TAMPA — A beloved gorilla, innocently waving at passing cars, vanished just before sundown.
The hunt for the gorilla-nappers was on.
A Tampa landmark for more than 30 years, the motorized gorilla was stolen Wednesday from outside State Vacuum on Kennedy Boulevard. By Thursday morning, the senseless crime had made the news.
Tips rolled in. Law enforcement officials looked.
Within 24 hours, the thieves had been nabbed, and the gorilla was back home.
The store's owner, David Epstein, said the nightmare started when he got a phone call around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Someone had seen two people putting the gorilla, which was dressed in an Arizona Cardinals shirt, into a black hatchback car.
"Sure enough, I look out there, and it's gone," Epstein said — the first time in over three decades that such a thing had occurred.
He checked a surveillance video and saw two women in hooded sweat shirts who looked to be 18 to 25, dragging the gorilla.
Shortly after a story was posted Thursday morning on the St. Petersburg Times Web site, tampabay.com, an anonymous tipster posted a comment. He or she claimed to "know for a fact where the missing gorilla is," and implicated freshmen who live in a University of Tampa residence hall.
The tip prompted a campus search. Eric Cardenas, the university spokesman, said campus security officers reviewed surveillance footage from four dorm halls. Residential assistants and housekeepers looked in rooms and closets.
"They did not see anything on footage that would lead them to believe there is a gorilla on our campus," Cardenas said.
But they looked in the wrong dorms. Later in the afternoon, Tampa police got a tip that the gorilla was in Smiley Hall.
Epstein went to the campus and faced the two guilty freshmen.
He decided not to press charges. They may be disciplined by the university's judicial review board, Cardenas said.
The gorilla was missing his jersey, because "supposedly, one of the girls gave it to some guy," Epstein said.
The statue is one of two $1,200 motorized gorillas Epstein owns. They've been part of State Vacuum since Epstein's father, Bernie, spotted a couple at a novelty store in Las Vegas more than 35 years ago. He was attending a vacuum convention there, won some money, and decided to spend it on something fun.
"We never let dad go to Las Vegas again," Epstein said.
Bernie Epstein died six years ago, and the younger Epstein has kept up the family tradition, replacing the gorillas every eight years or so. He used to buy them from New Orleans until Hurricane Katrina wiped out the city's supply. Now he buys them from Amish country in Pennsylvania.
The returned gorilla will be put back in front of the store with a new Cardinals jersey, Epstein said.
"He's a little shaken up," he said. "But he'll be all right."
Times staff writers Sherri Day and Stephanie Hayes contributed to this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452.