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Store clerks were shot in front of children

GULFPORT — The three boys huddled on the floor behind the register just like their uncle said. The robbers had already shot their father.

Their uncle handed over the store's cash and was shot anyway. He collapsed next to the boys.

The masked men fled, leaving behind three small witnesses.

The two youngest, 8 and 10, pressed the silent alarm. The oldest, 11, dialed 911.

"My dad and my uncle just got shot," the frantic boy told the operator. "Oh my God! Oh my God!"

The violent heist of Joy Food Mart on 49th Street S on Monday night was just the latest in a string of malicious robberies in a month's time.

Like merchants in robberies on both sides of the bay, neither of the clerks Monday resisted. Thanh Hoang, 43, was shot in the arm; Tien Tran, 25, was shot in the chest. Both victims were reported in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.

Gulfport police Lt. Robert Vincent said he didn't realize just how harrowing Monday's attack was until he saw the surveillance video. The robbers clearly knew the children were in the store — and shot two unarmed men right in front of them.

"This video gets to you," Vincent said. "I told our people, this case is at the top of the list.

"Whatever else you're working on can wait."

The videotape starts when two men walk into the store, hoods obscuring their faces. It is 8:36 p.m.

Thanh Hoang, the father of the three boys, stands by the store's unlocked door. Tien Tran is behind the register with the children. He's a close family friend, and the kids call him "uncle."

The two hooded men walk out of camera view. When they return, at least one is armed with a silver handgun and bandanas cover their faces. A third man has appeared at the door.

"They came in and then they go, 'Give me the money, give us the money,' " the oldest boy would later tell the 911 operator.

The gunman then turns and shoots Hoang in the arm. The clerk pushes the door open as he collapses.

The children run from the register as Tran walks into view and hands over the money. Another robber reaches over to help clean out the register.

Then, without warning, the same gunman shoots Tran. He falls to the floor beside the cowering children.

The videotape ends with the children scurrying along the floor to the silent alarm — once they were sure the robbers were gone — and then huddling over their fallen uncle.

• • •

A relative told the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday that the boys were "deeply traumatized."

Gulfport police praised the boys for their bravery and smarts.

"They did outstanding, they're amazing," Vincent said. "I can see some other kids just not reacting the way they did. I think what they did probably helped saved (Tran's) life."

The suspects in Monday's robbery are described as black men in their late teens to early twenties, with slender builds, unknown heights and weight, wearing dark hooded sweatshirts and bandanas over their faces. One of the bandanas was yellow, black and green with "Jamaica" printed on it.

This month, two St. Petersburg brothers were shot in two separate robberies.

The similarities between those shootings and the Gulfport robbery had detectives from both cities huddling on Tuesday.

St. Petersburg police think the same two-man crew robbed the St. Petersburg stores, but said there's no apparent link to the three men who robbed the Gulfport store.

"The type of weapon is different, the (number of) suspects are different," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt. "The only thing that's really similar is the brazenness of the crime."

Sid Shah, a local store owner and spokesman for the Asian American Convenience Stores Association, can't believe that another robbery has ended in gunfire.

"I'm at a loss for words," he said. "The store owners are doing exactly what they're supposed to do and they're still getting shot. It's frightening."

• • •

Joy Food Mart reopened Tuesday, as regulars stopped by to inquire about the clerks' health.

The owner, who is related to Hoang, declined to comment.

Tran, who came to America with his family about 13 years ago from Vietnam, had been working at the convenience store for about five years, said a younger brother, Toan Tran, 18.

Despite the dangers, Tien Tran enjoyed the work because the hours were flexible and his boss was nice.

"I know Gulfport is a bad place, but I never thought something like this would happen," Toan Tran said Tuesday.

Tien Tran, the oldest of four brothers, attended St. Petersburg College and wants to study architecture.

Toan Tran said he visited his brother Tuesday morning, but he was unable to talk because of a breathing tube in his mouth.

