ST. PETERSBURG — It was a terrifying start to the morning.
Residents of a central St. Petersburg neighborhood watched Wednesday as a SWAT team swooped in. A nearby school was put on alert as police surrounded a house where they thought three men were hiding after shooting a man.
With traffic rerouted and news helicopters hovering overhead, police decided after 2½-hours that they were going in.
The suspects were nowhere to be found.
Police said the suspects were at large late Wednesday.
A resident of the house called it a case of mistaken identity that began when an officer tracking the suspects with a dog peered through a window and mistook her brother for one of the men.
"Unbelievable,'' said April Curry, 32, who lives at the house with her brother, two friends and her five kids. "This was like the movies or something you'd watch on television.''
The drama began about 7 a.m. when Ramon J. Flournoy, 25, took his garbage out in the 4300 block of Ninth Avenue N. Three men walked up and demanded his car. He refused. One of the men shot him in the back.
Flournoy was taken to Bayfront Medical Center. He was expected to survive, said police spokesman Bill Proffitt.
During a search of the Central Oak Park neighborhood, a K-9 officer saw one of the suspects inside Curry's home, police said.
Officers surrounded the house. Inside, Lela Curry, an eighth grader at Tyrone Middle School, said she awoke to mayhem.
"They had guns pointed at the house," Curry, 14, said.
Her mom ordered her and the others to the floor. At one point, April Curry said, someone inside the house called 911 to ask what was happening.
About 9 a.m., nine people emerged from the house. April Curry said her daughter Lela was handcuffed, though officers let her go after she objected.
Neighbor Bill Sampson Jr. said he saw the occupants walk out with their hands up.
"Not a lot of muss and fuss, just walked toward the SWAT team," Sampson said.
About 10 a.m., the SWAT team entered the house. They emerged a half-hour later empty-handed.
The children said the suspects never were there. April Curry thought maybe the suspects had cut through her yard, noting that some rakes were knocked over.
But Profitt said officers think the suspects were in the home, but at some point escaped. He also said the suspects somehow are linked to the home. "It wasn't just a random house," Profitt said.
Mount Vernon Elementary, a few blocks from the standoff, was on lockout for more than four hours. In a lockout, the perimeter of a school is secured and students are kept inside, though, unlike in a lockdown, students are allowed to move about.
Police found crack cocaine and marijuana in Flournoy's rental car, raising suspicion the attack was drug-related, Proffitt said.
Records show Flournoy has an arrest record that includes a cocaine trafficking charge from 2006 and a marijuana possession charge from October.
Pat Malik, a 54-year-old courthouse researcher who lives two houses down from Flournoy, said she heard a loud noise just after 7 a.m., but thought it was some kind of electrical wire popping.
An officer came to her home about a half-hour later and asked if she had heard anything.
"I just haven't stopped shaking," she said a few hours after the shooting. "Believe me, we're going to move out of here fast."
April Curry said she recently moved there, hoping it was safer than her old neighborhood near 12th Street and 16th Avenue S.
"We thought it'd be quieter over here,'' April Curry said. "I don't know what to think. But lately it's been more action over on this side of town."
Emily Nipps can be reached at (727) 893-8452 or [email protected]