ST. PETERSBURG — Police fanned out across the city Monday to combat the armed robbers who gunned down two convenience store owners last week.
The counterattack started with a handshake.
"Hello, I'm Detective Truong," Joseph Truong said in store after store. "This is my partner, Detective Corbet."
The city targeted hundreds of convenience stores, gas stations and food marts as Truong, Steve Corbet and their fellow officers met with owners and employees.
The police had two goals in mind:
First, they wanted to tell them how to fortify their businesses from a violent robbery.
Second, they wanted to spread word of the $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the two gunmen who shot brothers Narendra and Indravadan Patel in separate robberies.
The money was put up by the Asian American Convenience Stores Association, which the Patels belong too, and the Indian social organization Gujarati Samaj of Tampa Bay.
The association's St. Petersburg membership is "petrified" of the gunmen, said spokesman Sid Shah, who owns the Texaco at 3727 Tyrone Blvd.
"Right now the robbers are loose, and they're not afraid of using the gun," Shah said. "The convenience store owners are cooperating, they're doing everything they're told to do, and they're still getting shot at.
"I hope the (gunmen) get caught before anyone loses their life."
That could have happened to the Patels. Narendra Patel was shot three times during the Dec. 1 robbery of the Star Deli on Fifth Ave. N.
He was released from the hospital on Dec. 3, just hours before his brother, Indravadan Patel, was shot in the stomach during the armed robbery of his store, Suhani, on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.
Indravadan Patel was the more seriously injured of the brothers and at one point was reported in critical condition. But Shah said Monday that he seemed to be stable and out of immediate danger.
"We are in close contact with the family," Shah said. "We are praying for them."
There was a third armed robbery on Saturday at John's Variety Store on Fourth Street N. Two suspects were captured, but police ruled them out as suspects in the previous shootings because they used a pellet gun.
Store after store on Monday accepted the police officers' fliers, which offered crime prevention tips, surveillance photos and descriptions of the gunmen.
The stores are the only source of income for many immigrants, and a source of heartache for their families.
"They worry all the time," said Raed Rajab, the 38-year-old father of three and part-owner of the Sunshine Food Mart at 901 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. S. He's a Palestinian who emigrated here from Jordan in 1996.
Rajab keeps a revolver under the counter and has bulletproof glass all around the register — yet he's been robbed twice in the past two years.
Despite the recent violence, Detective Truong could see that some store owners aren't being as careful as they should.
"Unfortunately, not everybody is prepared," he said. "Some of the people you talk to, I get the impression they have a 'It can't happen to me' philosophy."
Marvin Gamble is not one of them. He's never been robbed in his seven years behind the counter at the Quikie Food Store Inc. at 1500 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. S — and he doesn't want to be now.
"Every time the door opens," the 48-year-old store clerk said, "you look up to see who's coming in."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.