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Date of Issue: October 19, 2006

Cortezians get advice dealing with drug crimes

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Chief Deputy Col. Brad Steube, Sgt. Bob Mealy and Capt. Pat Bartholomew of the Manatee County Sheriff's Office listen to public comment at a forum on drugs and crime in Cortez.

More than 170 people gathered Oct. 12 in Cortez's newly renovated 1912-schoolhouse got an education in the justice system and instruction in taking back their community from criminals.

A gathering of such size in the village typically has something to do with fishing and involves a potluck dinner with mullet and grits, but the Thursday night crowd went to hear about two recent drug raids and discuss illegal drug activity in the community.

Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, a 32-year resident of the village and a business owner, organized the forum. "Cortez has gone through its ups and downs and this is not the first time we've had to deal with this. We just aren't going to tolerate it any more as a community."

The estimated 170 attendees at the forum heard from von Hahmann, Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, prosecutor Ed Brodsky and Circuit Court Judge Janette Dunnigan. They also heard from top deputies in the sheriff's office, a code enforcement supervisor and a repetitive crime specialist. Sarah Meaker, the Democratic candidate for an at-large seat on the Manatee County Commission, also attended.

The panelists repeated an overriding message - it takes a village to stamp out crime.

"You can change the atmosphere in your neighborhood if everyone works together," said county crime specialist Ann Marie Harper.

One Cortez resident, characterizing the crime in his neighborhood, described illegal drug activity, public intoxication, heavy traffic and loud noise. The situation, he said, was "like living across from vampires."

Many people at the forum expressed fear of retaliation and wanted to know how they could rid their community of crime while remaining anonymous.

"If you get tag numbers off these cars are they going to give the name out publicly?" Cortez resident Plum Taylor asked, referring to citizens reporting license plates connected to suspected illegal activity. "We're a community of older people and you don't want people to know who you are, but you want to report what's happening."

Criminal intelligence is privileged and not publicized, said Wells, who received repeated rounds of applause from the audience.

Criminal intelligence, the sheriff said, helped in the recent arrest of two men - John Robin Kight, 51, and Steven Fine, 50, in connection with raids on two alleged "crack houses" in Cortez. The raids took place at 12116 45th Ave. W. and 4408 123rd St. Ct. W.

Kight was charged with sale of cocaine, a second-degree felony. Fine was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, a first-degree misdemeanor, and possession of rock cocaine, a third-degree felony. Kight and Fine are scheduled to be arraigned Nov. 17, according to the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

Wells said nearly 20 years ago the crack cocaine epidemic caught the county off-guard. Today, he said, substance use factors in most crimes in the county, from vandalism to homicides.

"I know that it hits you, some of you here in Cortez, because I've heard from you," Wells said.

Wells and several of his top officers explained what the sheriff's office needs before an arrest gets made - officers either must witness the crime or have information indicating that a crime was committed.

That's where the community plays a role in law enforcement.

"We'll take out the garbage but somebody else has to take responsibility ... to be a watchful eye," said MCSO Capt. Pat Bartholomew.

Even after a citizen shares details of a crime, the sheriff's office needs time to investigate and act.

"I don't have fear of these people, but at the same time I don't want to act emotionally," said Wells.

Patience, he added, "is critical in conducting these investigations."

Law enforcement needs to make a good arrest so prosecutors can present a solid case, said Brodsky, the felony division chief who represented State Attorney Earl Moreland at the forum. The arrest, said Brodsky, "is only the beginning of the journey" and, while police only need probable cause, prosecutors must prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Reasonable doubt - that's a little harder [to prove] than what you see on TV," said Dunnigan.

The judge emphasized the difference between drug possession and drug dealing, and the harsher penalty handed down for the latter.

Dunnigan detailed for the audience the problems of overcrowded judicial systems and jails and underfunded drug treatment efforts.

"You don't fix this problem by throwing people in jail and locking them up," she said.

"It's not just crack cocaine," Dunnigan added. "It is heroin addiction. It is crystal meth. It is unhealthy what goes on in your community.... It is truly an epidemic."

From code enforcement supervisor Joe Fenton and crime specialist Harper, the audience heard about how securing vacant buildings, cleaning up property and keeping watch over renters can help curb crime in a community.

During the public comment portion of the forum, one resident praised the sheriff's office for stepped-up patrols of Cortez and asked whether the heightened presence would continue.

Wells answered "yes," and added that he and his top deputies would join some of the patrols.

Steube encouraged residents to request patrols. "We will come out for a number of reasons," he said. "Just call and ask."

Von Hahmann, who has witnessed and reported illegal drug activity in Cortez, called the forum a success.

"I think the No. 1 thing people got out of this is that they can respond to situations and not fear reprisal," the commissioner said. "The community knows it has to take responsibility for itself."