LARGO — They are volunteers, retirees mainly, and they ride bicycles or walk on sections of the Pinellas Trail, keeping their eyes out for anything suspicious.
But now the so-called auxiliary rangers are worried about their own safety following a string of robberies on a part of the trail that cuts through south St. Petersburg, including one assault in which a woman in her 50s riding her bicycle had some teeth knocked out.
To address those concerns, a special meeting was held Wednesday at Heritage Village in Largo.
The regular meeting was scheduled for mid-March, but a decision was made to move it up, said Sandy Wilson, volunteer program coordinator for Pinellas County Parks and Conservation Resources.
“If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, turn around,” Paul Cozzie, the bureau director for the parks department, told about two dozen auxiliary rangers at the meeting.
Auxiliary ranger Angelo Campagna, a 73-year-old retired psychologist, was accustomed to riding his bicycle on the trail from his home in Treasure Island. But since the robberies, his wife has discouraged him from doing so, he told a panel of park and law enforcement officials as he sat in the audience.
“I have a number of people who ask me if it’s safe to go out there, and I’m hesitant to tell them,” he said.
At issue is a part of the county-long recreational trail — its official name is the Fred Marquis Pinellas Trail — that runs between 49th and 22nd streets south in St. Petersburg.
About half of that stretch runs through Childs Park, an economically-depressed area where the woman and her husband were attacked and robbed as they rode their bicycles Feb. 1.
St. Petersburg police are searching for one of the accused thieves — Childs Park teenager Germaine Davansha Small, also known as “Bolt” — but have not identified the other.
To capture Small, the police department has at least two officers patrolling the trail up to nine hours daily, between 28th Street and the Tyrone area, said Rick Hladik, a community police sergeant.
During the past 13 months, there have been 11 incidents on that part of the trail that cuts through St. Petersburg, Hladik said.
“This last one was a bad one,” the sergeant added, referring to the Feb. 1 robbery, “and that’s the one that has caused concern.”
The department’s armored surveillance vehicle, which is positioned in hot spots to videotape criminal activity, has been put on the trail, said officer Ron Wolfson, who works on trail safety.
There also is talk about replacing the current bollards — removable steel posts located at points where the trail intersects with streets — with collapsible ones. That way, an officer can nudge a collapsible bollard with his squad car, causing it to give way, so he can drive onto the trail without getting out. Now, he manually has to remove the steel post, and put it back once he is on the trail.
Parks department ranger patrols were adjusted so they spend more time in the evening on the trail in south St. Petersburg, chief park ranger Carol Gray said.
Jim Wedlake, a 70-year-old auxiliary ranger, was skeptical the efforts would have a lasting effect.
“It gets a little bit of attention, which ends without resolving the problem,” he said after the meeting.