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Tampa Bay area robberies leave convenience store clerks anxious

GULFPORT — She locks the door at dark. She jiggles the handle, just to make sure. Then she peers through the glass, scans the parking lot of the Kwik Stop.

Out on 22nd Avenue S, a police car slides by, slowly. At least they're watching.

Renee Wilber, 45, takes her position behind the counter. It's the only place she feels even a little secure. A blue button below her left hand lets her buzz open the door when she wants to. A white one below her right hand calls the police. A new Smith & Wesson .45 is within her reach.

"I used to not mind the late shift. I used to walk home alone," Wilber says. "But now ..."

When the sun starts to slip, her stomach sinks. Her hands sweat. She scrutinizes every car that pulls up to the Marathon gas pumps, every person who walks through the door, even the folks she knows. And she worries.

Will this be the one?

Five convenience store clerks and one police detective have been shot and wounded in robberies in Gulfport and St. Petersburg since Dec. 1. In a couple of cases, the robbers strolled in and shot the clerks without warning, as if to brush aside a small annoyance.

There was another robbery just before those. It happened here at the Kwik Stop. But people don't know about it because nobody bled.

On Oct. 19, Renee Wilber's co-worker, 25-year-old Yassine Mouafiq, was alone in the store, stocking Budweiser in the cooler, when two hooded men with shotguns stormed in and threw him to the ground. They cleared out the register and took a roll of cash Mouafiq had saved to send to his mother.

Security cameras captured everything, but the police haven't arrested anybody.

Mouafiq still works at the Kwik Stop, alongside Wilber. They earn their $9 an hour stocking shelves and selling blunts, greeting regulars and fighting boredom — always with a wary eye on the door.

They know what can happen.

"Any night," Wilber says, "it could be you."

• • •

Headlights stripe the parking lot just after 7 p.m. on this Tuesday. A green Subaru backs in by the propane tanks.

Wilber reaches beneath the counter, her hand hovering near the white button.

Whenever someone backs in, she wonders why. So the driver can hide his face? So he can make a quick getaway? Or just because he wants to swap propane tanks? Sometimes a clerk can't tell the mundane from the terrifying until somebody pulls a gun.

A tall man wearing glasses climbs out of the Subaru. He shuts his car door, then opens the one to the back seat. Three Chihuahuas tumble onto the pavement, tangling their tiny harnesses.

Wilber sighs and laughs and punches the blue button that unlocks the store. She crosses to the deli and cuts three small squares of Boar's Head turkey. "Hello," she croons, crouching by the door to feed the dogs. "Is that good? You like that?"

She knows 90 percent of her customers by sight if not by name. She knows what the landscapers take in their coffee and what brand of beer the painters buy. She knows what kind of smokes the moms sneak after they drop their kids at school. What flavor rolling papers the guys want when they stumble in squinty-eyed. She knows your lucky Lotto number.

She knows not to trust you, even if she knows you.

"That kid they say shot the cop used to come in here eight, 10 times a day," she says. "He'd hold the door open for strangers, always ask how your day was going. You just never know anymore."

• • •

After the October robbery, Kwik Stop owner Isam "Sammy" Amoura got the gun. He hopes no one ever has to use it.

He invested in the magnet that lets clerks lock the door and buzz people in. He moved the humidor and the ATM, took down posters and signs from the store windows so his workers can see out. And so the cops can see in.

He added videocameras; seven survey the store. He rigged them so he can watch from home.

"We see a lot of stuff that makes us nervous every day," he says. Guys who pace the parking lot. Guys who prowl through the store but don't buy anything. Packs of guys, more than two, who barge in together. Guys who pull up their hoods when it's hot. Who wear sunglasses at night. Who always have a hand in their pocket. Who want you to get something behind the counter, like batteries or condoms, so you'll have to turn around.

"I've had this store 10 years," Amoura says, "and it's never been this rough."

His shop is a three-minute drive from the Gulfport Police Department. Check the records: In the past two years, the calls from the Kwik Stop fill 30 pages. Suspicious persons. Threats and drugs. A man snatched a woman's purse. A woman stole a bottle of wine. A pimp slapped a prostitute with a flip-flop. Then came the pickup that backed through the door; its driver stole the ATM. Then, the two guys with shotguns who battered the night clerk.

"We've tried to step up surveillance of our convenience stores. I've asked officers to park in their lots, do their paperwork there," says Sgt. Josh Stone.

