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Members of women's bowling team help bring in purse snatching suspect in Largo

The usual swirl of sounds rolled and clanked in the dim bowling alley. Stella Pagano, 73, was there like she is every Tuesday morning, sipping her coffee, watching the pins fall as her women's bowling league, Good Times, did their thing at Twedt's Lanes in Largo.

At this hour, around 10 a.m., everyone bowling tends to know everyone else.

But this Tuesday, Pagano noticed a stranger moving among the chairs.

"I just had this feeling. I intentionally moved my pocketbook to down below my seat," Pagano said.

She was suspicious. So were other members of her team, the Cinderellas.

The man was wearing a backpack, and the handle of a baseball bat was sticking from the top. He had asked for a job application, but, police said, he was really looking for something else.

Minutes after she eyeballed the man, Pagano said she heard the scream.

"I said, 'son of a b, it's that guy I was looking at!' " Pagano said.

She watched the man sprint from the bowling alley with one of her teammates' purses.

Pagano dialed 911.

Susan Gahan and Christine Guzman, both members of the league, did something else.

"I caught him out the corner of my eye grab a purse off the table. I thought, 'Oh no he did not just grab a purse after we'd be watching him,' " said Guzman, 46. "I figured maybe he'd drop it if we ran after him. I was just so irritated that I saw him take the purse I didn't bother to think."

She ran out the door after him. Gahan ran too, but after her friend.

"I saw Christine run out the door, and I ran after her," said Gahan, 50. "I never thought about that stupid baseball bat."

Bowling shoes clattered against the pavement.

Now in the sunlight, the man darted south along Seminole Boulevard, through the parking lot of a nearby dance store.

The interrupted bowlers remained in hot pursuit, flailing to passing cars, trying to flag down some help.

A man on a motorcycle saw the women, then a man with a purse running ahead of them. The women didn't catch his name, but they caught his attention.

"I said, 'Get him!' " Gahan said.

The man dismounted and charged along with them.

The chase ended soon after.

It went down in the parking lot of the Birdsong motel at 12930 Seminole Blvd. The man on the motorcycle, Guzman said, told them he was a retired police officer. He tackled the man, but couldn't keep him down.

Gahan stepped in.

"He was trying to get up. I was mad. He wasn't getting up," she said.

Others gathered around to lend a hand. Bystanders at the motel called police.

"There was Susan, the retired police officer, they held him in place until the police got there," Guzman said.

When Largo police Sgt. Ryan Dulski arrived at the scene, he was surprised. Not by the middle-aged women who helped detain the suspect, but by what the suspect said to officers.

"The guy was basically saying, 'Help me,' " Dulski said. "They were holding onto his legs."

They held him for good reason, Dulski said.

Police were already looking for the man, identified as Eric Rivera, 33, a repeat criminal who has a record of drug and theft offenses.

Not long before Rivera was apprehended, police say, he tried to break into the rear storage area of a nearby Lowe's home improvement store. He was chased away by store security.

And the items found in Rivera's backpack was what Dulski called a "burglary kit."

"The guy had a baseball bat, a crowbar, slim jim, couple knives, two screwdrivers," Dulski said.

And a crack pipe.

He is being held on $22,150 bail in the Pinellas County Jail on charges of burglary, possession of burglary tools, grand theft, possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of a controlled substance

While the whole encounter was a blur, Gahan said she came away with a good feeling.

"I just thought it was so cool how everybody helped," she said. "People do care."

Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or dtao@sptimes.com

Members of women's bowling team help bring in purse snatching suspect in Largo 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 7:43pm]
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