TAMPA — The men carried guns and wore masks. They struck mom-and-pop businesses in the late evening or early morning, sometimes when customers were still there, stealing thousands of dollars in cash, electronics and other belongings before speeding away in a car.
For two weeks, Tampa police worked to identify the suspects responsible for the string of robberies that plagued restaurants and other small businesses in West Tampa.
Early Sunday, an investigation led officers to three men, whom they arrested during a traffic stop in the 7500 block of N Armenia Avenue. During questioning, the men confessed to having committed the robberies, police said.
Jorland Vazquez-Cortijo, 20, and Hector Manuel Rosario, 21, both of Tampa were each jailed on charges related to seven armed robberies, which began Nov. 21 and continued every few days until the final three robberies late Friday night. A third man, Elijah Bartholomew Johnson, 19, also of Tampa was charged in two cases only, police said.
"It was just a successful conclusion to a very violent crime spree," said Tampa police Lt. Mary O'Connor. "Fortunately, nobody got hurt."
It all began shortly before 8 p.m. Nov. 21, when three men entered Sory's Wigs and Fashion Shop at 8000 N Armenia Ave. Two carried large handguns, which a surveillance video recorded them pointing at a shop employee. The video shows one man wearing a ski mask. Another covered his face with a bandana. And the third appears wearing a Halloween-style skeleton mask.
They demanded money and a laptop computer, police said. They took $2,762 in cash, a laptop and cellphone before fleeing in a blue 1994 Toyota Corolla.
Police released the video to the public, hoping to generate tips on the identity of the robbers. But it was the description of the car that later helped police identify the three suspects, O'Connor said —but not before they struck six more times.
On Nov. 26, the men entered the Cholado Y Algo Mas restaurant at 6729 N Armenia Ave., stealing cash, a purse and a laptop from employees and customers, police said.
Just after midnight Nov. 30, two men broke into El Chuzo BBQ, 7101 N Armenia Ave., forcing an employee back inside the restaurant at gunpoint as he tried to leave, police said. They fled with $400.
At 4:50 a.m. the same day, two men entered Mauricio Faedo's Bakery at 5150 N Florida Ave., holding employees at gunpoint and stealing an undisclosed amount of money, police said.
The final three robberies took place Friday night.
At 8:20 p.m., two masked men entered the Pica Pollo La Alta Gracia Restaurant, 1420 W Waters Ave., and held a manager at gunpoint while taking money and the manager's chain and cross pendant, valued at $700, according to an arrest report.
Vazquez-Cortijo later admitted selling the jewelry for $500, police said.
At 11:15 p.m., a masked man approached a woman in a car at the Ho Ho to Go Chinese restaurant at 2502 W Columbus Drive. The man pulled on the car's door handle and hit the window with a handgun before the woman sped away, police said.
And at 11:45 p.m., two masked men entered El Zarape Mexican Grill, 4820 N Armenia Ave., and took money, a laptop and a cellphone, police said.
Investigators developed leads based on information from the final robbery, which led them to identify Rosario, Vazquez-Cortijo and Johnson as suspects, O'Connor said. A description of the Toyota Corolla seen at some of the robberies matched a car owned by Rosario.
Investigators conducted surveillance on the three suspects before stopping them in the Corolla just before 2 a.m. Sunday. A search of the car turned up some of the items taken during the robberies, including laptop computers and cellphones, according to arrest records.
Tampa police plan to release more details about the investigation Monday, O'Connor said.
Rosario has one prior arrest from October 2010 for a domestic violence-related battery, according to state records. The case was dropped. Johnson has two prior arrests from 2009, when he was a juvenile, on larceny and resisting an officer charges. Records show the charges were dismissed. Vazquez-Cortijo has no prior criminal history in Florida, the records show.
All three men were held Sunday in a Hillsborough County jail without bail.
Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Stephanie Wang contributed to this report. Dan Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3321.