LAND O'LAKES — A bank robbery suspect — already facing a bank robbery trial in Hillsborough County — was arrested Tuesday night after a six-hour standoff that shut down a stretch of U.S. 41, stranding hundreds of people trying to get home.
Patrol cars from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office blockaded U.S. 41 all evening. As dusk fell, crews wheeled out floodlights to illuminate the rural highway.
Tito Morell, 34, agreed to surrender just before 9 p.m. — after he finished a cigarette.
"Everybody needs a last cigarette," Pasco Sheriff Bob White said. "We don't do smoke breaks in jail."
Authorities say Morell robbed a Wachovia bank in Hudson about 3 p.m., then led deputies on a high-speed chase on State Road 52. He turned south on U.S. 41 and, to deputies' surprise, stopped in the middle of the road.
Then he refused to get out.
A deputy shot at the tires of the red Chevy Cavalier so Morell couldn't flee, sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said.
At one point, Morell held a 9mm handgun to his head, authorities said. Deputies urged him to surrender and brought out his family members to speak to him, White said.
"His family is very distraught," the sheriff said.
Deputies began chasing Morell after reports came in of a gunman robbing the Wachovia bank at 14048 U.S. 19 in Hudson. A witness saw the gunman get into his car and called in a description to 911.
Deputies followed Morell as he fled east on SR 52, with speeds reaching 85 mph, according to emergency dispatchers.
The chase wasn't Morell's first: He was arrested in October 2004 after robbing the Hernando County Bank west branch and leading authorities on a high-speed pursuit through Spring Hill. Later, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office issued warrants for Morell's arrest on suspicion that he held up four banks in Hillsborough from July to October 2004.
He was sentenced to six years in prison. Florida Department of Corrections records indicate he was released from prison in January 2009.
He moved to Sun City Center — and was arrested in May 2009 on new bank robbery charges in Hillsborough. White said Morell was awaiting trial on those charges and may have had a court date Tuesday.
The standoff left scores of residents stranded at nearby gas stations and parked along the shoulder of SR 52, waiting for a resolution.
"It's hard times and people do hard things," said Frank Dyar, 77, who came out Tuesday evening to watch the commotion.
As the evening wore on, deputies reopened a lower portion of U.S. 41 near Ehren Cutoff to allow some residents to go home. But that didn't help Sarah Bernasek, 24, whose home was a stone's throw from the standoff. A quick errand ended up becoming a daylong outing for Bernasek, her fiance and her 11/2-year-old daughter, Addison.
"I just put my last diaper on her," Bernasek said, "so if this goes on much longer, it's going to stink."
Even after Morell surrendered and was arrested, deputies planned to keep the blockade up for a few more hours. Morell had thrown money out his window during the chase, White said, and deputies needed to collect the evidence.