The last straw for Donnie Bertie was his mother hearing gun shots one evening while she was watching his 6-month-old daughter.
That evening in 2013, Bertie’s mother called him about 10 p.m. urging him to come back to his apartment at the Tower Oaks Glen complex just west of the Gainesville city limits.
“Hey, you need to come home ’cause the apartment next to us got shot up,” she told her son, who by then had lived at Tower Oaks about two years.
After the incident, the owners offered Bertie a rent-free month, but the restaurant worker declined and soon moved out, figuring that staying wasn’t worth compromising his and his family’s safety.
“I was angry mad,” the 29-year-old said.
Tower Oaks is one of 15 apartment complexes situated within a few miles of one another in a cluster bordered mostly by Interstate 75 to the east, Tower Road to the west, and Southwest 24th Avenue to the south.
The complexes lie within what’s known by law enforcement as the “Tower triangle,” an especially problematic area because of the large volume of emergency calls, said Art Forgey, an Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman.
“It’s a high-crime area,” Forgey said. “[It] is our highest volume of calls in [that] part of the county. A lot of that is, in part of that area, being a very impoverished area with a lot of Section 8 housing and generally low employment.”
Overall, though, the calls for service to apartments in the Tower triangle vary wildly, according to a WUFT News analysis of Alachua County Sheriff’s Office calls-for-service logs from September 2015 to this past September. Tower Oaks is the highest, with an average of 5.3 calls per unit per year, and nearby Villas at Ashton Square is the lowest, with 0.04.
The numbers for all 15 complexes are:
|Complex Name||Address||Number of units*||Calls for law-enforcement service (Sept. 2015–Sept. 2017)||Average number of calls per unit per year|
|Bentwood Apartments||6929 W. University Ave.||91||88||0.48|
|Cricket Club II||505 SW 72nd Way||180||21||0.06|
|Fox Hollow Apartments||7301 W. University Ave.||149||380||1.28|
|Grove Villas Apartments||6400 SW 20th Ave.||143||210||0.73|
|Harbor Cove Apartments||6815 W. University Ave.||209||865||2.07|
|Holly Heights/Holly Heights North (side-by-side complexes with same ownership but different addresses)||604 SW 70th Terrace/427 SW 69th St.||482||46||0.05|
|Majestic Oaks Apartments||5800 SW 20th Ave.||184||1,858||5.05|
|Pine Meadow Apartments||7025 W. University Ave.||78||358||2.29|
|Reflections Apartments||205 SW 75th St.||288||880||1.53|
|Southern Pines Apartments||4125 SW 17th Place||76||280||1.84|
|Sparrow Condominiums||607 SW 75th St.||158||20||0.06|
|The Gardens Apartments||75 SW 75th St.||124||371||1.50|
|Tower Oaks Glen||6900 SW 21st Lane||81||856||5.28|
|Villas at Ashton Square||6933 W. University Ave.||66||5||0.04|
|Woodland Villas Apartments||5950 SW 20th Ave.||80||339||2.12|
In the two full years analyzed, 856 calls were made to law enforcement from Tower Oaks, an 81-unit complex with nicely painted buildings, a pool, but no apparent website or email. Several calls to the complex seeking comment were unanswered, and no voicemail was available.
Meanwhile, in the same two years, 66-unit Ashton Square — which is a little more than 2 miles from Tower Oaks by car — had a total of five calls, all of which were medical-related: two for “unconscious/fainting” and the other three for chest pain, breathing problems and stroke/cerebrovascular accident.
The five emergency responses to Ashton Square are examples that 911 calls aren’t always crime-related, and in fact, Tower Oaks had many non-crime ones, like breathing problems, abdominal pain and chest pain.
“A lot of calls for service … have nothing to do with crime,” said Richard Hollinger, a professor emeritus in University of Florida’s Department of Sociology and Criminology and Law. “Somebody may have locked themselves out of their apartment, or their car won’t start.”
Still, the two years’ worth of logs for Tower Oaks are cluttered with crime calls, including 10 for shots heard/fired; seven for rape; one for stabbing; and many for assault, battery, fighting and burglary.
Disturbances — “disturbance,” “domestic disturbance” and “armed disturbance” — were the most common non-medical call type, with 93, or 10.9 percent of all calls.
