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Careful heist fatally flawed

The clues found outside the Montenegro Jewelry Store on Thursday would seem to have been left by a talented robber, the kind whose work keeps detectives up at night.

A getaway car faced the street, its engine running and ready to go. The robber pretended to talk on a pay phone, so people wouldn't notice him before he struck. And he was there before the store opened, a sign he had done his homework.

But the man who the police say was behind it all, 19-year-old Michel Rey, was anything but a master criminal, and his plan went horribly wrong when he tried to rob the jewelry store at 4433 W Hillsborough Ave.

After forcing his way into the store at gunpoint just after 9 a.m., Rey tried to handcuff one of the owners, 62-year-old Mercedes Montenegro, Tampa police said. Montenegro's son, Manuel, 34, shot and killed Rey before Rey could snap the cuffs shut on the woman's wrists.

Manuel "Manny" Montenegro used his own handgun, which he was carrying in his belt, hidden beneath his shirt, to shoot Rey two to four times, police said. He waited for a moment when Rey was distracted before drawing his weapon.

"Being faced with a man holding a gun on your mother and handcuffing her, God only knows what can happen," Tampa police spokesman Steve Cole said. "That's the kind of situation where we can understand using deadly force."

Homicide Sgt. George McNamara, who headed the investigation, said he did not expect any charges to be filed against Montenegro, who has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Nevertheless, the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office will investigate the shooting, McNamara said.

Neither Montenegro nor his mother was injured in the robbery attempt. The family, who opened the jewelry store in 1987 after moving here from New Jersey, declined to speak to reporters, instead hanging a hastily scribbled sign on their home's front door that read: "Please, do NOT disturb."

"We really can't comment right now," Leslie Montenegro, 19, said by phone.

A pair of cheap, metal handcuffs dangled from Mercedes Montenegro's wrist an hour after the shooting as police tried to pick the lock. Rey had brought along two pairs of handcuffs and several "flex cuffs" _ corrugated plastic strips with a small hole in one end that can be used to bind limbs _ when he entered the store, Cole said.

Police think he intended to manacle the Montenegros, rob the store, then get away in his white 1995 Hyundai, which had been backed into the parking space in front of the store.

"There was a jewelry store opening up, and here comes a guy with a handgun and all this other stuff," Cole said. "It was just the right combination for a robbery."

It was a combination detectives think Rey took some time to put together, based on his precautions in setting up a getaway car and diverting attention from himself at the pay phone.

"For him to be waiting outside the place like that shows that it was a fairly sophisticated attempt," McNamara said. "Some forethought went into this."

But Rey's background doesn't suggest someone familiar with sophisticated robbery techniques. Other than an arrest for driving an unregistered vehicle, he had no adult criminal record in Florida. He worked as an information systems specialist for Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union, said his boss, Ken Spence, vice president.

"He was a super nice guy who everybody liked," Spence said. "There were never any signs of drugs or anything else."

Acquaintances of Rey said they thought of him as a likable man, though one who was saddled with worries. He was making support payments for a girlfriend who was expecting his second child, Spence said, and had to come up with rent for a new place in the Countrywood Lakeside Apartment Complex in Carrollwood.

"He was a young man in desperate financial straits," Spence said.

Rey's parents, Norberto and Lucretia Rey, could not be reached Thursday at their Tampa home. Neighbors said they were on vacation.

In planning the robbery, police say, Rey hadn't accounted for the Montenegros, a close-knit family whose devotion to one another is well-known among their neighbors and in the minimall where the jewelry store is located.

"They're as tight as you can get," said Greg Hernandez, who owns the bakery that Mercedes Montenegro often visits in the morning to buy Cuban toast and coffee. "They look out for one another."

Hernandez said Mercedes Montenegro came running into his bakery after the shooting, hysterically shouting that her son had killed someone. Thinking there had been a car accident, Hernandez ran to the front of the jewelry shop. The three remained outside the store until police arrived.

"You never think something like this is going to happen so near to you," Hernandez said. Although police records showed there had been several burglary alarm calls at the jewelry store in the last two years, the businesses at the strip mall had been relatively immune to crime.

"It messes with your mind," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said the only recent robbery attempt in the shopping center happened more than a year ago when a car drove through the front window of a nearby pet shop. The incident prompted Montenegro's Jewelry Store and its neighbors to install metal bars in their windows.

Times staff writer Michael Canning contributed to this report.

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