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Crime & Courts

Hillsborough bus driver accused of sexual battery on child

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Published:   |   Updated: April 15, 2013 at 01:03 PM
TAMPA -

A 12-year-old boy was taking his usual route to with play with friends at the Presbyterian Village apartment complex on Thursday when he came upon a group of men.


They engaged in “friendly chatter,” Tampa police say, and the boy went on his way.

Sometime after 9 p.m., the boy made his way home on the same route, along the Hillsborough River behind Howard Blake High School. When he came to the intersection of North Boulevard and West Spruce streets, one of the men was still there.

Instead of more friendly banter, police say, the man grabbed the boy, dragged him to a clump of trees by the Hillsborough River and raped him.

The boy, overpowered, cried out.

“It hurts,” police say he said. “It hurts.”

The man released him. The child ran home and his mother called 911. Soon police launched a “massive search” for the suspect. Nearly 24 hours later, as investigators suspected he might, the man returned to the area of the attack and was arrested without incident, police say.

The suspect, Dacquiri Jermaine Crawford, 29, a Hillsborough County school bus driver, was charged with sexual battery on a child between age 12 and 18, lewd and lascivious battery on a child under the age of 16, and trespass on school property.

Once Crawford was in police custody, he told authorities he is a school bus driver. He was being held in a Hillsborough County jail Saturday with no bail.

Given statements the assailant made to the boy, police say they are worried there might be other victims.

“Based on the exchange that he had with the child, based on his actions, it indicates that he has some experience with this particular crime,” Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said at news conference. “Whether or not he had been building up to actually commit the crime for the first time, or if this is not the first time, is not clear; and that's why we ask anyone whose had contact with him that feels it was inappropriate to contact us.”

After the mother's call to 911, police responded with a “multilayered operation,” said McElroy.

“We had patrol units, undercover units, K9, air service,” she said. “They were scouring the city looking for the suspect.”

More than three dozen undercover officers filled the surrounding neighborhood, McElroy said. More officers searched elsewhere throughout the city.

But police believed the suspect eventually would return to the scene.

“Based on the statements the suspect made during the offense – 'if you like that I will be back' – and some other additional leads that the detectives developed during their investigation, we felt a strong possibility that the suspect would return to the area,” McElroy said.

Crawford invited police into his home and gave them the clothing he was wearing at the time of the incident, which subsequently was analyzed by Florida's Department of Law Enforcement, McElroy said.

Crawford tried to justify his actions, according to a police report. He said the victim “came on to him” and “willingly” engaged in the sex acts, the report states.

“He made a comment that he thought the boy was older -- maybe 13 or 14 years old -- and that made it OK in his mind,” McElroy said.

The child did not ride a school bus and did not know Crawford before Thursday, McElroy said. Police are investigating whether Crawford stalked the boy, she said.

Crawford, who lives at 1029 Seventh Ave., Apt. A, was hired by the school district in 2005 as a substitute driver and became a full-time driver the following year, said district spokesman Steve Hegarty.

Background checks on Crawford revealed “nothing that would prevent him from being hired,” Hegarty said at the news conference.

“We never had any problems with him whatsoever,” the schools spokesman said.

Crawford was charged a year before the school district hired him, on a misdemeanor charge of fighting, which eventually was dropped, Hillsborough County records show. Hegarty said that while he didn't have immediate access to Crawford's personnel records, prospective employees are asked about any arrests and a determination is made to hire based on that discussion.

Hegarty said the school board next will decide whether to suspend Crawford without pay or fire him. That decision likely will not be made until the board meets on Apr. 23, he said.

Though “very brave” for having the presence of mind to go home and tell his mother after the attack, the boy is traumatized, McElroy said.

The attack shocked neighbors in the nearby Boulevard Homes. On Saturday afternoon, none of the dozens of people milling about the sprawling complex said they had heard about it.

“Oh my, no, I haven't heard anything,” said Debbie Reed, echoing the sentiments of others.

The arrest is the latest blow to the school district's transportation department, which faces a chronic shortage of drivers.

In September, driver Stephanie Wilkerson was charged with aggravated child abuse after Tampa police said she used her foot to push a special-needs student off her school bus. The 8-year-old girl, a student at Tampa Bay Boulevard Elementary, fell and broke an ankle.

Wilkerson was fired and awaits trial. A video of the incident was released last month.

In January of 2012, a special-needs student from Sessums Elementary died a day after a bus ride home during which she began having medical issues.

As Isabella Herrera turned blue and stopped breathing, neither the driver nor the aide called 911, nor did either begin to administer CPR on her. Instead they called Isabella's mother twice on a cell phone and tried to radio the transportation department's dispatch office.

No one was disciplined in that case, which six of seven board members did not know about until a federal lawsuit was filed months later.

The transportation department of the nation's eighth largest school district has a serious lack of drivers. It normally carries about 150 vacancies to bus about half of the district's 192,000 students. Pasco and Pinellas counties generally have about two or three dozen driver openings.

Beginning bus drivers in Hillsborough earn $10.56 an hour -- lower than either Pasco or Pinellas counties.


haltman@tampatrib.com

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