Police received the first burglary call about 5:50 a.m. Sunday, when an alarm went off at a barbecue restaurant off 94th Avenue N.
By 11 a.m., 16 other break-ins at shops, offices and restaurants had been reported along a several-mile stretch of Fourth Street N, and along Ninth Street N.
The thieves jimmied locks, smashed windows and broke into cash registers at businesses from 43rd Avenue N to 112th Avenue N. Most of the businesses had little to steal, other than petty cash.
At some locations, there was no cash at all and nothing was taken.
"There's not even a bottle of wine missing," said Molly Ledger, a manager at Fred Fleming's Famous Barb-B-Que restaurant, at 4351 4th St. N. As in many restaurants, she said, managers at Fleming's empty the registers at closing and deposit the money in the bank.
At a gift card shop on Fourth Street N near 52nd Avenue, about $420 in cash was taken, the single biggest haul of all the break-ins.
St. Petersburg police spokesman George Kajtsa said the break-ins all occurred between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. He said police have been unable find a witness, although detectives plan to look at tapes from the businesses with surveillance cameras.
Rex Butler, owner of Butler's Barbecue in the 1100 block of 94th Avenue N, said a neighboring restaurant owner woke him Sunday with the bad news. Thieves made off with $40 in change, smashed open the cash box on a touch screen game and took a handful of barbecued chicken.
His business was one of four hit in the same shopping center near Ninth Street. He said he was frustrated with the police.
"I am astonished that there were so many places hit and there were no officers on duty to catch these guys," Butler said. "It's the third time we've been (hit) in four years and I'm tired of it."
Kajtsa said the break-ins occurred at the same time the police department began a shift change that left six officers to respond to a sudden surge in calls.
"The unfortunate thing is that this happened at a time when it was extremely windy out, so there were a lot of alarms going off and a lot of calls coming in," Kajtsa said.
Assistant police Chief David DeKay said many of the stores did not have alarms.
"If somebody keeps moving like that it's not just a simple matter of catching them," DeKay said.