ST. PETERSBURG — Velislav Matzov and Joseph Hollings Jr. had plenty of recent experience robbing drug stores when they walked into the Blockbuster video store late Wednesday armed with handguns, police say.
But the two teenagers didn't know that officers with the St. Petersburg Police Department's Special Investigations unit were watching them.
Chief Chuck Harmon said the unit, which specializes in surveillance and stakeouts, had gotten a tip on one of the suspects and was following them to get more evidence. They didn't expect them to rob the video store.
Just minutes before 11 p.m. Wednesday, Matzov and Hollings walked into the store at 5100 66th St. N, their faces concealed. They drew handguns, demanded money and headed out with $300, police said.
But a 36-year-old detective in plain clothes was outside with his colleagues. Greg Muchmore, who was across the street, said the detective yelled "Freeze!"
Instead, Matzov opened fire, authorities said. The detective was hit twice, once in the stomach and once in the right forearm.
The detective, who authorities are not naming because he is undercover, fired back. He hit Matzov in the right buttock.
After the shots, other police swarmed the scene. The detective, a 16-year veteran, was rushed to Bayfront Medical Center for emergency surgery and remained in serious but stable condition Thursday. Matzov's injury was not life-threatening.
Matzov, 19, Hollings, 18, and Danielle Karlau, 19, who was driving the Volkswagen Passat getaway car, were arrested immediately after the shooting, police said. A few hours later, police said, they arrested two other members of the robbery ring: 17-year-old Danny Knight and 18-year-old William Jaeger.
All five will face charges related to armed robbery of two St. Petersburg pharmacies, police spokesman Bill Proffitt said. Knight also faces charges of trafficking in hydrocodone. Matzov, Karlau and Hollings each face charges of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and armed robbery of the Blockbuster.
Harmon said the shooting was a reminder of the perils of police work.
"It reinforces that police officers have very dangerous jobs and a lot of times put themselves in harm's way to protect the community," Harmon said. "I'm very proud of that unit and the folks involved. They were trying to stop some very bad people."
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The string of pharmacy robberies began on March 13, with the robbery of a CVS pharmacy at 294 37th Ave. N. Police say four people entered the store with guns. Two of them went to the counter, getting $300. Two others went to the pharmacy for prescription drugs such as OxyContin and Xanax.
On April 15, the robbers struck again, this time at a CVS pharmacy in Pinellas Park. Police said the three men wearing black clothing and face coverings held up two clerks at gunpoint while stealing cash and narcotics from the pharmacy. Hollings, Jaeger and Matzov each face a count of armed robbery in that case, Pinellas Park police said Thursday.
And on April 28, police say, the robbers hit a Walgreens at 3077 54th Ave. S. In that robbery, Matzov and others took cash and narcotics, forcing employees to open the drug cabinet. They took prescription drugs such as hydrocodone, OxyContin and methadone, police said.
In the Walgreens robbery, police say Karlau walked into the store and let her fellow culprits know when the business was empty of customers so they could move in.
The Tampa Bay region has seen a spike in pharmacy robberies. In one two-week span in late March and early April, at least six drug stores were robbed. In those hold-ups, the robbers demanded drugs — in most cases oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin.
The robbery spree even prompted Walgreens to remove the painkiller OxyContin from some of its Pinellas County drug stores.
Family members of the suspects could not be reached for comment. None of the suspects has any serious criminal record in Florida, records show. A few weeks ago, Matzov had his probation on a DUI charge terminated early.
Because the Wednesday night shooting took place in unincorporated Pinellas County, the Sheriff's Office is investigating the robbery and the shooting. St. Petersburg police are conducting an internal review of the shooting, which is standard procedure.
Harmon, who visited the hospital early Thursday after learning of the shooting, said the department is focused on supporting the detective's family. Harmon added that based on what he had learned so far, he felt that the detective and others in the unit acted properly.
"I just hope the community keeps them in their thoughts and prayers," Harmon said. "As far as the folks that did this violent crime, at the end of the day, I am hoping that … they get the max."
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8472.