ST. PETERSBURG — Late Monday night, a gas station manager stood behind his cash register, keeping the business running in a city where store clerks have become targets and victims.
Outside, an 18-year-old high school dropout rolled up on his bike.
Nearby, a veteran police detective kept an eye on both. The father of five was working one of law enforcement's most dangerous jobs: undercover cop.
The three lives intersected Monday night in gunfire and bloodshed.
The 18-year-old robbed the gas station at gunpoint with two other teens, police say, then shot the undercover officer when he tried to stop them.
Minutes later, all three teens were in custody, and the wounded detective was en route to a hospital.
The 41-year-old detective underwent emergency surgery for multiple gunshot wounds. He was reported in serious condition Tuesday. Police said they expect him to live.
Police are investigating the teens to see whether they are connected to a string of violent robberies in south Pinellas County over the last two months that have left store owners shaken. Police Chief Chuck Harmon said it's too early to tell.
Five clerks have been shot during the rash of holdups. The detective was victim No. 6.
"When you send officers undercover," Harmon said, "it's uniquely and inherently dangerous."
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The robbery Monday at the Exxon station, 3061 First Ave. N, raised the fears of owner Mohammed Masud.
"It's bad, bad, bad," said Masud, who owns several other stores. "I just want to get out. There's no buying, no customers. People are scared to work here."
In the six months his store manager, Saiful Chaudhury, has worked there, he has been robbed twice. The first holdup occurred about three months ago.
At about 10:20 p.m. Monday, Chaudhury, 42, looked out the store window and saw two young men wearing bandannas approaching the front door.
"That's when I understood something would be happening," Chaudhury said.
A teen wearing a red cloth over his face held the door as a gunman in a black mask burst in.
Police say James Allen Seay, 18, handled the medium caliber, semiautomatic handgun; Shaheed Amad Wright, 16, went inside the store to help rob it; and Desmond John Creary, 17, acted as lookout.
Police said the teens stole a DVD and cash. The total value of their take: $139.
As they emerged from the store, police were waiting.
Two undercover detectives had called for backup after seeing the teens on bicycles near First Avenue N and 31st Street. Something — police won't say what — made them suspicious. Then the teens dropped their bikes and headed for the store.
After taking the money, the teens went back to the bikes. An undercover detective ordered them to stop. Police say Seay fired several times at the detective, hitting him in the upper and lower body. The officer returned fire, but no one else was hit.
Backup officers swooped in and arrested the teens. Police recovered the weapon and bandannas at the scene.
The detective was recovering from surgery Tuesday. Harmon said he was responsive and improving by the hour.
The officer is a 19-year department veteran whose identity is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times because he is undercover. His personnel file is thick with good reviews and letters of gratitude from community members. The only blemishes are two minor crashes in his cruiser.
In the mid 1990s, the detective was involved in another shooting when he fired at a man who pointed what turned out to be a toy gun at him. The man was not seriously injured. A review board deemed the shooting justified.
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After he was read his rights, Seay admitted shooting the officer, an arrest report states.
All three teens were arrested on charges of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and armed robbery. The two younger teens were arrested as juveniles, but prosecutors could charge them as adults.
Seay limped to the microphone during his first court appearance Tuesday, apparently because a police dog bit him during his capture. A judge ordered him held without bail.
State records show Wright was arrested in Orlando last year on a burglary charge. Public records don't list any crimes for the other two.
Seay's family described him as a homebody who played video games. He dropped out of Gibbs High School at age 16, his family said, and has been robbed several times himself.
"He's not a thug," said cousin Carla Seay.
His uncle, Daryl Seay, said the family's thoughts are with the wounded officer.
"We offer our condolences to the officer and hope for his speedy recovery," he said.
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But as for what happened Monday night, the Seay family has plenty of questions.
"If a police officer saw all this before it happened, it should have been prevented," said older brother Ferrell Davis, 22.
Police pointed out that the officers had a short amount of time to react to an unpredictable situation. Harmon said that until Seay pulled a gun on the clerk, no crime had occurred.
Assistant Chief David DeKay, who oversees the unit, said undercover detectives try not to approach suspects and risk compromising their identities until they have to.
"They don't typically confront people, that's just not their job," DeKay said. "When they jump out and do something, they're pretty much committed to it."
Times staff writers Luis Perez and Craig Pittman and researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.