Faced with looting, neighbors arm each other vigilante-style in Panama City suburb

When it comes to fending off post-hurricane looters, sometimes it takes a village.

In Callaway it took one man with a stockpile of weapons, a love for his neighbors and a vigilante earnestness so strong that it landed him — not the looters — on the wrong side of the law.

In this Panama City suburb of about 15,000, the tight-knit neighbors and battalion of shotguns have kept looters at bay during an uptick in crimes of opportunity across Bay County. On Fox Avenue, credit goes to Carl Kuhn, the self-titled protector of the street.

Across the street from Kuhn lives Mickey Fox and his wife, Brigetti. They are residing in a cramped, 200-square-foot storage shed on the aptly named street — just yards from where Hurricane Michael destroyed the very little the couple claimed as their own.

Their trailer is now a soggy pile of shredded insulation, crumpled siding and 15 years of memories.

A carload of thieves took notice of the ruin a few days after the storm, approaching the debris with their headlights off after the city’s official curfew.

What happened next has spurred rumors in Callaway and beyond, where the looting problem has materialized in the form of plywood signs, spray painted with “U Loot We Shoot!” or “#Weaponstrong.”

Sheriff’s Maj. Jimmy Stanford told the Associated Press that about 10 looters have been arrested each night since the hurricane slammed into Bay County.

“I was scared,” Fox said, crying into his T-shirt. “I just sit out here and don’t bother nobody.”


Mickey Fox, 61, wipes a tear from his face in Callaway, Florida, on Saturday, October 20, 2018. He survived Hurricane Michael with his wife in a trailer that collapsed on top of them. The storm devastated the area leaving tens of thousands without food, shelter or power.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Fox’s neighbor, Carl Kuhn, was outside grilling dinner with his wife when he saw the vehicle pull up in front of the remains of Fox’s trailer.

“I started hollering, ‘Who are you? You don’t belong here!,’ ” Kuhn said.

To punctuate his warning, he fired a rifle twice into the ground.

He scared the guy off, he said, but soon after police showed up and arrested him for discharging a firearm in a residential area. He spent the next four days in jail, before his dad found a bail bondsman in Wewahitchka to bail him out.

“That’s the first time I ever broke the law,” he said.

Fox, who makes a living doing upholstery work and selling aluminum cans to recycling plants, said he was spooked by the incident.

He opened his wallet, revealing a Medicare card and $9 in cash.

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Mickey Fox, 61, spokes a cigarette in front of what remains of the trailer in which he and his wife rode out Hurricane Michael in Callaway, Florida, on Saturday, October 20, 2018. The storm devastated the area leaving tens of thousands without food, shelter or power.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

“This is all I got, right here,” he said, closing his wallet and patting his dog, Chopper, on the head. His cat Milky sat in a tree nearby, but his beloved turtle tank — which he proudly showed off to curious neighborhood kids — blew away in the storm.

On a small loveseat inside the shed sat Fox’s wife, who is homebound and sick with diabetes. She sat in front of a fan, chain smoking menthol cigarettes and listening to the radio. Her husband was more worked up than she was, she said, but she says the looters ought to be arrested.

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Brigetti Fox, 77, sits on a couch in a shed she now shares with her husband, Mickey Fox, 61, in Callaway, Florida, on Saturday, October 20, 2018. The couple survived Hurricane Michael in a trailer that collapsed on top of them.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

“They should have to go around to the yards and clean them up without stealing anything,” said Brigetti, 77.

Neighbors sitting outside their Panama City homes say they heard about a Sears store that got looted the day prior. On Harrison Street, the main drag in Callaway, CVS stores and Dollar Trees appear to have been torn apart — either by wind or looters.

According to Pensacola station WEAR-TV, a Florida State fire marshal shot a looter who tried to steal a police car at Pinetree Road and Azalea Street shortly after the storm.

FDLE spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger told the Herald/Times that the agency is investigating an officer-involved shooting but did not immediately have more details.

“This is the redneck capital of the south,” said Callaway resident David Keeney, 65, as he sat in the driveway of his neighbor’s home. “They know we’ve got guns. If you loot, we’ll shoot. That’s a fair enough warning.”

Next-door neighbors, John Erb and his wife, Jo Ethridge, offered ice water to others nearby. Melissa Whaley, who lives two doors down, waved at them.

“This is a military neighborhood. We all look after each other here. But I’m more of a knife person,” said Whaley, 43, who patted a small, silver pocketknife hooked to her belt.

Down the street, Marine veteran Cliff Roberson said he’s armed every car — and every family member — with a gun.

“People who have it hard do things they wouldn’t normally do,” said Roberson, 68. “I wouldn’t shoot nobody on purpose, but I ain’t gonna let them take my stuff.”

Before the storm, Kuhn said he made the rounds with his neighbors and asked if they were armed. Nobody was.

“I gave him a gun, I gave him a gun, I gave him a gun,” he said, pointing to the three homes across the street from his.

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Carl Kuhn, 56, walks through the streets of Callaway, Florida, where he is now known as “the hero of Fox Avenue” on Saturday, October 20, 2018. Kuhn rescued his neighbors from the wreckage of their trailer during the eye of Hurricane Michael.

MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

One of his neighbors, Steven Strassberger, said Carl gave him a .22 rifle.

Strassberger’s partner was in Pensacola so he weathered the storm in his modular home alone — along with his two parrots Dino and Baby, Lucy the cockatiel and five dogs.

A couple days later, he spotted flashlights bouncing off the wrecked home across the street. Looters, he thought, and called the police.

“They basically told me I was on my own because they were stretched so thin,” he said.

Since then, he’s been barricading the door every night “like an old lady.”

Strassberger and Kuhn hung around Fox’s shed on Saturday afternoon, smoking cigarettes and playing with Chopper.

Fox would wander over to his ruined home, let out a few heavy sobs, and meander back toward his neighbors.

Kuhn wrapped his arm around Fox and kissed him hard on the cheek.

He’s due in court November 26, and his neighbors have promised to show up and defend their friend, whom they call “the hero of Fox Avenue.”

Miami Herald staff writer Alex Harris contributed to this report