Siesta seen: Thieves targeting Impalas

Peter van Roekens recently spotted this young visitor enjoying the sand and surf at Beach Access 3.

While the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office is trying to crack down on vehicle burglaries at Siesta’s beaches, Code Enforcement officers are trying to crack down on illegal parking in residential areas on the island, Sgt. Scott Osborne told members of the Siesta Key Association during their regular meeting on Aug. 2.

The July stats for the Key “did not look good,” Osborne said at the beginning of his report.

Sheriff’s Office personnel believe an organized group of thieves is behind the vehicle thefts, he said. Those crimes had occurred at a number of the beach accesses, he added, but especially around Accesses 5 and 7.

The primary target? Chevy Impalas, Osborne said.

“That’s one of the most popular rental cars,” Osborne pointed out.

Thieves can pull up behind a car and search for a bar code on the back window that they can scan to be sure the vehicle is a rental car, he explained.

“They know how to get into Chevy Impalas immediately,” he added.

The thieves have been using a sharp piece of metal, such as an ice pick, Osborne said, jamming it through the car door right behind the lock, then forcing the lock to pop up.

“They get the cash; they get the credit cards,” he said, “and they’re going straight to the malls.”

About 10 of those burglaries were reported in July, he said. “We’re doing everything we can [to stop them].”

Surveillance photos from mall stores where the stolen credit cards had been used had shown a different person in each case, he said. However, regarding the burglaries, he added, “It’s been the same MO every time. … We’re fairly sure it’s the same group of people.”

Osborne told members of the Siesta Key Village Association during their regular meeting on Aug. 7 that the Sheriff’s Office’s Tactical Unit undertook an undercover operation on the island last week to try to catch the perpetrators. The team members rented Chevy Impalas themselves, he said, “and, of course, [the criminals] haven’t hit since we’ve done that.”

In response to a question during the SKA meeting about whether neighborhoods had been reporting crime, he said, “They’re staying pretty quiet.”

Then Osborne told the SKA members he and other Sheriff’s Office personnel had met a couple of weeks earlier with Code Enforcement staff about residents charging people to park in their yards.

That meeting had followed complaints made last month to Sarasota County Commissioner Nora Patterson, who lives on the Key.

Osborne said five or six citations had been written as a result of the crackdown on the parking situation.

“It’s very common on Canal Road for residents to [charge],” he added.

When an audience member asked how officers knew when someone was asking for money to allow people to park in their yard, Osborne replied, “They’re standing out by the road, holding a big sign.”

That comment drew a lot of laughter.

Osborne did offer a few other lighter comments during the meeting.

Recently at Beach Access 1, he said, a man law enforcement officers had dealt with earlier in the day over another situation at a different place began telling people he was a police officer and that they needed to leave that part of the beach.

The man made the mistake of communicating that information to a genuine law enforcement officer from the Venice Police Department who was off-duty at the time, Osborne said.

The impersonator “went to jail,” Osborne added.

As for activity in general on Siesta, Osborne said, “Things are staying busy.”

During the second weekend of July, for example, he said, about 370 volleyball teams came to the Siesta Public Beach on a weekend for a tournament. They filled the parking lot, he said, before spectators or other beach-goers even showed up.

‘Ooooh, that smell’

The seaweed doesn’t deter beach-goers from enjoying Crescent Beach on Aug. 6. Photo by Rachel Hackney

Just a day after Sarasota County Parks and Recreation Manager George Tatge told the SKA members county crews were doing the best they could to clean up the red drift algae on the beaches, complaints from visitors continued.

Kathy Petz, the executive assistant to Commissioner Patterson — who was out of town on vacation —notified the commissioner by email that Jerry Aluisio, the owner of Siesta Key Free Ride, “wanted [Patterson] to know what he is hearing from the visitors on the beach — that the seaweed “looks and smells disgusting [and the beach is] not even close to being a #1 beach and that they will never come back.”

Tatge notified Patterson that he would call Aluisio and discuss the seaweed cleanup efforts.

Tatge had explained to me Aug. 2, right before the SKA meeting, that a July 31 modification in a permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was limiting the cleanup efforts.

DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller elaborated upon Tatge’s comments in an email she sent me Aug. 2.

After Tropical Storm Debby wiped out almost all the sea turtle nest markers on Sarasota County’s beaches, Miller wrote, Mote Marine staff notified the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that it was having trouble re-marking the nests “because beach cleaners were continuing to mechanically clean both dry and wet portions of the beach, possibly endangering unmarked nests. This activity could also be considered to be in non-compliance” with a special condition of the standard beach-cleaning permit, she added.

FWC contacted DEP, Miller continued, which coordinated with it on a change in the county’s permit.

Until Sept. 8, no cleaning may occur on the dry beach upland of the area normally covered by the tide, she added.

Miller also sent me a copy of a letter DEP had mailed to a firm that handles beach-cleaning activities for condominiums, hotels and private homeowners on the Gulf Coast. It says “mechanical beach cleaning activities shall be confined to daylight hours (sunrise to sunset) and shall be limited to the average high tide mark or debris line and areas seaward thereof in areas where nest markers were not re-established after Tropical Storm Debby …”

Those entities with beach-cleaning permits may hand-rake material from the dry beach onto wet sand to be removed from the beach, the letter adds.

A county news release issued Aug. 6 points out that anyone can call 941-BEACHES (941-232-2437) to get the latest reports on beach conditions. The hotline is updated twice a day, the news release added.

Could be worse

During his SKA presentation, Tatge pointed out that it was fortunate this seaweed occurrence so far was not nearly as bad as the episode the county experienced in 2007 and 2008.

Another positive aspect of the situation, he said, is that “the seaweed actually helps rebuild the bulk of the beach” that Debby eroded.

The seaweed becomes embedded in the sand, he pointed out, giving the sand something to cling to. If you try to pull up some of it that has become partly buried, he said, “You’re going to have to shake it like a rug to get all the sand out of it.”

And while the stuff is smelly, he conceded, it does not pose a health risk.

Yet one more positive aspect of the seaweed, Tatge noted, can be observed by a person wearing a snorkel mask in the Gulf of Mexico. In the water, he said, the seaweed looks like “floating reefs,” with lots of tiny critters on it, including “micro shrimp and crabs.”

When the seaweed comes ashore, those creatures become tasty treats for shorebirds.

SKA Director Bob Waechter asked whether county staff ever was able to find a use for all that seaweed it collected several years ago — other than taking it to the landfill.

Tatge replied that the county did find some landscaping firms that took the seaweed for free to combine with mulch. Unfortunately, he added, the seaweed did not end up “far enough out east, and the neighbors complained, and the county had to shut [the operation] down.”

County staff also looked into giving the seaweed away for cattle feed, he said, but the salt content was too high for the animals to consume the material.

Finally, Tatge said, the county was able to make a deal with the private contractor that runs the landfill. The contractor said that if the county dried out the seaweed, the contractor would take it for free to mix it with soil and use it to cover the garbage.

The only problem with that idea, Tatge said, was that when the red drift algae decomposes, “it really has a strong odor to it,” and that odor was bothersome even to the landfill staff.