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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Recent homicides heighten residents' anxiety, awareness

MANATEE — When Frieda Smith’s sons visit, she cautions them to be careful.

That one of them did four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan makes no difference.

“I tell them, when you go into town, be aware of your surroundings,” the 64-year-old Terra Ceia resident and 1964 Manatee High School alum said. “It’s not like it was when you were kids.”

Given Manatee County’s 24 homicides this year, Smith feels she has no choice.

Last Monday’s slaying of fellow Terra Ceia resident Kathleen Briles, 48, followed by Tuesday night’s shooting death of Dejuan Williams, 18, have increased her anxiety level and heightened her guard.

“It was a shock, but then again it’s not. It’s happening everywhere,” Smith said. “Someone comes home and finds their life partner like that? And that boy protecting his sister? It’s bad, really bad. That’s what it’s come to.”

Whether it involved drugs, a domestic dispute, a home invasion or a bar fight, the wave of random homicides has residents alarmed.

Briles was beaten by an assailant in her home off Bayshore Drive, a winding, narrow road along Terra Ceia Bay flanked by Old Florida growth.

Williams was slain at a Bradenton duplex where he and his family lived off Cortez Road. He had come home to find his 14-year-old sister had guests, forbidden when their parents weren’t home.

When Williams confronted Byron Galloway, sheriff’s detectives say, the 16-year-old shot him.

“It rips my heart out,” Smith said.

She isn’t alone.

Sheriff Brad Steube’s public warning during Thursday’s press conference on the Briles investigation — “This is not the Manatee County of 20 years ago” — resonated on both sides of Manatee River.

Jan Bragg has lived for 39 years on York Drive, her home opposite the Williams’ duplex.

“A safe, quiet dead-end street nobody knows about,” said the 73-year-old.

That changed Tuesday night.

“I worked at Manatee Memorial Hospital for 30 years and seen violence come through the ER, but I’ve never seen somebody brought into the street for CPR like that,” Bragg said. “The pain his sister was going through. Her screams. Words can’t describe it.

“What are we doing with all these guns? It doesn’t make sense.”

Barbara Cobb feels at a loss, too. She also lives on York Drive — and her path crossed both victims.

She was stunned to hear about Briles, who was a patient at The Eye Center Inc. nearby on Cortez Road when Cobb worked there.

Then Williams, an outgoing youngster who graduated from Bayshore High in May, was killed down her street a day later.

“A day never went by without him going, ‘How you doing?’ ” said Cobb, 54. “It’s going to be hard not seeing that beautiful smile and him come around the cul-de-sac and wave. Such a good kid. It breaks my heart.”

After 18 years of living here, she wonders what’s happened to Bradenton.

“The drugs, the murders, children killing children, it’s horrible,” Cobb said. “I don’t want to leave this street. I love it. What I liked about Bradenton was its peacefulness, but now I’m getting scared.”

Her next-door neighbor, Doc Wilder, feels her sense of helplessness.

“These home invasions, it’s usually drugs or gangs, even if the one killed was innocent,” said Wilder, who spent his life in the construction business. “You know that saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ The way it is now, nobody’s raising them. They’re doing it themselves.”

Wilder empathized with young Williams, remembering when he was a big brother and his sister was living with him in Gainesville.

“I met the boys at the front yard many a time, doing what I thought needed doing. No problem. Just protecting my sister,” he said. “I’m sure he was the same way.”

But Williams’ life was taken because of it.

“The world is going to hell in a handbasket and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Wilder said.

Such fatalism rings true with Ben Tillett.

He was born and raised in Terra Ceia, where his family has run a citrus business for 35 years.

His home has been broken into three times.

His business was broken into the first time in 16 years in July.

“It is a changed world, but people think they can live in the past. It’s not going to happen,” said the retired Manatee High English teacher.

“Despite the security here, sure we’re going to have problems we didn’t have years and years ago. The world has changed. What hasn’t?” asked Tillett, 78.

“I’m not saying I’m not concerned, but to me much of this is inevitable. You just take more precautions, if you’re smart. I do.”

So does Matt Yerger — and he makes no bones about it.

Home invasions where the 38-year-old air-conditioning repairman lives in Terra Ceia would be a risky business.

“Somebody needs money? Let’s go rob somebody,” Yerger said, simulating a home invader’s thinking. “Hey, they live somewhere nice. They must have money. Well, guess what? Me and most of my neighbors have guns.”

Frieda Smith believes vigilance is her best safeguard, keeping her doors locked and her eyes peeled for strangers.

Still, she says, the boldness of perpetrators is unnerving.

“You get up every morning and get in your car to go somewhere, you’re just as likely to be parked at a stop sign and somebody walks up and gets in,” she said.

“Whether it’s at home here in Terra Ceia or you’re living in Bradenton, it doesn’t make any difference. You’ve got to be vigilant of what’s around you.

“There are so many strange people out there.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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