ST. PETERSBURG — Derek Lowrance thought the stranger passing him on the sidewalk last week had punched him.
That would have been shocking enough. Lowrance was walking west on Central Avenue at about 7:45 p.m. Jan. 21, headed from CVS to his apartment, a Dr. Pepper in his right hand, his cell phone with his girlfriend on the other end in his left.
He barely noticed the man approaching in the 500 block of Central, which is in front of the Regions Bank and across the street from Acropolis.
When he felt the blow, Lowrance squared up on the man and asked him what he was thinking.
“That’s when I noticed the knife,” he said.
And the blood. The man hadn’t punched him. He had cut a gash across Lowrance’s cheek from near the corner of his mouth to his jawline.
Lowrance retreated and tripped backward, landing on his wrist, which hurt more than the face wound that had sent blood running onto his shirt, pants and the pavement. His cell phone went flying.
Lowrance, 32, noticed that the knife had a green handle and a razor blade at the tip. The attacker swore at him, telling him to give him his wallet. Lowrance scrambled into the roadway.
Lowrance said his attacker continued to swear at him and demand his wallet, but he refused. A runner and bicyclist, he was poised to sprint if the guy attacked again.
Lowrance saw his phone in the roadway, picked it up and dialed 911. The man retreated, heading down a driveway toward the Holocaust Museum and turning west.
St. Petersburg police said they caught the suspected attacker blocks away. Emergency responders arrived and gave Lowrance gauze to stop the bleeding, which by this time had gushed enough blood to soak his shirt and pants.
Officers took Lowrance to where they caught the man and he was able to identify him as the attacker.
Police booked Tyler Andrew Garrison, 26, on a felony charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Garrison was being held at the jail on $20,000 bail, records show. An assistant public defender has entered a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Police noted in an arrest report that Garrison is a transient who appears to have mental health issues.
Lowrance was taken to the hospital, where he needed 19 stitches. He also got a cast on his wrist. If the cut to his face had been inches lower, it could have gotten his jugular, Lowrance says.
“It seemed like he had gone for my neck and I twisted at the last second and he got my cheek instead,” Lowrance said. “Even the doctor was like, ‘You’re really lucky with this one.’"
“It’s going to be a pretty gnarly scar,” he added.
He is baffled by what prompted the man to attack. He had never seen him before.
“It seemed like he was just out to hurt somebody and the wallet was an afterthought,” Lowrance says. “He was so angry with me.”
Lowrance moved to St. Petersburg from Illinois three years ago. He lives downtown and works there, too, in software. He walks downtown all the time, heading from favorite spot to favorite spot.
“I love it here. St. Pete is really a beautiful city, it’s paradise here,” he said.
He said the topic of transients downtown has been coming up more often in conversations.
“It’s definitely an issue I talk about with my friends,” he said. “It’s a problem where we shouldn’t just be shipping them away; there’s something that’s broken here and I’m not sure what it is. I wish I had an answer for that. It’s definitely something we talk about a lot.”
Ben Kirby, a spokesman for the city, says the incident shouldn’t cause residents or visitors to worry that violence is on the rise in downtown St. Petersburg.
“What happened to this gentleman is terrible and a lot of sympathy to him. However, it is an unusual incident in respect to transient people,” Kirby said. “I hope we can reassure people that this was a highly unusual incident.”
As for what Lowrance thinks should happen to the man accused of attacking him: “I want him to get help, but at the same time he really messed up, he could have taken my life I’m sorry, I don’t think he should be able to walk the streets any time soon.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated after police said they had talked to multiple people in connection with the case.