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Station clerk dies in robbery

Hema Patel slowly walked to the yellow crime scene tape around the Texaco gas station, then stared across the parking lot where police detectives had gathered.

A sea of reporters and onlookers suddenly went silent.

Tampa police Sgt. George McNamara approached the 37-year-old woman and quickly guided her from the crowd. He spoke to her for a moment, and she collapsed into a friend's arms. Her grief-stricken sobs echoed across the gray pavement.

Mrs. Patel's husband, Ashwin Patel, 43, had been killed two hours earlier, about 11:10 a.m. Wednesday, when two armed robbers shot him as he worked as a clerk behind the counter of the Fowler Avenue gas station, McNamara said.

Just before the shooting, Patel was able to hit the store's silent alarm to alert police, McNamara said. But when they arrived five minutes later, Patel lay dead from a gunshot wound to the chest.

The robbers were last seen running northwest away from the store. Hillsborough sheriff's officials searched by helicopter and deputies joined Tampa police to look for the men, but no one had been arrested late Wednesday.

"This is a guy who was working to support his family, and these men just come in and gun him down," McNamara said. "This is a crime that will affect that family for a lifetime."

Patel's death was the 18th homicide in Tampa this year, twice the number that had occurred at this time last year.

Patel, who was from India and lived with his wife and two children on 68th Avenue in Pinellas Park, owned several convenience stores in Tampa and St. Petersburg and was thinking of purchasing the Texaco station at 1548 E Fowler Ave., said a friend, Gordon Patel. He was working there to assess the business.

The family was a part of a tight-knit group of Indians in the Tampa Bay area who pray together and participate in cultural events and social gatherings at the India Cultural Center in Carrollwood, said Jay Patel, another family friend. Neither he nor Gordon Patel are related to the victim or each other.

Friends and customers described Ashwin Patel as a no-nonsense man who might have refused the robbers' demands, although it wasn't his money to lose.

"He was bold," said Gordon Patel, who was cashing a check at a nearby First Union when he heard of the robbery. "He might have resisted giving them the money. That's why we came running. We knew something may have happened."

Susan Lanauze, 34, who lives near the University of South Florida and is a frequent customer of the Texaco, said Patel was very protective of the business.

"He wouldn't let anyone hang around the station," Lanauze said. "You were just supposed to get down to business, buy your stuff and get out the door."

Police officials said the Texaco has been robbed several times in the last year, but could not say if Patel was a victim in any of those robberies.

Larry Todd, 74, who owns an income tax business next door, said crime in the area is so bad he put burglar bars on the windows and bought a gun.

"I knew it was going to happen sooner or later," Todd said. "They need better protection for those clerks."

Authorities would not say whether the store's video camera captured the killers on tape. They also declined comment on whether anyone witnessed the robbery or saw the two men, though several people were interviewed.

Ellis Adams, 49, provided police with a description of a man he saw on the street.

"Once I heard them give the description to the media, I knew it was the man I saw," Adams said. "He was going east on 131st Avenue and looked very nervous."

Later in the day, police officials used a saw to cut away a piece of the front counter, which they planned to send to a crime lab for testing.

_ Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.