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Shoppers unaware as man robs store

As lunchtime shoppers perused racks of dresses, a robber with a black pistol held the manager and three employees hostage in the back room of a Ross Dress for Less clothing store Wednesday.

After emptying the store's safe, the brazen thief ran out the back, according to Pinellas County sheriff's officials. In a parking lot about 100 yards away, carrying two gray bags, he walked up to a businessman who had just gotten out of his 2000 black Mercedes, put his pistol to the man's chest and said, "Give me your car keys."

The gunman stole the car and disappeared before deputies arrived. The robbery was reported at 1:11 p.m. at the Coral Landings shopping center, on U.S. 19 south of Nebraska Avenue. The crime was unusual because it happened in broad daylight at a plaza packed with cars and shoppers.

"We haven't had one of these that I can recall in some time," said Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita. "Hopefully somebody will help us be able to find the vehicle."

The car, a Mercedes-Benz E430, had Florida license tag V82 KTZ.

The robbery also is unusual because the main getaway road, U.S. 19, is a clogged highway notorious for backups.

"You aren't going fast very far," Tita said.

Witnesses described the robber as a 5-foot-8 white male with short blond hair who is between the age of 28 and 35. He was wearing a black shirt with jeans and possibly a denim jacket, Tita said.

Because the robbery took place in the back of the store, there were no obvious signs of what was happening, customers said.

"I didn't see anything," said Ed Cohen, 75, who was inside the store at the time of the robbery. "I was busy with the racks."

The first sign that something was wrong, Cohen said, was that store employees seemed distracted when he went up to the cash register.

"They were all preoccupied and seemed to be disoriented," said Cohen of Palm Harbor.

Store employees declined to comment.

Shoppers at the shopping center were surprised to hear that a robbery had just occurred.

"It's so busy here, maybe he figured he could get lost in the number of cars," said John Ross, 65, of Clearwater. "Picking as busy a spot as this with no way out of here, very desperate I would say."

Anyone with information is asked to call CrimeStoppers at 1-800-873-TIPS.

_ Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or