TAMPA — Tita Rogers gasped and clinched her eyes shut when she walked into the conference room of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Carrollwood outpost on Friday.
Her eyes began to well with tears — first from the alcoholic sting of jewelry cleaner that hung heavy in the air, but then from sight of more than 1,500 pieces of jewelry carefully untangled, polished and displayed on long tables lining the room.
Detectives say the items were all stolen by one man, 45-year-old Gilberto Vazquez, from as many as 30 homes throughout the Westchase, Citrus Park and Carrollwood communities.
Rogers, 73, joined several of the victimized homeowners who were invited by the Sheriff's Office to look through the recovered stash to see if they recognized anything. They pored over piles of antique coins and paper money, collections of rare postage stamps, comic books and baseball cards.
One woman found the pearl rosary her mother gave her on her wedding day. Another spotted the heart-shaped tag that once belonged to Libby, a long-deceased German wirehaired pointer.
"This is all mine, I can tell you the story behind everything here," said Judy Silverstein Gray, 61. "My father's lancet pin, my husband's baby bracelet, my rabbit necklace because we have a pet rabbit … They didn't find any of the good stuff. None of this has any value, but it's valuable to me."
The loot included what could be described as curiosities: a Mr. Clean action figure, a pair of King Kong earrings of the giant ape swatting at an airplane from atop of the Empire State Building, a bottle J-Lo perfume, knockoff designer handbags.
In all, detectives recovered more than $530,000 worth of property from Vazquez's home on N 22nd Street, near Fowler Avenue. After a 14-month investigation, Vazquez was arrested on Nov. 6 by authorities in Springfield, Mass.
DNA evidence and victim identification of the stolen items linked Vazquez to 8 residential burglaries. But Det. Matt Gaither told the crowd of reporters and burglary victims gathered Friday that investigators believe Vasquez is connected to at least 22 more burglaries from 2016 to as recently as last month.
Since his arrest, Gaither said Vazquez is now suspected in several similar burglaries in Massachusetts, and tips in Hillsborough County continue to pour in.
The way Vazquez conducted the heists had detectives worried. Most occurred at night, when residents were likely to be home. Rogers was babysitting her 9-year-old granddaughter the day authorities believe Vazquez climbed through the kitchen window of her home of 31 years.
Around 9:30 p.m., she pulled into her garage and began unloading groceries in the kitchen, she said. It wasn't until she was finished putting them away that she heard the rustling in her bedroom closet and ran outside, calling 911 from her cell phone.
Rogers left Friday's display without finding the fine jewelry gifted from her late husband, or the heirlooms she had hoped to one day pass on to her granddaughter. But it was her gold Pandora bracelet that made the tears fall, the one full of limited edition beads from her daughter, a new one every year. It wasn't there either
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A few weeks ago her daughter, granddaughter and son-in-law moved to Atlanta, she said. The daughter gave her a gold heart-shaped bead for her bracelet, engraved with the phrase "First my mother, forever my friend."
"I know it's just sentimental and stupid, but it's the first time we've been apart in 38 years," Rogers said. "Now I guess we'll have to make new memories."
Contact Anastasia Dawson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.