ST. PETERSBURG — Gerald Doty is an NRA-loving, suspenders-wearing grandpa who decided late in life to make a living by preparing other people's taxes. He put up some signs near his home on 34th Avenue N.
Across the street is an office for Liberty Tax, the national tax preparation chain that positions employees dressed as Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam at busy intersections to advertise.
When Doty's signs started disappearing, he blamed Liberty. He said he got a few calls from passers-by who said they saw Liberty pluck the signs last year.
On March 2, Doty put more signs around his yard. They didn't make it through the night.
That's when he decided to take matters into his own hands.
He might have misfired.
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This would not be a cordial visit.
Doty, 75, says he wanted to "even the playing field.'' He drove his red Toyota Tacoma to Liberty's office at 49th Street N, hoping to lure back customers he says Liberty took away. He backed into a parking spot, cracked open a newspaper and let the truck do his talking.
The exterior was adorned with magnetic signs boasting he could do taxes for as low as $35. The interior included a gun rack and shotgun, displayed inside the back window.
"I'm an old guy, and not a very big old guy," Doty said. "I didn't want some guy to come out and lay their hands on me.''
The two women working inside the office weren't sure he was serious. One asked him to leave.
That wasn't happening. An hour and a half later they called police.
Four St. Petersburg police cruisers and five officers arrived within minutes, concerned that Doty had a gun in his truck.
"It was a show," Doty said.
An officer filed an informational report and asked Doty to leave. He obliged about an hour later, but not before discussing his interpretation of a gun statute. There is no criminal investigation because Doty has a permit for concealed weapons, said police spokesman George Kajtsa.
Doty says he never would have fired his shotgun anyway.
"I certainly wouldn't do it over a $20 sign,'' he said.
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Doty said he was merely trying to grow his modest clientele of about 20 friends and family members.
He planted signs along nearby sidewalks and streets. He affixed them to stop signs and bus stop benches. They just kept disappearing.
Steven Doletzky, owner of the Liberty store, denies that Liberty had anything to do with the sign-snatching.
"I've certainly never given anybody a directive to do that," Doletzky said.
Liberty considers H&R Block its nearest rival, and even they have a good relationship, he said. They wouldn't go after a man trying to eke out a living by doing taxes on the side.
"His actions are not rational actions," Doletzky said.
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If not Liberty, who?
Probably a city codes employee, said Gary Bush, the city codes department's operations manager.
Such so-called snipe signs aren't meant to be permanent anyway, he said.
Bush can't say for sure that it was a city employee, but an investigator probably picked them up if the signs were displayed on city rights of way, such as stop signs, bus benches and near busy intersections.
"Oh yeah, we would remove those," Bush said. "We have a pretty avid program."
Even Doty admits his signs weren't legal. He just didn't think the city enforces the rules in his area because signs advertising garage sales and real estate remain.
But on Friday the city called, warning him to take down his sign on 49th Street or face a fine.
He said he understands the need for an ordinance, but this was the first phone call he received from the city in 40 years of putting up snipe signs about estate sales and his business.
"Snipe signs are actually a good way to communicate," he said. "But they do get out of hand."
Now that he has picked up a short-term tax preparation job with another local business, he's done posting signs — except for one or two on his side of the sidewalk.
He's done trying to intimidate Liberty, too, though he still believes that company picked up his signs.
"I can be a troublemaker," he said. "I just didn't know what else to do about it."