TAMPA — The seller agreed to a meeting in Ybor City with the Alabama fan seeking a ticket to that night's College Football Playoff national championship hours before the game.
But as scalper Joseph Steven Escalera began the transaction, his customer's two brothers snuck up from behind. One pinned Escalera to his chair, pinching a nerve between his neck and shoulder while holding a long, cold object to the back of his head. The other two took his shoes and socks, as well as six tickets to that night's game they found tucked in Escalera's waistband.
When Tampa police arrived, they arrested Escalera.
The brothers had called police to tell them the same scalper had sold them two counterfeit tickets to the game the day before — at $1,000 apiece. So they pulled a bit of fakery themselves, using a different email and phone number to arrange a second purchase from Escalera.
It took police 10 minutes to arrive. It's a good thing they came quickly, said Bryant Gentry, 29, one of the brothers, all from Louisiana. The only thing keeping Escalera in his chair was the Coca-Cola bottle pressed to his head.
"All these people had gathered around watching and I kept yelling, 'This guy sold us fake tickets, we're not robbing him,' " said Gentry, who had hoped to be spending that evening cheering on the University of Alabama as it took on Clemson University.
"The only way this weekend could have been better was if we caught the bad guy and our football team won," Gentry said.
Escalera wasn't the only one accused of taking advantage of fans hoping to score tickets to Monday's game, police said. Tampa police arrested six others for selling or attempting to sell counterfeit tickets, and have issued an arrest warrant for an eighth, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
He cautioned that the brothers' sting operation wasn't something police would advise.
"While this case ultimately was resolved peacefully, as a general rule we discourage crime victims from taking matters into their own hands," Hegarty said. "Both the victims and the suspect could have been injured, or worse.
"They did the right thing by calling Tampa police, and we were able to arrive quickly to take the suspect into custody."
The brothers found Escalera, a 20-year-old from Orlando, through an ad he placed on Craigslist. There were a "gazillion" ads from ticket brokers placed on the site before the game, but Escalera's was one of only a handful claiming to be for sale by owner, Gentry said.
He and his oldest brother met Escalera outside a bar in downtown Tampa on Sunday night and purchased two tickets, planning to find a third outside the stadium. The ticket seller was friendly and believable, but the older brother still took a selfie with Escalera "just in case," Gentry said.
When they arrived back at their hotel, the brothers began examining the tickets. They looked like those they had seen online, with gold foil edges and a picture of the Tampa skyline, but the barcode was on the back instead of the front and there was a strange blotch on one.
"We came to the conclusion we had been burned, and we're blessed enough with good jobs where we could replace that income, but we started thinking about all the other people he was probably taking advantage of and it made us mad," Gentry said. "What if some little kid's hopes of going to the game were dashed?"
So they arranged the second purchase, careful to conceal they were repeat customers.
After studying the picture they had taken with him the night before, Gentry waited across the street as one brother posed as a customer at a table outside the Tampa Bay Brewing Co. and the other kept watch from the Centro Ybor balcony.
By the time Tampa police arrested Escalera and took the brothers' statements, the three had to rush back to their hotel to catch the kickoff from a lobby TV, Gentry said. They watched the game with other fans who weren't able to snag a ticket, and eventually had some pizzas delivered.
They did not get back the $2,000 they gave to Escalera.
Still, what police recovered that day confirmed to the brothers that their time was well spent, they said. Not only were the six tickets they found on Escalera counterfeit, but 24 additional fake tickets were found in his hotel room, along with $1,700 cash.
"The loss of the game still hurts, but we got him and maybe that stopped someone else from losing money," Gentry said.
Escalera was still in the Hillsborough County jail Thursday night on $2,500 bail. He faces charges of fraudulent possession of admission tickets and grand theft.
Contact Anastasia Dawson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3377. Follow @adawsonwrites.