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Taxi ride turns in carjacking

To Elliott Arman, the bearded man who climbed into the back of his cab was just another fare.

That is, until the man jammed a gun into Arman's side and demanded money.

"At that point, I was going 55 to 60 mph," Arman said later. "Now I'm driving 70 to 80."

Arman, a Tampa taxi driver and former Tampa police officer, had been dispatched to pick up a fare Monday morning at a RaceTrac station just north of Tampa. By the time his ordeal ended, it would involve a violent struggle in the moving cab, a carjacking and a police chase that ended in a suburban neighborhood in south Pasco County.

It was about 11:20 a.m. when Arman arrived to pick up his fare at the gas station on Bearss Avenue near Florida Avenue. He found his customer standing next to a pay phone. The bearded man climbed in the back of the cab, put a knapsack on the seat beside him and told Arman he wanted to go to Lutz to look for his car.

Arman started the meter and headed north on U.S. 41. By the time the cab reached Crenshaw Lake Road, near the Avila subdivision, the meter registered more than $10.

That's when the man told Arman to hand over his wallet.

Arman, 50, said he had no money. Then he felt the gun in his ribs. Then the bearded man aimed it at his head. It looked like a .45-caliber weapon.

"I heard him say "I'll shoot you,' " Arman said.

The man kept repeating the threat as Arman drove north. Arman said the man hit him in the face with the gun as he drove erratically.

Arman kept driving until he reached a Pasco County sheriff's substation on State Road 54.

With the taxi still in drive, "I'm grabbing the gun and he's fighting with me," Arman said. Arman tried to put the cab in park as the tug of war over the gun continued.

Arman said he just kept thinking, "I don't want to get shot."

"I'm always scared," said Arman, who has driven a cab since 1988 and was stabbed by a fare 10 years ago. He said he stays in shape to aid in self-defense.

"I don't work out for nothing," said Arman, who was treated for bruises on his foot and face and was released from a hospital Monday night.

Arman jumped out of the white Kia, and the attacker sped away in the car. Arman waved and yelled for help. A state Department of Transportation officer picked him up.

Arman told the officer, "Let's go after him."

Meanwhile, thanks to a joint communications system _ through which DOT officers began transmitting over stations shared by the Florida Highway Patrol six months ago _ state troopers heard the frantic call.

They spread out between Land O'Lakes and Wesley Chapel, said patrol Lt. R.C. French.

Pasco sheriff's Deputy Erica Fernandez got the alert and did the same.

Trooper Mark Conner was the first to see the taxi. He saw the cab parked at a gas pump at a Shell station on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard just south of State Road 56.

Conner pulled into the parking lot and eased in behind the empty taxi.

"We thought he was inside pulling off an armed robbery," French said.

The suspect likely wasn't there for gas. The taxi's tank sat opposite the pumps.

But before he could buy anything in the food mart, the suspect, standing at the entrance, noticed the trooper's car, French said.

"He bolted through the trees," French said.

And across a four-lane highway. And over a rooftop in the Lakes of Northwood community.

Conner ran off after him, along with Trooper Mark Boatright.

Fernandez pulled over and joined the foot chase, cutting her leg on a barbed wire fence.

None of them could have known what the man had done with the gun.

Trooper Henry Cichoski, who had sped up to the scene, intercepted the suspect in the grass, the trooper said.

"I drew on him," Cichoski said, aiming his weapon and ordering the man to the ground.

He obeyed. The troopers grabbed him and put handcuffs on him, they said. Authorities found the weapon, which turned out to be a pellet gun, in the cab.

Arrested was Earl Johnson, 38, of Fort Lauderdale, according to the Pasco Sheriff's Office. Jail records show he faces the following charges: carjacking, attempted armed robbery, aggravated battery and false imprisonment, fleeing to elude law enforcement, as well as charges relating to the stolen vehicle.

His arrest record includes a drug conviction.

Johnson remained in the Land O'Lakes jail Monday afternoon in lieu of $330,000 bail.

After authorities tracked down Johnson, Arman circled the cab in the gas station parking lot.

The meter read $42.90, he saw. "And it's still running."

Arman was glad to get it back.

"I have to pay $82 a day for this cab," he said.