LAKELAND — Three armed men were taken into custody Saturday after climbing through a McDonald's drive-thru window, taking employees and customers hostage and hiding in the ceiling while more than 100 law enforcement officials surrounded the building, deputies say.
According to Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee, the unidentified gunmen ended up at the Polk County fast food restaurant while fleeing from deputies after carjacking a black late model Dodge Charger at from the parking lot of the Hamlin at Lake Brandon apartment complex, 1608 Ladora Drive in Brandon, around 7:30 a.m.
No one was injured in the carjacking or the hostage situation, Gee said. But the whole ordeal caused major traffic backups on I-4 and Frontage Road, parts of which were closed for hours.
Deputies continued to follow the car off an eastbound Interstate 4 exit ramp and onto Frontage Road, where the car crashed into the median before the suspects — identified as three black men thought to be from the Orlando area — walked to the nearby McDonald's restaurant at 5325 Frontage Road S.
Some details about what happened next are still unclear, but Gee says at least one of the men showed his gun to people waiting in the drive-thru before showing it to the female employee working the drive-thru window. Before she could close the window, the men crawled through it to get inside, he said.
An undisclosed number of employees and customers were held in the back of the store for some time, the sheriff said, before being helped back out the drive-thru window to safety. One suspect at that time followed the hostages out the window and surrendered, Gee said, but the other two remained inside.
That's when deputies started receiving calls from an unidentified woman who said her brother — who in reality was no where near the scene — was still inside, hiding from the armed men. The man, who police have also not identified but say is well known by Lakeland police, even went as far as posting on social media to tell people he was being held hostage in the restaurant's bathroom.
After spending hours trying to confirm whether what the man and woman were saying was true — using a remote-controlled robot to explore the inside of the building and having the McDonald's manager double and even triple check that all his staff was accounted for — deputies realized the information was phony and were able to go inside to find the two other suspects, who were hiding in the ceiling.
It is not clear if the sister of the man who pretended to be trapped inside knowingly gave a false report and will face charges, but Gee said he expects the man to.
"He just took an opportunity on social media, and it really took a lot of time, put a lot of (people) in danger and wasted a lot of tax money," the sheriff said. "I am really hoping there is a charge or at least some public ridicule of this person over that."
Contact Megan Reeves at email@example.com or (727) 445-4153. Follow @mreeves_tbt.