Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas Park man attacked by alligator while trying to flee traffic stop

Bryan Zuniga took great pains to get away from a Pinellas deputy who tried to pull him over early Thursday.

Instead, he ended up in great pain.

After Zuniga stopped his 1995 Nissan SUV in the 7100 block of 78th Avenue, he jumped out and started running away, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

A fence was no match for the 20-year-old. However, an alligator was.

Authorities said Zuniga's escape attempt was thwarted when he encountered one of the reptiles behind a water-treatment plant near St. Petersburg.

The gator, Zuniga later told deputies from a hospital room, bit his face and arm.

"He just said he was attacked by the alligator," said sheriff's spokeswoman Cristen Rensel. "It's still unclear how he got (to the hospital)."

Rensel said the incident began about 2:47 a.m. Thursday when a deputy spotted Zuniga, who lives in Pinellas Park, weaving in his lane. The deputy put on his lights and signaled the SUV to pull over.

Instead, Rensel said, Zuniga stopped his vehicle and jumped out the passenger side. He started running, and in the process kicked a hole in a vinyl fence to escape.

Deputies pursued but didn't find him. They issued an alert to local law enforcement.

Several hours later, they got a call from St. Petersburg police, who'd been called to St. Petersburg General Hospital for what was described as an "animal attack."

Zuniga, a report said, told St. Petersburg authorities he was walking home when the attack happened about 5 a.m. at a bridge at 54th Avenue N and Belcher Road.

His story didn't include anything about a traffic stop or a sheriff's deputy.

"He stated he was watching fish jump when he fell in and was attacked by an alligator," a St. Petersburg police officer wrote in a report.

The officer, noting that the attack would have been in a different jurisdiction, called the Sheriff's Office. Deputies soon made the connection and realized Zuniga matched the description of the person who fled earlier.

During his interview with deputies, Zuniga admitted the attack happened behind the water-treatment plant between Westchester Boulevard and 71st Street N, Rensel said.

She also noted that at about 5 or 6 a.m., dispatchers took a call from a citizen who said a man approached and claimed to have been attacked by an alligator.

But when the citizen returned from getting a car, the man was gone.

Zuniga was released from the hospital later Thursday and booked into the Pinellas County Jail on charges of breaking or injuring fences, fleeing and eluding, driving with a suspended or revoked license and resisting an officer without violence. He was being held in lieu of $6,300 bail.

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