As restaurants across Tampa Bay tightened security following two late-night robberies and rapes, Hillsborough detectives issued a warrant for a man suspected in a similar crime.
"Absolutely," Hillsborough Sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said. "There are similarities."
Investigators are looking for Roberto Moron Martinez, 20, accused of abducting two 17-year-old girls July 19 in Apollo Beach and taking them to a vacant parking lot. The girls screamed and their attacker fled.
"We are looking at him in reference to other cases," Carter said, "but at this point we only have the warrant for that case."
At Table restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg, three masked, armed men forced their way in on Aug. 3, as a busboy took out the trash. The trio stole cash, and one employee was raped.
Then, last Saturday, three men with guns robbed, abducted and raped two women as they closed the Docks bar in Apollo Beach.
In both restaurant crimes, the suspects are described as Hispanic. The rapes took place early in the morning as the victims were leaving their restaurant jobs, investigators have said. But no links have been found between the St. Petersburg and Hillsborough restaurant cases, Carter said.
"We've compared notes and we've compared similarities," Carter said. "But right now, we are not willing to say that we believe it to be the same individuals.
"When asked whether Martinez has similar physical characteristics to a man suspected in Saturday's robbery and rape at an Apollo Beach restaurant, Carter said, "Absolutely."
Martinez, who listed his occupation as a welder, was last known to reside in Ruskin, but is currently at large. He was in jail as recently as Aug. 5 on suspicion of not having a valid driver's license and domestic violence battery, and released the next day.
Martinez is wanted on armed kidnapping and aggravated assault charges.
Deputies say he is the person who drove up to the two teenage girls in a dark SUV as they were walking on U.S. 41 in Apollo Beach around 3 a.m. on July 19.
The man asked if they wanted a ride. They said no, and walked west on Elsberry Road. Deputies say the man came back on foot, confronted them with a gun and asked to use one of the girl's cell phones. Then he grabbed them by the neck and marched them to a vacant parking lot, ordering them to lie down. They screamed and he ran away.
Carter said the Sheriff's Office has received "numerous, numerous tips" on the Apollo Beach rape and robbery case.
"Several things were helpful and some have proved to be promising," she said.
At Pacific Wave in downtown St. Petersburg, staffers have started locking the back door at 5 p.m. Managers have asked employees to use a buddy system when they leave at night, and flood lights have been put in outside two entrances.
"It's pretty scary," Manager Megan Smith said. "I don't know if anything can really make you feel safer about stuff like that."
The crimes prompted the pre-shift huddle meeting at the Village Inn on N Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa to take a more sober tone as general manager Carson Kohlmetz reminded employees of the restaurant's nighttime security policies.
Make sure all doors are locked. No one takes out the trash at night. All employees must be accompanied to their cars at dark.
"My night managers are instructed to keep a really close eye on the door," Kohlmetz said.
Many late-night or 24-hour restaurants, such as Denny's on E Hillsborough Avenue or the Front Porch Grille on N Florida Avenue, have similar procedures, which help employees feel secure, managers said.
"I'll be honest with you," said Duane Piadade, manager of New York New York Pizza in Ybor City. "On our late nights, there's cops on every corner down here. I don't think there really is an issue for our restaurant."
But Durty Nelly's Irish Tavern in downtown St. Petersburg started setting its alarm after hearing about the robbery and rape at Table.
Bartender Brad Wolf said he won't ride his bicycle home alone anymore.
"It's really sad that we have to," he said.
At the Central Avenue Oyster Bar, they decided to lock the back gate instead of relying on just a locked back door.
"You've just got to watch your back basically," said manager Darryl DeLisle.
Docks Bar and Grill owner Shawn Haverfield is setting up an account for donations for the Apollo Beach victims at Colonial Bank. Though not active as of Wednesday, he said that it will be called "The Southshore Abduction Fund."
All proceeds will go toward his employees, who will split the donations.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.