in the past year and a half, police said.

"They were given some marijuana, some prescription drugs," police Sgt. Pete Ambraz said. "They're allowed to drink in the home. Essentially, they're allowed to do whatever they want."

Neighbors, who said they do not hesitate to call social services if they suspect abuse, said they had no hint the girls were being victimized.

"We really didn't know what to think," said April Collet, 21, who lives with her young daughter next door to Criss' former apartment on Obispo.

In 1983, police raided Criss' house, seizing marijuana, cocaine and drug paraphernalia and arresting him and two friends. Though he was acquitted on the cocaine charge, he was convicted of marijuana possession and sentenced to six months' probation.