City of Lakeland officials are looking at how they can beef up security at a local park after several incidents, including the arrest of a sexual predator.
A Lakeland police officer was called to Barnett Park on Lake Avenue South around 6:30 Sunday night for the incident. The woman who called police told the officer she saw a man masturbating about 45 feet away from children at the park.
“I saw the man take out his private parts,” witness Venisha Beckford said. “I just screamed out to all of the parents to watch your children, there’s a gentleman out here basically touching himself in front of your children. The other lady that was there, she called police and I pulled my phone out and started recording.”
The man had run away by the time the officer showed up, but Beckford was able to show pictures of the suspect. The officer says he noticed the man had an ankle monitor on in the pictures.
While the responding officer searched for the suspect, another officer checked a silver SUV in the parking lot. The officer found out it was registered to 59-year-old Danny Torres Valentin, who matched the description of the suspect.
Police then learned that Valentin was on inmate release status for a lewd and lascivious exhibition to minors arrest. He’s also registered as a sexual predator, and considered a high-risk violent sexual offender.
The Polk County Sheriff’s Office later found Valentin at his home on Dawn Heights Drive. Police say Valentin told deputies he was at Barnett Park because his car ran out of gas.
Valentin was arrested for loitering and prowling in close proximity to children and violation of probation. Police say more charges could be pending.
“He was just comfortable like no parents were out there. It’s just really sad,” Beckford said.
This latest incident has City of Lakeland officials speeding up the process of beefing up security at the park. There are some security cameras already in place, but WFLA learned the city is planning to add 14 additional cameras.
“We had a security audit and from that audit, we identified 14 additional cameras to be placed in that park area. That’s a pretty large area. Especially under the pavilion. That seems to be, there’s a lot of shadows there and places for people to hide,” City Spokesperson Kevin Cook told WFLA. “One thing that we’ve already started doing is thinning out some of the landscaping. We’ve got some beautiful landscaping there. The idea is to make the park more visible from all angles.”
Cook said the security plans have been in the works in recent weeks but he thinks the process will move faster after the most recent incident.
“It’s an awesome park. It’s really designed, you’ve got a water element feature, you’ve got a toddler playground. And truthfully, it’s a really sick individual that goes to a toddler park to pray on kids. It’s a sick individual,” he said.
In November, News Channel 8 spoke with a family who experienced a similar incident. Kitty Brogan went to the park with her five grandchildren and her daughter-in-law. Brogan told WFLA that while the kids played in the gated area, both adults noticed a man acting suspicious and watching the kids.
At first, they just kept an eye on the man, thinking maybe he had a child there.
But Brogan soon noticed the man was masturbating.
“It was awful. It was clearly sickening. It still resonates with me, actually, in my gut that a man was doing that,” she said.
The family grabbed the kids and took off and eventually reported the incident to Lakeland police.
In February, News Channel 8 spoke with a concerned mother who witnessed a man masturbating at the same park.
Kayla Stover told WFLA she first saw the man at a building near Barnett Park in Lakeland. Stover said she didn’t think much of the man sitting nearby as her son played. When it was time for them to leave, Stover said the man started acting strange and followed them to the car.
“I was in my car and I was going to call my husband and let him know this guy followed me to my car and I turned and looked and saw him touching himself and watching the other children,” Stover said. “It was disgusting. It’s scary to think that there’s someone there that you’re totally unaware of and he’s watching your kids and you have no idea.”
Stover reported the incident to Lakeland Police.