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09.24.10

Teen Hostage Horror

George Thomas had always been considered a neighborhood nuisance. But he was much more than that, as two Florida teens learned during one hellish week while trapped in his house.

Thirty-one-year-old George Thomas had been terrorizing his neighbors for years. In his sleepy Temple Terrace subdivision, where children’s swings hang from Live Oaks and most every house has a swimming pool, he was the local thorn in the otherwise idyllic suburb’s side. He swore at neighbors, exposed himself in public, let his yard become a jungle, kept a loud Great Dane and hosted a continuous stream of bizarre and frightening visitors. Two years ago, one of these guests ran from Thomas’s house, buck naked, and banged on a neighbor’s door, screaming that Thomas had viciously beaten him.

But all the unnerving antics couldn’t have prepared the neighborhood for what he allegedly did the week of September 11. On Saturday, police arrested the tall, slender man on charges that he held a 16-year-old girl hostage in his home for six days, forcing her to have sex with him while she was his captive. The twisted tale became even stranger when it was revealed that the girl managed to contact a friend through the internet to tell him where she was trapped – and then, when the friend showed up to rescue her, Thomas imprisoned him too, forcing them to participate in more sex acts for his entertainment.

Many details of the case remain murky, but a Temple Terrace police report shows that the lurid week began when Thomas offered the underage girl a lift as she walked along the grass shoulder of a two-lane road. She had run away from her foster home six days earlier and gladly accepted the ride. She then asked if she could crash at his place. Thomas was more than willing to allow it.

Once inside his rat-infested dwelling, Thomas brought out some vodka and fed the young girl oxycodone. For the next two days, she told police, she was drugged and forced to have sex with him repeatedly. She wasn’t physically restrained, but says she was afraid to flee or call for help because he threatened to hurt her if she did, Temple Terrace Police Spokesman Mike Dunn told The Daily Beast.

Then, one night while he slept, the girl sneaked onto his computer, logged on to Facebook, and asked a friend to come and get her, telling him she was being held in a “trap house,” street slang for a drug hangout.

It’s unclear why she didn’t call the police – perhaps she was afraid of being sent back to the foster home. Her 18-year-old friend from St. Petersburg didn’t call the cops either, but talked someone into driving him across Tampa Bay to Thomas’s house. The car dropped him off and immediately sped away; police can only speculate as to why the friend didn’t have the driver stick around. “I guess he didn’t understand the extent of what was going on there, or perhaps thought they were just going to party,” Dunn said.

When the young man entered the house, Thomas allegedly pulled a semi-automatic handgun on him. Then he ordered the two teens to have sex while he watched. They say they complied, afraid for their lives. Thomas captured the sex acts on video using his cell phone and the webcam attached to his computer. For the next four days, police say, he continued his sex-hostage game while his neighbors went about their business, unaware of the chaos going on in the house.

Which isn’t to say that they didn’t notice something was different – they certainly did, and they liked what they saw. During those six days of depravity, Thomas suddenly appeared to become a model citizen. Much to the delight of his fellow suburbanites, he started cutting his grass and trimming his shrubbery -- chores the neighborhood association had been after him to do for several months. “We thought, great! He’s finally cleaning up,” says Carol Hines-Cobb, as she readies her young son for Kung-Fu class. “You wouldn’t believe what a mess it was. The shrubs were as tall as the house!”

She wasn’t physically restrained, but says she was afraid to flee or call for help because he threatened to hurt her if she did.

Thomas even asked his neighbor across the street how to properly dispose of the clippings. “He was so calm and wanting to carefully follow the rules,” said another one of his neighbors, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retribution.

After nearly a week of lurid debauchery inside the house (and diligent landscaping outside), Thomas tired of his captives, but didn’t know what to do with them. He eventually drove them to an undisclosed location in St. Petersburg and dropped them off. A woman nearby encountered the youths, called the police, and the teens told their story to the authorities, who began an investigation into what had happened.

Many of Thomas’s neighbors still fear him since rumors began circulating that he was part of a gang, which police say isn’t true. Even before this incident, they steered clear of him and wouldn’t let their children play in the front yard unattended. Hines-Cobb said that even his own mother hid in the shrubs from Thomas a couple of times.

Another next-door neighbor, Paul Weed and family, took out a restraining order against Thomas four years ago after he shouted obscenities at their children and exposed himself to Weed’s wife. And two years ago, the Hilt family, living just down the street, were startled by a nude man standing at their door one day, hysterically claiming that Thomas had beaten him. The St. Petersburg Times reported that the man and his girlfriend, who met Thomas online, accused him of drugging them as well. Thomas was convicted of misdemeanor battery charges and given probation. Since then, Becky Hilt says she avoids eye contact with Thomas whenever he walks his dog.

Over the past eight years, police have responded to complaints at Thomas’s house more than 50 times. But his introduction to the neighborhood didn’t begin with such hostility. Thomas and his mother, father, and little sister immigrated to the U.S. from India when he was five. A few years later, the family moved into the peaceful Raintree Subdivision of Temple Terrace. Little Thomas seemed to be just like any other kid until he was 11. That’s when his father was shot dead by a robber at his convenience store in Tampa. This incident appears to be the point at which Thomas’s behavior took a turn for the worse.

He soon began drinking and getting into trouble. “I would classify him as a borderline juvenile delinquent,” said Hines-Cobb. His mother remarried and his stepfather tried to help him, but soon died of a heart attack. Mom couldn’t control him by herself, Hines-Cobb said. “She just couldn’t deal with it, so she finally just moved out. She basically abandoned him and left us to deal with him.”

Thomas’s mother couldn’t be reach for comment. She and Thomas’s younger sister now live in a ritzy gated community in New Tampa and operate a nursing home. Thomas is listed as one of the company directors, though it’s unclear how much involvement he has. He told police that he worked there, but neighbors question how much work he really did, since he rarely left the house. Only recently did he regain his driver’s license after four DUI convictions. For years, his car in the garage was hidden under so many bags of garbage it was hardly detectible. Police confiscated the car this week, along with his computer and the videos he made of the teens.

Although he has been arrested more than a dozen times in Florida, the charges have largely been misdemeanors related to drunkenness, resisting arrest, and battery. He has a prior felony conviction for illegal drug possession, but he’s never served time in prison. He likely will now, though -- Thomas admitted to having sex with the underage girl, and video-taping her and her friend having sex. Now held in Hillsborough County Jail without bail, he faces a potential life sentence if convicted of the multiple felony charges against him: armed kidnapping, sexual battery with a deadly weapon, use of a child in sexual performance, and promotion of sexual performance by a child.

Meanwhile, his home, much to the dismay of his neighbors, has once again become an eyesore. The facade has been vandalized, with the large letters “WTF!” written in black marker across his garage door. His mailbox has been upended and lies in the yard. Everyone hopes the whole mess is cleaned up soon. In fact, they would rather tidy it up themselves than see him return to the house. “I pray he doesn’t come back,” said Becky Hilt.

Paul Weed, for his part, is cautiously optimistic that this is the last they’ll see of the community troublemaker. He’s been living next door to Thomas for 15 years, and looks forward to the return of a tranquil, well-appointed neighborhood. “It’s like when you complain about something 50 times and nothing gets done about it, then something like this happens,” he told The Daily Beast, clearly relieved. “We hope that it will finally end.”

Lynn Waddell is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, and numerous other publications. She's a former staff writer of the Las Vegas Sun and The Birmingham News.