ST. PETERSBURG — Behind the extra-strength Tylenol, gum and Alka-Seltzer, John Silva kept a gun named Betsy.
So when two masked men barged into his store Saturday night demanding money at gunpoint, he ducked down and grabbed the .380-caliber handgun.
"By the time I had it cocked, they ran like jackrabbits," said Silva, 53. "They never had a chance to shoot me. I just reacted."
Silva stepped outside and fired three rounds at the two men. Police captured two men they suspect in the crime — one near Central Avenue and Fifth Street, the other taking a swim in Mirror Lake with a police dog in pursuit.
Detectives were interviewing the men late Saturday night to determine if they were the ones who tried to rob Silva. Detectives also wanted to know if they were behind two armed robberies last week.
On Monday and Wednesday, two stores in St. Petersburg were robbed at gunpoint by two masked men. The clerks, who are brothers, were shot even though they cooperated with the robbers. One was treated and released from the hospital; relatives on Friday said the other was improving at Bayfront Medical Center.
Silva was the only one to make it out of an armed robbery unharmed. Will he face charges for shooting?
"Probably not," said Lt. N. Patterson. The State Attorney's Office will review the case and make the final call.
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Silva was perched behind the counter Saturday, as he has been for the four months since he opened the store. His friend Greg Damron, 33, was standing by the beer cooler in the squeezing-room-only convenience store.
Damron had stopped by about 10 minutes before the 8 p.m. closing to chat about the Gators, buy a sandwich and help stock beer.
Silva said he threw out his back as a Merchant Mariner in January. A former chef, he decided to try a more modest business enterprise than his last venture, a restaurant.
That's how he ended up the proud American owner of John's Variety at 208 Fourth St. N.
Just before closing, the two men burst in. Their faces were covered. One stood in the corner of the door like a lookout, the other leveled a .45-caliber gun at him.
They demanded cash and ordered Silva to get down.
He did, snatching his gun from a shelf behind the glass counter. He came right back up and pointed Betsy at them. The men fled. Silva chased them out the door, firing three shots.
"I don't give up easy," Silva said.
A nearby police officer on patrol heard the shots. Officers swarmed the blocks between the store and Mirror Lake.
The suspects' names were not released Saturday night. The man who ended up in the lake suffered minor injuries from a dog bite. He was treated at Edward White Hospital and released into police custody.
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Two hours after using Betsy to protect his store, sitting behind the counter and chain-smoking Marlboro Reds, Silva credited his small-arms training as a Merchant Mariner for his cool response Saturday night.
For about seven years, he sailed around the world, collecting souvenirs like the two gold earrings hanging from his left lobe.
Since he opened John's Variety, he's kept the gun behind the counter. He can't remember how long he's had it — years, he says.
Will he make any security improvements?
"A bigger gun."
Will he consider closing?
Silva answered with a curse word. The clean version: "No."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.