CLEARWATER — Joe Stillwell and his wife, Jen, were relaxing in their living room around 7:15 p.m. Wednesday when a man started pounding on their back door. Suddenly, he was in their house, having let himself in through an unlocked back door.
The man, later identified by sheriff's deputies as 23-year-old Nicholas Ryan Fox, originally demanded the couple not call police and told them to drive him to his address at 10572 Oakhurst Road, according to arrest reports.
He then "changed his story," reports said, telling them he was a crime victim who needed help and he would pay them to drive him.
But Joe Stillwell wasn't really buying his story.
"If someone was really in trouble like he was saying, wouldn't they come to the front door?" he said.
Stillwell, 33, who works for Pinellas County, said he remained calm, shared knowing glances with his wife and quickly formulated a plan.
"My goal was to play along with his story of needing help, to get him out of the house," he said.
What the Stillwells didn't know was that authorities were already searching for the man.
Deputies said that about 45 minutes before he showed up at the Stillwell home, Fox swiped a set of car keys off the bar at OZ Gentlemen's Club in Clearwater and stole a 2007 Buick from the parking lot.
As deputies searched for the Buick, Clearwater police spotted it on N Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. They said they saw the driver firing a handgun he found in the vehicle and began a pursuit.
The stolen car eventually crashed into a wall near Monterey Drive and Belleair Road and the driver ran, Pinellas deputies said.
He then sneaked into the unlocked back door of the Stillwell home in the 1600 block of Monterey Drive in unincorporated Pinellas, near Clearwater, not far from the crash scene, deputies said.
Stillwell said he and his wife always lock their back door when they sleep and when they aren't home, but leave it unlocked while they're awake so they can let their dogs into the fenced back yard.
It appeared the man scaled or jumped over their 6-foot wooden privacy fence to get into the yard, Stillwell said.
The couple's coonhound-German Shepherd mix, Bear, barked steadily at the intruder while he was in the house. Their older dog, a Labrador retriever-beagle mix named Maggie — "absolutely the worst guard dog ever made" — hid in the yard, he said.
While the man was in the Stillwell home, deputies and police had fanned out to look for him, using a Sheriff's Office helicopter and police dogs to assist in the search. Moments after Stillwell and the man walked out of the home and got into Stillwell's father's Pontiac sport utility vehicle, a Clearwater police officer approached with his gun drawn.
Stillwell put his hands up and got out. The man jumped into the driver's seat and took off, Stillwell said.
Authorities found the SUV abandoned at Antique Alley on Indian Rocks Road in Belleair Bluffs.
Witnesses told deputies that a man matching Fox's description lived in an apartment at 2645 Jewel Road in Belleair Bluffs. When deputies arrived, Sean Brown, 22, told them Fox was inside. Brown lives at the Jewel Road address, according to Pinellas court records. Deputies found Fox there and arrested him.
Fox faces charges of carjacking, burglary of an occupied dwelling, resisting arrest without violence, and violation of probation for robbery by sudden snatching. Records from the Florida Department of Corrections show that Fox was convicted of the robbery charge in 2009 and sentenced to a year and a half in prison.
He also has been convicted of resisting arrest without violence, battery, possession of marijuana, loitering and prowling, and felonious possession of a firearm, according to Pinellas court records.
Fox was being held Thursday without bail at the Pinellas County Jail.
Stillwell said he wished he had thought to turn off the ignition of the Pontiac and take the keys with him when he got out. Beyond that, he said, everything worked out for the best.
"My mission was accomplished. He was out of my house."
Rita Farlow can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.