At a citizens' Crime Watch meeting last week, everyone wanted to talk about convenience marts. Is it safe to buy gas after dark? If I duck in for a six-pack, am I going to get shot?

• • •

A woman in blue scrubs needs toothpaste. A man wearing a tie wants the usual: a pressed Cuban. Two teenagers with bloodshot eyes dump a half-dozen Reese's cups onto the counter.

Wilber scans the faces, bags their stuff, watches over their shoulders, surveying each aisle. She smiles and nods and makes coffee and change and wonders why she risks her life.

Just before 8 p.m., a big man in a ball cap strides across the parking lot. Wilber waves. "My bodyguard's here," she calls to her co-worker. "See you tomorrow."

Ever since the robbery, Wilber's boyfriend has been showing up at the end of her shift to walk her home.

• • •

The night clerk is alone now. Mouafiq pulls the cash from the second register and transfers it to the first. That way, he has only one drawer to watch.

He slides two black milk crates from the office and sits down. A movie keeps playing in his head, a video shot from above, two guys bursting through the door with shotguns, shoving him to the floor ...

He can't shake it. He won't talk about it.

He stares out the window, over the glow of the pink Florida Lottery flamingo. He keeps rubbing his head.

Around 10 p.m., a bell chimes. Someone is pumping gas. Mouafiq swivels to see.

A white-haired man with a goatee waves. "Hey, Mike, how you doing?" Mouafiq calls when he buzzes the man into the store.

Mike buys a 12-pack of Natural Light. On the way out, he holds the door open for a trio of 20-something men wearing baggy jeans and black jackets. Mouafiq never would have buzzed in these guys.

One has a ski cap pulled low over his forehead. One's wearing a do-rag. The other, a hoodie and sunglasses. Mouafiq watches as the first saunters to the beer cooler, the second bends into the ice cream freezer, and the guy with the sunglasses strides to the register.

"Got any batteries?"

Walking backward, never taking his eyes from the guy, Mouafiq reaches behind him and feels the wall. "Double A," says the man. His buddies walk up and flank him.

Mouafiq tosses the batteries on the counter and crosses quickly to the register. His left hand rings up the cost. His right hovers over the gun.

• • •

At 11:15, he yawns. Less than an hour to go. He peers through the locked doors, watches a man in a yellow T-shirt wobble up on a bike.

Mouafiq shakes his head, buzzes open the door. "Whazzup?" he says, watching the man stumble toward the cooler. "You okay?"

"Beer," says the man, shuffling to the counter.

Mouafiq bags four Natural Lights. "Be careful," he says.

The guy grabs his bag and shakily retreats. "No," he says, turning. "You be careful, man. I mean it. Don't let them bad guys get you. I hope you got something, brother, for when they come in here again."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Recent convenience store holdups

Oct. 19, 2008: Two men with shotguns storm into the Kwik Stop on 22nd Avenue S in Gulfport, and demand that the clerk open the safe. They take off with an undisclosed amount of cash. They haven't been caught.

Dec. 1, 2008: After emptying the register for armed robbers at Star Deli, 2451 Fifth Ave. N., clerk Narendra Patel, 53, is shot three times. He recovers.

Dec. 3, 2008: Two days after his brother was shot, 46-year-old Indravaden Patel was working at a different mini mart — Suhani at 2539 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N — when two men rob the store and shoot him in the stomach. Suhani recovers.

Dec. 6, 2008: Two men with their faces covered hold up John's Variety Store at 208 Fourth St. N with a pellet gun. Owner John Silva ducks behind the counter and pops up with a .380-caliber handgun he calls Betsy and fires three rounds. The would-be robbers flee.

Dec. 22, 2008: Three young men rob the Joy Food Mart, 1005 49th St. S, Gulfport, and shoot two clerks. One, Thanh Hoang, 43, has his three sons, ages 8, 10 and 11, in the store at the time.

Jan. 18, 2009: Two masked men rob Watson's Food Town at 3311 Fifth Ave. N with a knife and gun. The clerk, Anton Goubrial, 47, tries to wrest the knife away from one robber, but the other shoots him in the foot. The clerk survives and the robbers get away with an undisclosed amount of cash.

Jan. 26, 2009: When a group of teens rob Suncoast Exxon, 3061 First Ave. N, an undercover police officer chase after them. One of the teens shoots the officer, who survives.

On the web

You can view the Oct. 19 holdup at the Kwik Stop at links.tampabay.com.

Tampa Bay area robberies leave convenience store clerks anxious 02/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 4:44pm]

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