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Clerks fight robbers at their own risk

As midnight approached on a recent evening, Darryl Dixon, a clerk at a Farm Store on W Bay to Bay Boulevard found himself in a dilemma: to comply or not to comply.

Common sense told him the man standing before him, wielding a crowbar and demanding the convenience store's money, was not one to be challenged. His instinct, though, counseled otherwise, and after some split-second thinking, the latter won out.

"Ease on down the road," he defiantly told the would-be robber. "It's not going to happen here."

And it didn't. As the man lifted the crowbar in preparation to strike, Dixon grabbed his own weapon, a broomstick, and repeatedly struck the man on the head until he ran away, eluding capture.

"If you get robbed," the 31-year-old said, "you've got to do something."

It is an attitude that threatened employees at other stores have adopted in recent days as well _ with varying results.

At the Pleasure Zone on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa last Saturday, the store's manager, Louis Salario, shot a half-dozen times at a man holding a gun to the head of an employee and demanding the adult video store's money. The robbery suspect, Bernard Reed, was recently upgraded to fair condition at Tampa General Hospital.

Two days later, at Diwan Grocery on Florida Avenue, a store owner fired several shots at a fleeing pair of robbers who had just made off with the store's cash. It is not known whether the shopkeeper's bullets hit the suspects, who remain at large.

And reactions have taken the form of non-violent counterattacks as well. At a Little Caesar's on Armenia Avenue last Saturday, Tim Roberts, the store manager, consented to a robber's demands but then followed his trail, eventually nabbing the man when he coincidentally wandered into a bar the store manager had chosen as a stakeout.

Still, police say confronting a robber is a risky and often ill-advised move.

For one, it carries obvious safety risks, to both the employee under siege and bystanders.

"When you meet force with force, you might miss the assailant, and he'll hit you, or you might miss him and hit someone else," said Chris Fox, a robbery detective with the Tampa Police Department.

In addition, a violent attack on a robber carries with it potential legal consequences.

The standard used to measure whether such an attack is justified is broadly defined. Generally, it allows people to use deadly force to prevent someone from killing or causing grave bodily harm to them.

It makes no difference whether the attack occurs in a home or a business. But other facts, like whether a perpetrator is fleeing at the time of the assault, can be pivotal in deciding whether to charge the victim who strikes back.

"We look at each situation on a case-by-case basis and examine it carefully," said Pam Bondi, a spokeswoman for the state attorney's office.

In some instances, the legal repercussions can extend beyond the criminal realm.

Last month, for instance, the parents of Michael Rodriguez, a teen fatally shot by a Domino's pizza driver he was trying to rob, filed a lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court against the driver, the Tampa pizza store and the corporate chain.

In their lawsuit, Rodney and Geraldine Rodriguez say the company failed to do a routine background check to see whether the driver, Clifford Jordan, owned a gun. They also say the company failed to enforce its policy banning drivers from carrying guns.

Domino's is not alone in its no-gun policy. The majority of large convenience store chains, such as 7-Eleven and Coastal Mart, ban employees from bringing guns onto store property.

They also advise compliance with the demands of would-be robbers.

"Rather than encouraging someone to attack their attacker, we encourage them to fully cooperate and do what the robber asks them to do. We feel that is the safest approach," said Vicki Guennewig, a spokeswoman for Coastal Corp.

Dana Manley, a spokeswoman for Southland Corp., the owner of 7-Eleven stores, said, "We do not encourage sales associates to retaliate or in any way go after their attackers."

All of which is well-known to would-be robbers, said Rosemary Erickson, a San Diego-based sociologist who has studied convenience store robberies.

"Robbers know if they walk into a large chain store, the store clerk won't resist and won't have a weapon," she said.

But the downside, robbers know, is that they won't come away with much money because the large chain stores keep register cash to a bare minimum, Erickson said.

That leaves the alternative of robbing a mom and pop store, where store owners often keep larger stashes of cash. But there, Erickson said, retaliatory attacks are more common.

"The mom and pop store owners often have a weapon and often are willing to use it to resist," Erickson said. "It's a trade-off," which robbers generally assess beforehand.

But if most robbers approach their work with a measure of rationality, police say there is always the chance of crossing the irrational robber who will kill or maim just for the sake of it. And in those cases, a victim has little more than his or her gut to go on.

"While we basically preach compliance, we're not telling people to take a beating and call that compliance," Fox, the robbery detective, said. "There really is no fast rule, and people have to rely on their instinct."