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Realtor recalls robber's bungled efforts to be taken seriously, collect ransom

WSt. Petersburg police say this gray sport utility was driven by the man who held two real estate agents at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.
WSt. Petersburg police say this gray sport utility was driven by the man who held two real estate agents at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.
Published Jun. 5, 2015

"There's nothing like guns, gloves and restraints to make you feel just how mortal you are.''

That was the thought racing through the mind of a 59-year-old St. Petersburg real estate agent Wednesday as she sat shackled in the house she had just shown to a prospective client turned ransom-seeking robber.

For 15 minutes, in a terrifying episode with traces of dark humor, she listened as the man with a gun in one hand and her cell phone in the other tried to convince her husband that she really was in danger.

"Sweetie, how are you doing,'' she heard her husband say when he answered the robber's first call.

"Sweetie's not doing so good,'' the robber growled in a faint Jersey accent. "Here's what you need to do — don't call the cops, don't call the media, don't call your friends or family, you need to come up with $50,000 cash by 5 p.m. today.''

There would be two more phone calls before the robber finally realized he would get no money, left the house and moved on to his next victim, another real estate agent. As of Thursday, he still had not been caught, but the first agent, who wriggled free of her ankle shackles and ran to a nearby house, agreed to tell her story as a cautionary tale for other real estate agents as long her name wasn't used while the robber is at large.

A former journalist who has been in real estate for 11 years, the agent works for Hofacker & Associates. On Wednesday morning, she got a call from a man who had seen an ad on Zillow, an online real estate service, for a small house near her own home in the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg.

"He told me his name was Robert Evans. I chuckled and was going to make a joke about the restaurant. There was no hesitation in any of the answers to any of the questions. It was just normal, normal.''

The only thing that gave the agent the slightest pause was when the man said he had been pre-approved for a $450,000 loan; she wondered why he was interested in a $150,000 house if he could afford much more. But he told her he needed to find something quickly, so they agreed to meet.

Around 12:20 p.m. she pulled up at the house to find the man waiting in his car. When he got out, wearing wraparound sunglasses, she noticed he carried a small black nylon briefcase and was neatly dressed in long pants, a dress shirt and a straw fedora. She assumed he was taking time off from work at lunch to see the property.

"There was nothing that would have given me a clue it was not safe.''

They entered the house and she gave him a "quick little tour'' of the bedrooms, the garage, the back yard. They went back inside and both commented favorably on the updated kitchen, where she had left her pen and pad on the counter.

"I was just picking up the pen getting ready to interview him further and the next thing he says is, 'Sorry about this,' and pulls a gun out and puts it right in my face.''

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The man retrieved two sets of handcuffs from his briefcase — she noticed that they looked like real police-type cuffs, "not those cheap silver things'' — and ordered her to sit on the floor. After pulling on his gloves, he cuffed her hands behind her back, took her phone and called her husband.

At the time he was sitting in his office in Tampa, where he has a diesel repair business.

"I thought it was a joke,'' he said of the robber's demand for $50,000 by 5 p.m. ''It sounded like my pool guy — we're having our pool recapped. I said, 'Who the f---- is this?' and he said, 'You don't need to know who I am.' "

Convinced it was a prank, the agent's husband hung up. The robber called back and said: "Listen, dude, I'm serious. I have your wife and you need to get $50,000 by tonight.''

Again the husband hung up. Again the robber called back.

This time the husband demanded to speak to his wife. After she told him she was okay, the two men went back and forth, with the robber repeatedly asking, "Don't you love your wife?'' and the husband repeatedly saying he did but that he couldn't possibly come up with $50,000.

Finally, the husband said — bluffing — "I know where you're at'' and the robber hung up for the final time.

The agent picks up the story.

"I guess he's realizing the futility of what's going on and he's got another date with another Realtor. He's putting all of the stuff back into his little thing. He takes my phone. I said, 'Please don't take my phone, my entire business is tied up in that one little phone' — (he) took the keys to the house, walked out and locked the door.''

The agent quickly slipped out of the zip ties he had put around her ankles and ran across the street. A man there helped remove the handcuffs and gave her a phone.

"At this point, when you've been in a situation where your life was in jeopardy, you're kind of outside yourself. It wasn't until I had his phone in my hand and was talking to 911 that I started to shake.''

The agent spent several hours with police, then went to get a new phone. After dinner and drinks at a Cody's, she went to bed and slept late. Then, as she often does on Thursdays, she attended a brokers' pitch where agents pitch their new listings.

"I felt obligated to go and talk to my fellow Realtors about what had happened because I was sure some had seen the news and I wanted to share my experience and pitch them to be more cautious.''

Two dozen detectives have been working the case nonstop, Assistant Chief Jim Previtera said Thursday. He called the suspect "obviously desperate" and "extremely dangerous."

"This was a very calculated attempt," Previtera said.

He said the suspect cast a wide net while fishing for victims, which has sparked anxiety among agents. He said the man may be seeking other targets.

Previtera described the second incident on Oxford Street. After the robber held the victim at gunpoint, he saw another Realtor and client arrive, then "very coolly and calmly left the house as if all was fine." In a 911 call, the victim said her keys and phone were taken, and that the man demanded money.

Police released a video of the robber's silver sport utility vehicle and a composite of his face. Previtera urged people to listen to a recording of a man's voice.

The first agent says she will never again meet someone at a house unless the client first goes to the real estate office and leaves a copy of his or her driver's license. And she knows she might have to rethink her motto:

"I take the drama out of real estate.''

Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed. Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642.