He was shot in the chest, and the bullet is still lodged in his body, family members said. A brother said he was doing "good" late Tuesday.

One detail still haunts them:

"He gave them the money," Toan Tran said, "but they shot him anyway."

At Hoang's home in mid Pinellas, neighbors described the boys as respectful, good-natured and smart.

They'd come home from school, do homework and then play basketball, football or baseball with other neighborhood children until it got dark. Their mother gave birth to a sister a few months ago.

The three boys, out of school for the holidays, often accompanied their father to work.

"They are just nice boys," said neighbor Cheryl Thomas. "It's just chilling."

Times staff writers Nicole Hutcheson and Luis Perez and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

#1 Walgreens, 4319 N Armenia Ave., Tampa

7:40 a.m. Friday, Nov. 28

Gun-wielding robber demanded money from cashier. The cashier had trouble getting the money out, and the robber fired a shot at the floor near the victim, then grabbed the cash himself.

DESCRIPTION: The man fled in a waiting Dodge Caravan. He was described as a 6-foot-2, dark-skinned black man, 20 to 25 years old, weighing 200 pounds. He wore a ski mask, black knit gloves, a full-body ski suit, black high-tech boots and a knit camouflage cap with a brim. The van was driven by another suspect who wore a white cloth mask.

#2 CVS drug store, 11212 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa

12:37 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 29

A man wearing a Halloween mask fired a shot into the ceiling, jumped over the counter and demanded that the store clerk open the register. He shot the 27-year-old employee twice before stealing the money and fleeing.

DESCRIPTION: The suspect was a 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 black man, with a thin build of about 160 pounds, wearing black clothing and gloves, police say.

UPDATE: His condition was unavailable, authorities have not released his identity.

#3 Sonic Drive-In, 2523 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa

6:20 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 30

The store manager and an employee were seated outside the restaurant when two men forced them back into the store at gunpoint. Inside, one ordered the 54-year-old manager to open the safe. After receiving the money, he fired a single round at the manager, striking him in the right foot. The two robbers fled in a 1990s blue Crown Victoria driven by a third man.

DESCRIPTION: One robber wore a dark ski suit, a ski mash and white gloves. The second wore a dark ski mask and a ski suit. Police did not have a description for the getaway driver.

UPDATE: The manager was treated at St. Joseph's Hospital and released.

#4 Star Deli, 2451 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg

10:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1.

Two males, one wielding a gun, barged into the store and robbed Patel, then shot him, police and family members said. Narendra Patel was shot during a robbery at his store as he cooperated with his attacker.

DESCRIPTION: The lead robber is a black man in his early 20s, about 6 feet 2, 190 pounds with shouldler-length dreadlocks. The accomplice who stood lookout is a black man, also in his early 20s, 5-8 to 6-2, and weighing 190 pounds. Both wore ski masks and dark clothing. Both were armed.

UPDATE: Narendra Patel has been released from the hospital and is back at work.

#5 Suhani, 2539 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.

10:15 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3

Two men robbed Indravandan Patel, whose brother was shot during a similar robbery two days earlier. One of the robbers jumped over the counter, shot Patel and emptied the register. Police believe the same robbers are responsible for both Patel shootings, but do not believe the brothers were specifically targeted.

DESCRIPTION: The lead robber is a black man in his early 20s, about 6 feet 2, 190 pounds with shouldler-length dreadlocks. The accomplice who stood lookout is a black man, also in his early 20s, 5-8 to 6-2, and weighing 190 pounds. Both wore ski masks and dark clothing. Both were armed.

UPDATE: Indravandan Patal remains hospitalized, but is expected to recover.

#6 John's Variety at 208 Fourth St. N.

8:00 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6

Owner John Silva, 53, fired three shots at two masked men who tried to rob his store at gunpoint. Silva was not hurt. The robbers fled on foot and were caught a few blocks away. The gun the robbers used turned out to be a pellet gun that looked like a 45 caliber handgun.

UPDATE: Suspects arrested.

