TAMPA — There's a safer place now to buy goods offered by strangers on the Internet.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office will let residents use the parking lots at its four patrol offices to arrange and conduct transactions — and to avoid getting robbed.
Although there hasn't been an increase in these types of burglaries, "It's been an ongoing issue for several years," Sgt. Steve Lewis said.
Lewis introduced Operation Safe Sale on Wednesday afternoon during a news conference at the Falkenburg Road Jail. The Sheriff's Office is the first in the Tampa Bay area to publicly announce such a program.
Hillsborough authorities on Wednesday invited Mannix Santos, 36, to share his story from December to illustrate the perils of meeting strangers to do business.
Santos was trying to sell his cellphone, a Samsung Galaxy that he'd used for the past year and a half. He posted the phone for $300 on Craigslist and heard back from Hector Anavitate, a 20-year-old buyer from Plant City. The men agreed to meet two days after Christmas.
About 7 p.m., Santos and his wife and daughter — whom he didn't want to identify — drove the family Jeep to a strip mall in Seffner. They parked by a Sweetbay Supermarket and a Little Caesars, and waited in the dark.
A few minutes later, Santos saw Anavitate wearing a hoodie and stepped out of the car. They nodded hello, Santos said, then he handed over the phone. Anavitate examined the screen for a few seconds. But instead of paying, he reached into his right pocket and drew a .45-caliber handgun.
"Stay still," he said. Santos did as he was told. Then Anavitate bolted.
Santos was stunned. In 13 years of marriage, his family never experienced anything that frightening.
Anavitate and Efrain Hewitt, his 25-year-old driver, were arrested two days after the incident on charges of armed robbery with a firearm.
Months later, the memory is fresh for Santos.
"You just don't forget a moment like that," he said.
He applauded the Sheriff's Office's decision to open the parking lots and said he'd already used one location to safely sell a lawn mower.
Elsewhere, the Tampa Police Department encourages residents to use its facilities for child custody exchange and Craigslist transactions, said Andrea Davis, a spokesperson. "But there's no official policy."
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office doesn't have a specific program, either, said Sgt. David DiSano, "but we have a deputy on site from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m."
At the St. Petersburg Police Department, the parking lots haven't been opened up.
"But we think it's a good idea," said spokesman Mike Puetz.
Zack Peterson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3466. Follow him @Zackpeterson918.