APOLLO BEACH — On both sides of Tampa Bay, authorities are investigating whether recent robberies and sexual assaults at restaurants are more than coincidence.
"There are obviously similarities," St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt said.
In both cases, suspects described as three Hispanic men raped victims early in the morning as they were leaving their restaurant jobs.
Hillsborough County sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said the two agencies are comparing "several things," but she would not elaborate. Proffitt has previously said the men in the St. Petersburg case left behind physical evidence.
On Aug. 3, three masked, armed men forced their way into the Table in downtown St. Petersburg as a busboy took out the trash. The trio stole cash and raped one of the employees.
On Saturday, at the Docks in Apollo Beach, three men with guns robbed, abducted and raped two women as they closed the bar.
Asked if authorities had collected DNA samples to compare, Proffitt declined to answer.
People on both sides of the bay have reacted in horror at the crimes.
"Everyone around here is hoping it doesn't become a serial thing," said Joe Moledo, 40, general manager at the Table. "We're just trying to get our lives back to normal."
The rape victim is getting treatment and has not yet come back to work, he said.
'Still in shock'
Residents of the usually relaxed bayfront community of Apollo Beach are looking over their shoulders after the attack.
"I'm still in shock," Karen Norris, 53, said while leaving the Publix Shopping Center on U.S. 41, where the Docks restaurant is located. She stood just across the parking lot from where the women were abducted, looking at the facade of the business.
"You think you live in a nice little area where everyone knows each other and that nothing like this could happen," Norris said, shaking her head. "It certainly makes you more aware."
Sandwiched between Gibsonton to the north and Ruskin to the south, Apollo Beach is a small community known for its mix of waterfront mansions, older canal-front ranch houses and more modest homes. Vicious crimes like the one that took place last weekend are extremely rare.
At the Hair Carvers salon, next door to the Docks, employees are no longer allowed to stay late or by themselves, owner Vickie Tawney said. In 16 years at the plaza, she said she couldn't recall such a crime.
"It's unfortunate, but we'll just have to take on business when we can," she said. "We all feel really horrible about what happened. You think you're safe, and then you're not. And to think that something like that happened in a small place like this."
Inside his restaurant, Docks owner Shawn Haverfield sat at the bar Tuesday, looking over a benefit flier he created for his two employees.
Lunch patrons filed past the note in the front window, and a pile of the printouts were stacked on the bar. Customers looked over newspapers, talking about what happened.
Robbery, then rape
Hillsborough deputies say that about 3 a.m. Saturday, the men confronted one of the Docks employees in the parking lot, then forced her back inside the restaurant where the other employee remained.
The men then robbed the restaurant and forced the two women, ages 24 and 31, into one of the victim's vehicles. All three of them raped the women in a field near the Tampa Electric plant in Apollo Beach.
The victims were then taken to an ATM, where the men tried to withdraw money from one victim's account. The women were later dropped off along Interstate 75 in Manatee County, where they called for help.
This weekend and next, Haverfield will donate a portion of proceeds to help the two women with expenses. He found out about what happened to them while returning Sunday from vacation. On Tuesday, he was setting up an account for donations.
"We feel awful," he said.
Times news researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2454.