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Sheriff blames home invasions on drugs

MANATEE — Just days after a 19-year-old pregnant woman and her baby were killed in a home invasion shooting, Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube received a 2 a.m. phone call Thursday that brought his frustration over a wave of similar violent attacks to a boiling point.

Steube learned that another person had been shot and airlifted to the hospital after yet another home invasion, part of a string of violence that is taxing law enforcement.

And, investigators say, they know what is fueling it: the drug trade.

The attacks come when word gets around that drugs and cash are in a home, Steube said.

Investigators believe the same five groups of two to three people are responsible for the recent wave of robberies.

Steube is angry and “very frustrated,” and he is preparing a response that the sheriff’s office has used in the past. In coming days, saturation patrols will be conducted in peak crime areas: in south Manatee, Oneco, in the area known as “Duplex City,” and the Manatee Woods area off U.S. 41.

The effort is going to cost thousands in overtime for deputies, but Steube says he will find a way to get the funds.

“Yeah, I’m frustrated,” the sheriff said Thursday. “People are getting hurt and it is not good. It is going to be like robbing Peter to pay Paul to find the money to do it. But we are going to do it.”

Statistics confirm that, at least when it comes to home invasions, Manatee County has become less safe. The number of home invasion robberies in unincorporated Manatee jumped from 69 in the first six months of 2008 to 79 in the same period this year, an increase of 14 percent, according to the sheriff’s office.

“At the same time, the number of homicides investigated by the sheriff’s office spiked by 600 percent, from two in the first half of 2008 to 14 in the first half of this year.

Adding to the frustration for the sheriff’s office, however, is that when other crimes are factored in, the crime rate in Manatee County was down by almost 15 percent in the first half of 2009, compared to last year.

“It has really become a perception problem, because crime is actually way down,” Steube said. “We don’t think there are a lot people doing this, so if we can get some information and make some arrests I think things would calm down.”

In Thursday morning’s attack, two armed men in hoodies entered an unlocked home in the 2500 block of 48th Avenue West about 1:20 a.m., and were confronted by a man in the house.

A struggle ensued between the resident and the man with the gun. During the fight, the gun went off and the victim suffered a gunshot wound to the thigh. He was flown to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg with what were described as nonlife-threatening injuries.

After the shooting, the intruders went into a bedroom in the home before fleeing. It is unknown if they stole anything, a sheriff’s report said.

“I just could not believe we had another one,” Steube said. “I said to myself, ‘When is this going to stop?’”

In the most violent home invasion this year to date, 19-year-old Crystal Johnson early Sunday was shot to death in an apartment in the DeSoto Village complex, in the 3800 block of Fifth Street East, just to the east of sheriff’s headquarters.

The deaths of Johnson and her unborn child were still under investigation as detectives await results of lab tests on evidence collected from the apartment. Detectives say Johnson’s boyfriend shot back at three masked men who stormed his apartment, where drugs were later found.

All parts of the county have been affected by the crime wave.

Earlier this year, there were a handful of home invasion robberies in northwest Bradenton, in which women were bound and beaten in their homes. Those attacks in recent months have been investigated as part of a multi-jurisdictional effort by sheriff’s offices in Manatee and Sarasota, as well as Bradenton and Sarasota police departments. Detectives believe nearly a dozen home invasion attacks on women in the two counties may have been committed by the same man.

But that investigation has stalled, Steube said, because the attacker left no evidence in the Manatee cases, and has not struck in a while. Detectives are hoping the attacker may have been arrested for another crime, or that he left the area after intense media scrutiny of the attacks.

State College of Florida criminologist Greg Arnold echoed Steube’s belief that the home invasions are most likely being committed by many of the same people.

“Most of these types are serial home invaders in search of drugs or money, whatever it may be,” said Arnold. “And a small amount of people committing crimes over and over can cause a spike that may seem very radical. But if you catch them, it just may subside the problem.”

That is proving very difficult, Steube said. Unlike a convenience store or bank robbery where there is often surveillance footage, the recent home invasions have been late at night, with suspects wearing masks and gloves, getting in and out quickly and not leaving evidence behind. To make matters worse, many of the victims are involved in illegal activities themselves and will not cooperate with detectives, Steube said.

“I just can’t figure out why anyone would suffer something like this and not want us to help,” Steube said. “It is just a societal thing that I can’t understand.”

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