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Latest robbery at deli tests family

ST. PETERSBURG — The half-dozen robberies at Star Deli over the last decade have cost the Patel family their peace of mind.

And in 2002, a robber's bullet took a piece of patriarch Narendra Patel's right lung.

So when two masked gunmen ran into his store Monday night, Patel did as they asked. He emptied the register, his family said, handing over $80 to $100.

The robbers weren't satisfied.

"Is this all the (expletive) money?" said one robber, aiming a gun point-blank at Patel. "I'm not playing with you."

The gunman fired a warning shot, police said, then aimed at the owner. He shot Patel in the right foot, then in the chest and the left hand as he ran out of the store.

"I'm shot," Patel told a customer who shared his eyewitness account with the St. Petersburg Times. "I'm shot."

St. Petersburg police now are searching for the two gunmen. They're also comparing notes with Hillsborough authorities who are investigating three recent violent robberies on that side of the bay.

Patel, 53, was reported in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center on Tuesday.

And Star Deli was open for business again.

Patel's family had no choice.

• • •

Narendra and Varsha Patel have been married 29 years and have a son and a daughter.

They hail from the western Gujarat region of India but immigrated to the United States about 14 years ago.

Narendra Patel was a banker in his native country. Sometimes, his son, Janmejay, 27, wishes his father had stayed in that business.

"Right now, the way things are going, I wish we wouldn't have come here," said the son.

At the deli, the father works the day shift and the son works nights. But the son's flight home from New Jersey was delayed Monday. The elder Patel was covering for the him when the robbers entered the store, 2451 Fifth Ave. N, about 10:30 p.m.

Shots were fired moments later and the robbers were out the door. A customer called 911.

Though Patel was shot three times, he was on his feet by the time police arrived. He also had already called his wife.

"He's fine," said his teary-eyed wife, Varsha Patel, 50, before visiting him in the hospital Tuesday. "He's strong, which is why he is fine."

Patel's son said the two gunmen didn't have to shoot his father. He did everything they asked.

Said the son: "Why shoot someone if they don't give you a reason to?"

• • •

The robbery was caught on videotape. It also was witnessed by a lone customer, a 24-year-old man. His identity is being withheld by the Times at the request of police because the two gunmen are still at large.

Hard economic times usually lead to an increase in property crimes, and St. Petersburg is no exception. Those crimes are up 5 percent compared with last year. But police don't believe hard times explain what happened at Star Deli on Monday night.

"For the most part the type of individual who is going to be involved in armed robberies has a criminal history," said Maj. Mike Puetz, who heads the crimes against persons division. "Usually a serious one."

There were three violent robberies in Hillsborough this weekend, including one in which a 27-year-old drugstore clerk was shot twice. But authorities there don't see any links to the Star Deli robbery.

"We are talking to St. Petersburg and haven't ruled it out," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. "But at this point it doesn't appear to be related."

Neighborhood stores are a time-honored way for immigrants to make a living in this country. The Patel family certainly thought Star Deli, in the Historic Kenwood neighborhood, right next to St. Petersburg High School, would be a safe place to do just that.

But they've been robbed five or six times in the past 10 years, they say, including the 2002 holdup in which Narendra Patel was shot. It took him a year to return to work.

The family also knows about the two people who were shot to death in August during a robbery at the nearby Central Food Mart.

"More and more you see these little stores targeted every day," said Janmejay Patel.

But in these hard times, the family has to keep the doors open.

"It's our only source of income," the son said.

Staff writer Rebecca Catalanello contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Latest robbery at deli tests family 12/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 11:02pm]
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