Day and night, the parade continues. Cars cruise through the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhood, creeping by hour after hour. The drivers glance to the left and right.
“They run a circuit, looking for girls,” says resident Tom Stephens.
Past his Remington Drive home, Stephens sees johns searching for prostitutes at all hours of the day.
Their presence is so constant that he recognizes the men as they slowly pass his home.
“There’s a few you see all the time,” he said. “One guy has had five or six different BMWs during the past several years.”
During a 20-minute conversation with The Sarasota Observer outside his home, eight drivers, which Stephens said he either recognized as johns or said had all the characteristics of johns, drove by
Stephens’ finely landscaped home.
“At sundown, it’s nonstop,” he said.
‘A constant nagging’
Unfortunately for the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhood, Stephens’ story is not altogether unusual. Crime has been plaguing the area for years, but residents say they’ve noticed a recent increase.
The actual statistics don’t actually bear that out, however. Year to date, the number of serious crimes in the police department’s zone 1, which includes Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores, is lower than last year.
This year, the area saw 244 index crimes, such as burglaries, robberies, aggravated assaults and auto thefts. During the same period last year, there were 257 index crimes.
As a whole, though, more index crimes occur in zone 1 than in any of the city’s other nine police zones.
Attendance at an anti-crime forum Nov. 16 for Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores residents showed how concerned they are about the crime rate in their neighborhood. More than 200 residents packed Crossroads Methodist Church to hear crime-fighting solutions from Police Chief Mikel Hollaway, Chief Judge Lee Haworth, Chief Assistant State Attorney Ed Brodsky and other law enforcement officials (see box Page 1A).
“We’re here to see what can be done about the criminal and intimidating behavior,” said Cynthia Biggar, Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores Association president.
Stephens shared his story with the crowd.
“The cars come behind the hotels, creeping up behind fences, beeping horns. It’s a constant nagging,” he said. “I’m out watering flowers or going to the mailbox and see these people driving around a dozen times. It wears on you.”
An artist by trade, Stephens became interested in city, police and court procedures. In 1998, he began writing letters to the city, looking for help in fighting the problem. He went to City Hall to plead with city commissioners to crack down on motel owners who did nothing to dissuade prostitutes.
When any motel racked up a number of crimes on its property, Stephens tenaciously pursued it in court to label it a nuisance property.
“We took video of the (motel managers) hanging out with the prostitutes and drug dealers,” he said.
Stephens received a round of applause from his neighbors and praise from the police.
“We need more folks like Tom and his wife, who are not afraid to take a stand,” said Hollaway. “We can’t do it alone.”
Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores residents were introduced to Linda Holland, Gillespie Park Neighborhood Association president, who helped clean up her own neighborhood in the 1990s.
Holland and other residents had grown tired of the drug dealers and prostitutes who had taken over their streets. They began a crime-watch program and walked at night with flashlights, confronting the criminals, letting them know that they were not welcome and that the residents were not afraid.
“We had a very strong partnership with the police department,” said Holland. “They supported us, and we supported them.”
Holland’s group led officers to the criminals, who were then arrested.
“But the same criminals were arrested again and again and again,” she said.
So, Holland turned her attention to the court system and created Court Watch.
In that program, she and her followers track the criminals through the court system and show up in the courtroom, all wearing recognizable yellow Court Watch shirts.
“We had a silent but recognizable message — we wanted repeat offenders off the street,” she said.
Judges began to notice them. Prosecutors began to notice them. Even public defenders took notice.
“We did begin to get some higher bonds (on the criminals) and longer jail terms,” Holland said.
Holland tells Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores residents they can do the same thing by designating a liaison to learn about the criminal-justice system and go into the courtroom.
Stephens said the neighborhood used to have a court-watch program, but it dissolved. He said he isn’t so sure it would cure the problem.
What he believes does work are the undercover police stings that take prostitutes and johns off the street — for a while.
Some neighbors think scaring them straight, though, may not work as well as “embarrassing them straight.”
Stephens said some residents are considering creating a website that publishes the names and photos of the johns caught soliciting prostitutes.
“That would be a deterrent,” he said.
One solution that he would not consider is avoiding the situation.
“This is a great neighborhood, and I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Sarasota’s top law-enforcement and justice officials each had advice Nov. 16 for Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores residents on how to rid their community of crime.
Neighbors need to get involved
“We have succumbed to being afraid (to fight back). We need to draw a line in the sand. When you’re a victim or a witness, you must follow through and testify. If you don’t, we can’t prosecute.”
Sarasota police Nuisance abatement detective
Maintain the Prostitution Exclusion Zone, which keeps offenders off North Tamiami Trail
“It’s a valuable tool. (Prostitutes) avoid (U.S.) 41, because they don’t want to get arrested.”
Capt. Paul Sutton
Sarasota Police Department
Use the First Step substance-abuse treatment center
“Most criminals commit crimes to support drug or alcohol problems. They probably can’t hold a job, so they turn to prostitution or burglary to support their habit.”
Chief assistant state attorney
Give alternative sentencing for addicts
“We need more to get them off drugs and counseling to get them out of that lifestyle.”
Chief Judge Lee Haworth
12th Judicial District
Give alternative sentencing
“We don’t have enough jail space to put all the hookers in jail. The state prisons want space for murderers and child molesters. Just incarceration doesn’t work.”
First Step of Sarasota president and CEO
Economic impact is huge
“Drug and alcohol abuse has a statewide economic impact of $43 billion a year in Florida. That’s equivalent to the damage in Hurricane Katrina.”
Salvation Army general manager
Drug and alcohol treatment is helpful
“The stereotype of the older white man alcoholic has changed. Now younger people are doing as much damage to their brains in a couple of years as people did in 25 years of alcohol abuse.”
Contact Robin Roy at [email protected]