#7 Joy Food Mart, 1005 49th St. S., Gulfport

8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22.

Three men robbed the store, which was occupied by two clerks and three children belonging to one of the clerks. The men in the store cooperated with robbers,

but were both shot anyway.

DESCRIPTION: Three black males who were in their late teens or early 20s. They wore hooded clothing and bandanas covering their face.

1 Walgreens, 4319 N Armenia Ave., Tampa, 7:40 a.m. Friday, Nov. 28

Gun-wielding robber demanded money from cashier. The cashier had trouble getting the money out, and the robber fired a shot at the floor near the victim, then grabbed the cash himself.

Suspect: The man fled in a waiting Dodge Caravan. He was described as a 6-foot-2, dark-skinned black man, 20 to 25 years old, weighing 200 pounds. He wore a ski mask, black knit gloves, a full-body ski suit, black high-tech boots and a knit camouflage cap with a brim. The van was driven by another suspect who wore a white cloth mask.

2 CVS drugstore, 11212 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 12:37 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 29

A man wearing a Halloween mask fired a shot into the ceiling, jumped over the counter and demanded that the store clerk open the register. He shot the 27-year-old employee twice before stealing the money and fleeing.

Suspect: The suspect was a 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 black man, with a thin build of about 160 pounds, wearing black clothing and gloves, police say.

Update: The clerk's condition was unavailable; authorities have not released his identity.

3 Sonic Drive-In, 2523 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, 6:20 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 30

The store manager and an employee were seated outside the restaurant when two men forced them back into the store at gunpoint. Inside, one ordered the 54-year-old manager to open the safe. After receiving the money, he fired a single round at the manager, striking him in the right foot. The two robbers fled in a 1990s blue Crown Victoria driven by a third man.

Suspects: One robber wore a dark ski suit, a ski mask and white gloves. The second wore a dark ski mask and a ski suit. Police did not have a description for the getaway driver.

Update: The manager was treated at St. Joseph's Hospital and released.

4 Star Deli, 2451 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg

10:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 1.

Two males, one wielding a gun, barged into the store and robbed Narendra Patel, then shot him, police and family members said. Patel was cooperating with the robbers when he was shot.

Suspect: The lead robber is a black man in his early 20s, about 6 feet 2, 190 pounds with shoulder-length dreadlocks. The accomplice who stood lookout is a black man, also in his early 20s, 5-8 to 6-2, and weighing 190 pounds. Both wore ski masks and dark clothing. Both were armed.

Update: Narendra Patel has been released from the hospital and is back at work.

5 Suhani, 2539 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg, 10:15 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3

Two men robbed Indravandan Patel, brother of Narendra Patel. One of the robbers jumped over the counter, shot Patel and emptied the register. Police think the same robbers are responsible for both Patel shootings, but do not think the brothers were specifically targeted.

Suspects: The lead robber is a black man in his early 20s, about 6 feet 2, 190 pounds with shoulder-length dreadlocks. The accomplice who stood lookout is a black man, also in his early 20s, 5-8 to 6-2, and weighing 190 pounds. Both wore ski masks and dark clothing. Both were armed.

Update: Indravandan Patal remains hospitalized but is expected to recover.

6 John's Variety at 208 Fourth St. N, St. Petersburg, 8:00 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 6

Owner John Silva, 53, fired three shots at two masked men who tried to rob his store at gunpoint. Silva was not hurt. The robbers ran and were caught a few blocks away. The gun the robbers used turned out to be a pellet gun that looked like a .45-caliber handgun.

Update: Suspects arrested.

7 Joy Food Mart, 1005 49th St. S, Gulfport

8:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 22.

Three men robbed the store, which was occupied by two clerks and three children belonging to one of the clerks. The men in the store cooperated with robbers, but were both shot anyway.

Suspects: Three black males who were in their late teens or early 20s. They wore hooded clothing and bandanas covering their face.

Update: Victims remain in hospital.

Store clerks were shot in front of children 12/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 26, 2008 8:52pm]

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