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Volunteers seeking to revive Spring Hill crime watch group

SPRING HILL — At one time, a hustling bunch of 100 volunteers watched and listened for signs of crime across sprawling Spring Hill.

Founded more than 25 years ago, the patrol is "one of our oldest, if not the oldest, crime watch," said Hernando County Sheriff's Office community relations specialist Michael Terry.

The goal of current volunteers is to make sure the group — called the Spring Hill Area Residential Patrol, or SHARP — lasts for several more years.

Not long ago, it didn't look as though that would happen.

The patrol had dwindled to a mere five volunteers, and an elderly and ailing president, Ed Rickly, was preparing to shut down the entire organization.

But the stalwarts, among them 15-year veteran Anne Marie Radigan, wouldn't let that happen. At 83, Radigan has been the lone on-the-street patroller for the last several months.

"She'd been after and after me to join up for some time," said Radigan's neighbor, Donald Hughes, who was elected president at a recent SHARP revitalization and reorganization meeting.

Radigan, the former vice president, was elected treasurer. Eddie Velazquez became SHARP's vice president and Edith Lohlein the group's secretary.

The first order of business is to recruit members willing to drive streets within their neighborhoods, watching for crime.

"A few hours a month is all we're asking for," Hughes said. "(Volunteers) are not to do anything if they see something suspicious. We don't want them getting out of their cars. We have a non-emergency number we can call law enforcement and tell them what we see."

Terry, of the Sheriff's Office, confirmed Hughes' remarks: "We want them to be our eyes and ears, to get them to call 911 or the non-emergency number. We don't want them to engage and put themselves in harm's way."

Volunteers will drive their own vehicles, for which magnetic placards announcing "Crime Watch" will be provided. Reimbursement for mileage will be offered. The Sheriff's Office issues volunteers khaki caps and shirts.

Sheriff's personnel will conduct a free training class for volunteers and perform background checks and fingerprinting. "That way, we can assure the public … they won't be taken advantage of and (there will be) no criminal history to worry about," Terry said.

At SHARP's monthly meetings, a sheriff's deputy will review with volunteers recent criminal occurrences within their neighborhoods and suggest what they should do. Members will be asked to voice concerns at quarterly meetings with the sheriff and district lieutenants, who will review happenings in their areas.

SHARP's biggest challenge, said Terry, is its large coverage area, from U.S. 19 to the Suncoast Parkway, from County Line Road to Cortez Boulevard.

Originally, the area was divided into seven zones patrolled each day through midnight by residents who lived within a zone. "But, when we start out, it will just be where and when we can, until we get more people involved," Hughes said.

Not only had SHARP's membership dwindled, many remaining volunteers had grown too elderly to drive after dark.

Hughes, 62, wants to get middle-age people involved, "younger than 70s," he said, "and not young ones looking to be Mickey Mouse cops. We're not the police," he stressed.

Hughes, a snowbird for a number of years and a full-time Spring Hill resident for two years, was encouraged to take on SHARP responsibilities because of his experience in volunteer fire and rescue organizations in Virginia and his past career in government and management. He was an air traffic controller, retiring as a controller manager over several Midwestern states with the Federal Aviation Administration.

Already, Hughes said, "I have a lot of ideas. It's just a matter of getting SHARP rejuvenated."

He wants to build on Radigan's regular analyses of Sheriff's Office Web reports, in which she pinpoints areas of criminal activity that suggest the need for more patrols. Hughes wants to identify where sex offenders live and patrol near their houses.

He envisions supplying cellphones for patrollers so they can make timely calls to law enforcement.

And while Hughes will administer SHARP out of his home for now, he would like to return watch headquarters to a public site.

The organization will continue a contract with Hernando County to lock up nightly Anderson Snow, Delta Woods, Linda Pedersen, Rotary and Veterans Memorial parks. The contract pays SHARP $880 monthly. That income will fund mileage reimbursement for volunteers patrolling in their own vehicles.

Hughes and the Sheriff's Office sees value in local watch groups.

Twenty-two neighborhood crime watch groups across Hernando County count some 650 members. Their calls to the Sheriff's Office number "a handful a week," Terry said. "Suspicious person" is the most common report.

Radigan said that over the past few years, "I haven't had anything you'd really call exciting."

But maybe that's because she was out patrolling, said Terry and Hughes. The mere presence of a roving crime watch car, they said, can be a deterrent to criminal acts.

Contact Beth Gray at graybethn@earthlink.net.

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