Student Complex No Haven for Safety; THE DISTRICT Burglary Calls Persist Even with Changes after an October Homicide

Article excerpt

Byline: MATT COLEMAN

Curbside appeal drew them in.

Palm trees and swimming pools. Fountains and full parking lots.

The District on Kernan looked the part of the prototypical student apartment complex, and everything seemed above board to 20-year-old Timothy "T.J." Pemberton and his father, Stanley.

They flew to Jacksonville from Texas in May in preparation for T.J.'s move back to Florida. He had grown up in Fort Lauderdale before his father uprooted the family for a job. T.J. said he wanted to return to Florida and use up some of his parents' prepaid college money.

"The beach was his big motivation, though," Stanley recalled. "He missed the ocean. You just don't get that in Texas."

They inspected 14 - maybe 15 - complexes before settling on The District, which caters primarily to college students.

The model room looked clean and spacious. It was located closed enough to Florida State College at Jacksonville's South Campus that T.J. could walk to class.

They were sold.

"Nothing stood out as bad about this place," Stanley said. "There was no inclination that this was a bad environment and we should feel nervous about letting him live there."

One call changed that opinion.

"They told me my son had been murdered," he said. "I didn't get it. It didn't make any sense. This wasn't supposed to happen at a place like that."

T.J. was killed Oct. 5 in what police called an impromptu robbery at The District, which is in the 3600 block of South Kernan Boulevard near the University of North Florida. This year's slaying was the first on the property since 2005, when the complex was under different management and called Melrose Student Suites.

A Times-Union analysis of a decade of Sheriff's Office calls for service to the complex's address shows that although homicide investigators were infrequent visitors, members of the Burglary Unit had become steady house guests for apartment residents. The number of burglary calls to The District is comparable to Eureka Garden and Roosevelt Gardens, two privately owned apartment complexes subsidized by taxpayers through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Both are seen as high-crime complexes and have also experienced a homicide this year.

Burglary calls generated by the complex have increased for the past decade, and the rate is exponentially higher than other complexes adjacent to the UNF and Jacksonville University campuses that also advertise to students. There have been more burglary calls this year to the complex through the end of October than in any of the past 10 years.

The number of calls for assaults at The District is at its highest since 2004, according to Sheriff's Office data.

CHOOSING A MARK

The complex houses about 1,000 residents, and at least 90 percent are students, an apartment representative said. UNF spokesman Sharon Ashton said the school doesn't market the complex to students, but sales representatives sometimes come on campus to speak with students. The complex also advertises with the school newspaper, "The Spinnaker," and with the athletics department.

A rise in burglaries spells bad news for student-dominated housing complexes, said Mark Bonistall, co-founder of Peace Outside Campus, a New York-based nonprofit that evaluates the security offerings of off-campus properties nationwide.

Bonistall said college students are popular marks for seasoned criminals, and a consistent uptick in burglaries shows that thieves might have started setting up camp and targeting students. That accessibility could also present a toehold to violent crime, he said.

"They see students as low-hanging fruit," Bonistall said. "They often have this feeling of invincibility, even though they may be in unfamiliar surroundings and away from home for the first time. Plus they're away from their rooms in class a good portion of the day, so that gives burglars the opportunity to walk in and snatch a laptop or plasma TV. …