Bertie, the former Tower Oaks resident, said reasons for the crime might be a lack of background checks for applicants, not much outside lighting at night and an overall lack of monitoring by management.
“Just about every day out there and every night, there was always cops,” he said.
Current Ashton Square resident Louella Suataron said her year living at the complex has been quiet.
“I’ve never felt scared to be outside,” the 24-year-old restaurant server said. “I go home at like 3 or 4 in the morning, and I can basically just walk around if I want to. Everyone keeps to themselves.”
Ashton Square owner Keith Crutcher said the area’s reputation doesn’t deter people from living at his complex or hinder its safety measures.
“If you create a sense of community and [people] know you are going to enforce the rules in an area that’s challenged, then people [are more likely to live at the complex] because you’re the exception,” he said.
Ashton Square’s first safety measures come during the application process, Crutcher said. Potential residents are screened by a third-party company, which checks credit reports, criminal backgrounds, and employment and rental history.
Upon acceptance, management ensures residents are familiar with the expectations for maintenance, property cleanliness and other aspects, he said.
In addition, the complex is monitored by an on-site Alachua County sheriff’s deputy and an on-site manager. Along with living there, the two conduct monthly light checks and other safety inspections.
“We just try and put ourselves in that position” to have a safe complex, Crutcher said. “If my daughter was going to live in that property, I’d want her to be safe.”
Hear Cameron Cobb discuss the reporting of this story on this week’s podcast.
On-site courtesy officers are common among apartment complexes, and some are offered reduced rent as an incentive to live in them, Hollinger said.
The officers can have a positive effect on deterring criminals and promoting a sense of security with residents, he said. They can make an even greater impact by conducting safety sessions with the residents during which they explain what types of crimes are happening and how to protect themselves.
“Say you come home and your apartment complex is broken into and your 55-inch TV is gone — there’s not a lot you can do about it,” Hollinger said. “Preventing crime is really what you want to do.”
Lighting is normally the biggest crime determent, but it is often overlooked by apartment complex management, Forgey said.
Still, residents can take certain matters of safety into their own hands by leaving outside lights on, he said. Other preventative measures include trimming hedges, in which criminals can hide, and installing secondary locks.
Another recommendation is for possible tenants to visit the property outside of a model-unit tour, including at night to see what the lighting is like and who hangs around, Forgey said.
“Don’t just go with what you’re shown,” he said. “Do diligence on yourself and look at it in other conditions, as well.”
Yet another precaution Forgey mentioned is the Crime Reports website, which has mapping software that shows crime within certain areas.
‘A valuable lesson’
One of the more frequent criminal activities seen in apartment complexes versus other housing communities is car burglaries, Forgey said.
With so many cars packed into one location, thieves can “car hop,” or go from car to car to check for unlocked doors and open windows, he said.
Majestic Oaks Apartments — which, at 5.05, had the second highest annual average of calls per unit and, at 1,858, the most overall — had 14 burglaries (car or otherwise), but that’s less than 1 percent of all its calls. Instead, its most common — outside of medical issues and simply increasing law-enforcement patrols — were noise complaints (193, or 10.4 percent of all calls).
And then Pine Meadow Apartments, the complex with third-highest annual average calls per unit (2.29), had 16 burglary calls, or 4.5 percent of its 358 total calls. The most common non-medical call there was instead for “suspicious person” or “suspicious activity” (38, or 10.6 percent of all calls).
Professor emeritus Hollinger’s son had his own brush with car burglary at his apartment complex while attending UF. The complex, off Northwest 13th Street, was known for having a high amount of calls, Hollinger said.
For Christmas, Hollinger had given his son an MP3 player. Not even two weeks later, someone broke his car window with a brick and stole it.
“[My son] learned a valuable lesson,” said Hollinger, whose own students during his 33 years of teaching at UF often went on to serve in law enforcement, including current Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell.
Hollinger said he recommends that people take advantage of crime-analysis programs, which are provided by UF’s police force, Gainesville police and the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. Through them, officers or deputies will come out for free to inspect the residence and offer safety tips.
“Security,” Hollinger said, “is only as good as the people who live there are willing to help enforce it.”