TAMPA — Two years before police said he hit a Greek Orthodox priest over the head with a tire iron, Jasen Bruce had a run-in with another stranger, a tow truck driver who said the Marine left him hurting for months.
Steven Ray Allen, now 59, remembers a time when he towed cars outside the Calta's Fitness Club on Gandy Boulevard. And he remembers the incident that made him stop.
It was Halloween afternoon, 2007. Someone had parked a silver Jaguar in a tow-away zone. As Allen backed his tow truck bed up to the Jag, he says seven or eight large men came out of the gym and surrounded him.
"They puffed their chests out like they were He-Man," Allen said, "like they were trying to intimidate me."
Bruce came out, and they got into an argument.
"He was just flat mean, telling me that I wasn't taking his car, that he would beat me into the ground first," Allen said.
The Marine jumped over the tow truck and pushed him in the back with both hands, Allen told police. Bruce then got in his car, moved it, parked and then got out and pushed him again, this time in the chest, knocking him 7 to 10 feet.
Bruce is a muscular 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds.
"My back hurt for months," Allen said. "Here I am, an overweight 57-year-old man, and he has to come over and beat me up. That's a real proud thing to do."
Bruce pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge and adjudication was withheld. But that didn't stop his continued harassment, Allen said.
Allen said Bruce and others from the gym dared him to find tow-away zone signs that had disappeared. He said Bruce would yell "fat man" at him and say, "I'll just beat you up again and I'll pay another fine. I've got lots of money."
The tow truck driver tolerated it for about a month, then stopped working that lot.
Leanne Mortello, a manager with Calta's Fitness who witnessed the incident, said the Marine acted in self-defense.
In the police report, Bruce says the tow truck driver grabbed him by the shoulder to keep him from getting in the car. Mortello called the tow truck driver's demeanor "argumentative."
The tow truck driver has a 1991 arrest for aggravated battery. Adjudication was withheld in that case, state records show. He has several nonviolent arrests, but none in the past two decades.
Mortello said she saw Bruce regularly because he subleased a space in the gym to run Y-Age Clinic. On the clinic's Web page, Bruce touts the benefits of increasing one's testosterone and human growth hormone.
"These guys get what they call 'roid rage," Allen said. "He looked like he had taken one pill too many that day."
Wednesday, Allen learned of Bruce's run-in with the Greek Orthodox priest.
Police say 28-year-old Bruce was bent over the trunk of his car Monday, pulling out clothes, when the priest — who speaks little English — tapped him on his shoulder to ask for directions. He was lost.
Bruce, police say, whacked him over the head with a tire iron, chased him for three blocks and pinned him, all while telling a 911 operator that the bearded, robed man was an Arab terrorist, that he had tried to rob him and that he had grabbed his genitals and propositioned him for sex.
Police have charged Bruce with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. They are trying to determine whether to charge him with a hate crime.
Bruce's lawyer Jeff Brown held a news conference Tuesday, saying the Marine reservist was acting in self-defense — that the priest did, in fact, sexually attack him. The priest denies that accusation.
By Tuesday night, the story had reached Greece. Its nationwide television networks took the education angle, asking how the American Marine could possibly confuse a Greek Orthodox priest with an Arab terrorist.
And on Wednesday, church spokesman Jerry Theophilopoulos offered stronger words for Bruce. He called the attack "'roid rage" and said the Marine should go to prison. He said clerics are easy prey for sex allegations and that the defendant is taking advantage of that. He said the church is cooperating with the police and will meet with the State Attorney's Office.
As for the priest, 29-year-old Father Alexios Marakis told the spokesman he has forgiven the assailant, but that the accusations weigh heavily on his mind. Marakis spent the day tending to church duties.
Television cameras filmed as he swung an incense censer at a funeral, the stitches still visible on his head.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.