LUTZ, Fla. — A South Carolina man was arrested in Florida after Hillsborough County deputies say he planned to commit a crime he planned for eight months.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said on Sunday, August 16 at 2:43 a.m., the suspect, Phillip Thomas, 24, entered a home within the Promenade at Lake Park in Lutz.
Detectives learned Thomas parked his car at Idle Wild Church earlier that night, walked to the home, cut a hole in the patio screen, and remained there for about three to four hours. He was watching and listening through the windows, officials said.
After the homeowner went to bed, Thomas came in through the back sliding door which activated the home alarm. It prompted the homeowner to look out the window and spot Thomas.
The homeowner and a guest left the home in a car and called 911.
When deputies arrived, Thomas was still inside the home.
According to public records, the home is owned by Daria Berenato. She is a WWE wrestler who goes by the name Sonya Deville.
“I have spoken to her and I’m glad she’s safe and I’m thankful and grateful that the sheriff's office took care of the situation immediately. Celebrity status aside this is sickening. I am a product of a sexual assault and have zero-tolerance or respect for any human being that would violate a person's privacy and or personal space," said WWE Superstar Titus O'Neil.
Deputies discovered he was carrying a knife, plastic zip ties, duct tape, mace, and other items.
Through the investigation, detectives discovered Thomas lived in South Carolina and came to Lutz specifically targeting the homeowner.
"We know the suspect was completely obsessed with the victim and they had been trying to engage in a conversation for several years, but were unsuccessful, and then Sunday night is when they tried to confront the victim," said Natalia Verdina, a public information officer with HCSO.
Thomas told deputies he was planning to take the homeowner hostage.
"Our deputies are unveiling the suspect's disturbing obsession with this homeowner who he had never met, but stalked on social media for years," said Sheriff Chad Chronister. "It's frightening to think of all the ways this incident could have played out had the home alarm not gone off and alerted the homeowner of an intruder. Our deputies arrived within minutes and arrested this man who was clearly on a mission to inflict harm."
Thomas was charged with aggravated stalking, armed burglary of a dwelling, attempted armed kidnapping, and criminal mischief.
We spoke with cybersecurity expert Stu Sjouwerman. He's the founder of KnowBe4, which trains business and individuals to be safer online. We asked him how easy it is to find the personal information of regular people and celebrities. His answer was the same for both.
"It is horribly easy. You would be surprised," he said.
Sjouwerman says there's no clear way to guarantee the protection of your data in today's age with one exception.
“Take a pair of scissors and snip that wire, go offline, and off-grid altogether. That's the only secure way otherwise you need to mitigate the risks," he said.
He says there are 12 healthy habits we can all adopt, on social media especially, to greatly reduce our risk against bad actors.
- Only friend people you have met in real life.
- Check your social network privacy settings regularly.
- Set your profile privacy to friends only.
- Don't check into locations because it makes it easier for someone to stalk you.
- Don't post that your house is empty when you go on vacation because it makes you a target for theft.
- Use a VPN when surfing social media on public WiFi.
- Don't post photos of items that may contain your personal information like your driver's license, check stubs, and airline tickets.
- Don't give random apps and survey sites permission to access your profile.
- Share with care, the internet is forever.
- Don't post anything that would upset your grandmother or someone interviewing you 10 years from now.
- Don't post company information or publicly rant about your professional life.
- Don't post evidence of illegal activities or inappropriate content.
If anyone has any information about the cases, call the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office at (813) 247-8200.
This story was first reported by Lisette Lopez and Isabel Rosales at WFTS in Florida.