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Downtown robbery, sexual assault shock police and area merchants

Patrick Barbour, 35, of St. Petersburg stands in the alleyway behind the Grillside Central restaurant, where he is a waiter. Grillside has tightened its procedures: no more smoke breaks out here.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Patrick Barbour, 35, of St. Petersburg stands in the alleyway behind the Grillside Central restaurant, where he is a waiter. Grillside has tightened its procedures: no more smoke breaks out here.

ST. PETERSBURG — The crime shocked downtown residents and business owners.

Three masked, armed men forced their way into the Table early last Sunday morning as a busboy took out the trash. They stole cash, and an employee was sexually assaulted.

But as upsetting as police and community members found the incident, they said it doesn't reflect day-to-day crime downtown. Police reported a surge in strong-arm robberies lately, and downtown businesses said they sometimes have petty crime. But no one recalled an attack on the level of last weekend's.

"What happened … was a despicable crime and a tragedy for the Table and Mesa Lounge family," owner Rafael Manzano said in a statement.

The restaurant has upgraded its security system, put cameras at exits and is adding security personnel for special events, said Lindsey Nickel-de la O, spokeswoman for the Table. The business is also working with the Alexander Building to see what other security can be added.

Maj. Melanie Bevan, who oversees a district that includes downtown, said police are taking the Table incident "very, very seriously," with officers canvassing the neighborhood for tips and working every resource in the investigation.

"When it comes to something like this, we realize the impact," Bevan said.

At the same time, she said, "it doesn't happen very often in the downtown area."

Police haven't seen the usual surge in summer crime, she said. But over the last few weeks, police have noticed a pattern of men on bikes who commit strong-arm robberies early in the morning.

She said police have been patrolling heavily in response — both with a dozen dedicated officers who work downtown and district patrol officers.

A Times employee was robbed at gunpoint Thursday night outside the building on 490 First Ave. S. Police arrested a suspect who is charged with being an accessory to a robbery.

Shopkeepers along Central Avenue and Beach Drive have their complaints — especially about vagrancy — but agreed with the police assessment that Sunday's attack was an anomaly.

"If someone gets their purse snatched, that happens," said Anthony Nasso, manager of the Bella Brava trattoria on Central Avenue.

"For three guys to kick in the back door — that takes it to a different level."

After the robbery, employees at the Grillside Central restaurant began taking certain safety precautions. Now they wait until the morning to empty the trash and take cigarette breaks across the street instead of at the back of the restaurant, said Patrick Barbour, a server at Grillside Central.

"We tried to tighten ship because of what happened," Barbour said. "It seems like it would happen in Tampa or Miami, not St. Petersburg, that kind of aggressive crime," he said.

Bevan said businesses should advise their employees to work in pairs and to avoid a consistent pattern of behavior, like taking out the trash at the same time of day.

Some business patrons and employees have resigned themselves to seeing more crimes occur, with the rough economy pushing some people to desperation and tight budgets limiting city services.

"I'm not really surprised with what's going on in the economy that someone would take a chance like that to rob a restaurant," Barbour said.

Manny Matalon, manager of Daddy Kool Records, said he has noticed a decline in police presence over the years and wishes there would be more officers on patrol. But he recognizes police and businesses cannot stop every crime.

"I don't think there's much you can do to prevent that sort of thing from happening short of having a guy with a gun," he said.

Downtown robbery, sexual assault shock police and area merchants 08/09/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 13, 2008 2:14pm]
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