Pasco officials are teaming up with the FBI and Pinellas authorities to investigate a series of bomb threats _ and are hoping that real bombs don't soon replace the briefcases and bricks used most recently.
After Sunday's fake bombs at two Pasco restaurants, Pasco sheriff's officials will meet today with the other agencies to compare notes on several Pasco and Pinellas cases in which bomb threats were used in extortion attempts.
"The FBI is interested and has been assisting us," said Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Jon Powers. "I would say the extortion angle and the serial nature of the crimes is what led them to become involved."
The message phoned into the Bob Evans Restaurant on Sunday was simple, clear and frightening:
"There is a bomb inside the briefcase behind the front counter," the man on the phone told a store employee. "If you do as we say, we won't detonate it."
Those chilling words, from a company official's account of the threat, marked the fourth time in four months that a bomb threat has been used in an attempt to extort money from a Tampa Bay restaurant.
By 8 p.m. Sunday, another Pasco County restaurant would become the fifth victim.
The threat against the Bob Evans was the second time the scheme worked, as employees at the restaurant at 9115 U.S. 19 delivered an undisclosed amount of cash to a location a half-mile away.
After a five-hour wait under the afternoon sun, however, with workers and onlookers watching from a safe distance, authorities discovered the "bomb" actually was a brick.
Hours later, a bomb threat was phoned in to Perkins Restaurant & Bakery, 11929 U.S. 19 in Hudson.
"It apparently involved another briefcase," Powers said. "It was the same scenario."
Twenty-five people were evacuated. The "bomb" was another brick.
The call to the Bob Evans came about 1:30 p.m. Employees took down the instructions from the caller and then went from table to table telling all 75 customers of the bomb threat and asking them to leave as quickly and quietly as possible.
With the store evacuated, employees followed the convoluted orders, first taking the money to a pay phone outside the Lil' Champ Food Store on Embassy Boulevard.
Scrawled in black ink on the pay phone were these instructions: "Ruth, east 2 blocks to Embassy & Crabtree Ln "
At Embassy and Crabtree Lane was a St. Petersburg Times newspaper box. Employees put the money inside the box and left the area, company officials said.
When Pasco sheriff's deputies searched the box minutes later, the money was gone.
"The store employees were concerned with the safety of their customers, and then themselves," said district manager Ron Stiscak, 36. "It was a crisis situation, and the employees did what they thought they had to do."
The store's employees would not comment on the incident or identify themselves, referring all questions to company officials.
Sheriff's deputies, meanwhile, surrounded and closed off the restaurant and nearby businesses. Fire engines from Pasco Fire-Rescue stood by across the street. The Hillsborough County sheriff's bomb squad arrived about 4 p.m.
Hillsborough sheriff's Deputy Darrel Kandil, wearing a protective vest, went inside the restaurant and took an X-ray of the briefcase.
Employees and their families and friends waited from a safe distance, behind police lines, as Kandil entered the store.
The X-ray was inconclusive. He went back in the store about 6 p.m., examined the briefcase and opened it.
"It was just a brick," Kandil said.
Many onlookers said it was a cruel hoax in light of the bombing in Atlanta early Saturday morning. A pipe bomb filled with nails and screws exploded in Centennial Olympic Park, killing one and injuring more than 100 people.
"All you need is somebody to do something crazy like what happened in Atlanta,and then everybody wants to do something crazy like that," said retiree Don Cartier, 60.
Cartier lives across from the restaurant in Holiday Hills. He was biking along U.S. 19 when he stopped to investigate the commotion.
The Bob Evans extortion fits the description of three previous incidents.
In April, a man phoned Leverock's at Clearwater Beach and ordered the owner to leave a specific amount of cash at a Times newspaper box or the restaurant would be bombed. The owner complied, then called police.
The threat did not work in May at a Chili's in Tarpon Springs or in June, when employees at Red Lobster at Largo Mall refused to obey a man's telephoned demand that they drop off $4,000 in cash in a newspaper box. Instead, they evacuated the restaurant and called police.
What made the bomb threat to the Bob Evans even more brazen was that employees told company officials they remembered the man who left the briefcase in the restaurant about noon. They described him as an older white man. The man called the restaurant a few minutes after he left, telling employees that he left his briefcase at a booth and asking that they put it behind the counter.
An hour later, the threat came. That was how the threat against the Perkins restaurant also unfolded, Powers said.
Powers would not comment on the store employees' description of the man, the ransom demand, the place the money was taken or how much was taken.
Pasco sheriff's deputies confiscated the Times newspaper box at Embassy Boulevard and Crabtree Lane.
Adding to an already hectic day was a series of delays that plagued the Hillsborough County sheriff's bomb squad. First, the squad's bomb disposal truck wouldn't start. Squad members threw their equipment into a cruiser and raced to Port Richey.
When they got there, they accidentally locked their keys in the cruiser. Deputies and paramedics struggled for 30 minutes to open the doors. "We had to overcome, improvise and adapt," a weary Kandil said afterward.
Kendil and the bomb squad were back at it again late Sunday, responding to the bomb threat to the Perkins store.
Pasco Sheriff Lee Cannon said Monday that authorities have no reason to believe that those making the threats would actually carry out a bombing, but he said officials are not taking chances.
"We don't want anybody to overreact, but when you're dealing with this kind of person, with this kind of mental state, it's a possibility," Cannon said. "In some of these cases, there is information to indicate that they may have the propensity for (carrying out a threat)."
Sgt. Charles Calhoun said the Sheriff's Office has received several tips and a description of a possible suspect in the case but had made no arrests.
He said the methods used in the Pasco and Pinellas bomb threats are similar, but officials aren't sure the cases are connected.
Even if no threat has been made, Cannon urged residents to be aware of anyone leaving a bag or briefcase in a public place.
"Get a good look at the person and notify the management," he said. "This is some pretty serious stuff we've got going on, and we want to make people aware of it."