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Sarasota Thursday, Dec. 10, 2009 11 years ago

MY VIEW: My experience with the police department

by: Robin Roy City Editor

When City Manager Bob Bartolotta announced last month the reprimands of the police department and city employees involved in a mishandled investigation of an excessive-force claim in June, he pointed out that the only police case the public had heard about for six months was that one. He said, in that time, there had been thousands of contacts police had made in the community that went well and received no attention at all.

I was one of those contacts last week.

Shortly after arriving home from work Dec. 1, I began to notice unusual things in my home. Small things. The cable modem was knocked off the TV stand, but my 10-month-old son likes to pull on its cords, so that was explainable.

Then, I found my camera bag partially underneath the kitchen table. I knew I had left it near the front door that morning, so I picked it up. It felt unusually light. Peering inside, I saw the bag was empty. The camera, zoom lens, lens filters, battery charger, cleaning supplies and cords were all gone.

Suspecting my wife was playing a trick on me for leaving the bag by the door, I asked her where she put the stuff. She convinced me she didn’t do it, and it began to slowly register that it may have been stolen.

My heart sank. On the camera’s memory card were photos of my son from birth to today, shots of my 8-year-old daughter opening Christmas and birthday gifts and the last pictures of my dog that had to be put down earlier this year.

The camera is professional quality and was the first gift my wife ever gave me.

We began looking around the house, still in disbelief. The cable modem was overturned, because it was near a Wii video-game system, which was also missing.

Entering our bedroom, our fears were confirmed — a never-used window above the bed had been jimmied open. It was the entry point.

Our search continued, and we discovered the burglar had crept into the baby’s room and stolen the iPod that contains his nightly lullabies.

And, perhaps the most disheartening, our video camera was gone. On its hard drive — our son’s first crawl, the little funny head bob he does when he’s excited, our daughter’s first bike ride without training wheels — priceless memories that could never be replaced. It’s a sickening feeling.

The police dispatcher assured us someone would be over soon.

Our daughter was scared and asked us if the man would try to break into the house again. Despite our attempts to convince her that someone like this would only try to get into the house when nobody was home, she was terrified. Mom would be sleeping with her that night.

A little while later, Officer Becky Worthington knocked on the door and immediately put us at ease with a smile, a kind “hello” and a pat on our other dog’s head.

She told us she lived a couple blocks away, and when things like this happen under her nose, she takes them personally.

It was clear she cared.

Worthington made her way around the house, patiently listening to our descriptions of what happened, chatting with us about the neighborhood, even talking about her love for animals.

While she carefully dusted for fingerprints on several doors and windows, she politely suggested we move some furniture or curtains so the fingerprint dust wouldn’t soil them.

After about an hour, Worthington left our house, saying she was sorry that we were burglarized and that she was going to interview our neighbors to see if they’d seen anything.

One of our neighbors came over to tell us that she heard two other police cars were a few blocks away and officers were checking out claims that someone suspicious was carrying handfuls of electronics into the room he was renting.

Not five minutes later, two police cruisers drove by and stopped in front of our house. There appeared to be someone sitting in the back seat. That car drove a couple homes away, so I went to tell the remaining officer where Worthington had gone.

Officer Dwayne Shellhammer asked me if I was a victim and what had been stolen from my home. I went down the list of items, and he told me that he and another officer, Michael Skinner, had arrested someone who admitted to a series of break-ins and had recovered the camera and video camera.

I was stunned. I figured I’d be going on a fruitless scavenger hunt in pawnshops the following day. I told my wife that the suspect was in one of the cars, and she made a move toward the car, wanting to lay into him for stealing lullabies from our baby’s room. I stopped her, mainly to save him. He doesn’t want that kind of trouble.

Worthington came back and told us because she knew how much some of our belongings meant to us, she would try to return them that night, after they were photographed and catalogued.

We never figured the thief would be caught so quickly.

I got a call at about 10:30 p.m. from Worthington, telling me I could pick up my stuff at the police department.

After arriving, Worthington and Shellhammer asked me to identify my belongings. The video camera was there. The digital camera, zoom lens and most of the camera accessories were there. The videogame system was there. The iPod was not. But that is easily replaceable.

The culprit is a 19-year-old skateboarder, who told police he’s addicted to OxyContin.

I began to inspect my belongings and turned on the digital camera to see if the memory card inside still contained photos.

It did — about 40 photos of this kid and his buddies skateboarding at City Hall.

They had erased about 500 pictures of our kids. Only one of our photos remained — one of the last I took of my dog, McBain, before he died.

I asked the officers if they wanted the digital memory card to use as evidence, and they took it and chuckled.

I need to give a sincere thank you to Officer Dwayne Shellhammer, Officer Michael Skinner and especially Officer Becky Worthington for their detective work in catching this crook only about six hours after he broke into our home.

I’m glad I have this forum to be able to offer them the recognition they deserve.

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