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Why buy guns undercover at Brandon mall? Deals are often ‘back and forth.’

One man is in custody and another is still being sought after shots rang out Monday afternoon during an undercover sheriff’s gun buy.
At least one of two suspects fired shots at undercover operatives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as they were fleeing on foot from a Westfield Brandon mall parking lot Monday.
At least one of two suspects fired shots at undercover operatives from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as they were fleeing on foot from a Westfield Brandon mall parking lot Monday. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
Published Jan. 26|Updated Jan. 28

BRANDON — The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is defending its decision to carry out an undercover gun-buying operation at busy Westfield Brandon mall in which shots were fired at deputies as the sellers fled.

One man was arrested and another is being sought in the Monday afternoon incident at the employee parking lot between the Cheesecake Factory restaurant and Macy’s department store. No one was injured but the gunfire gave shoppers and employees a scare, and the mall with its 150 stores shut down for the day.

Related: Tampa man, 19, arrested in Brandon undercover deal that ended in gunfire

The goal of the operation was to get illegal guns off the street, the Sheriff’s Office said. But the sellers decided to rob the undercover buyer. As they drew their guns, other deputies moved in and the sellers fled on foot. At least one of them fired as he ran.

Jordan Gracia, 19, was being held Wednesday without bond at the Hillsborough County jail on charges including robbery with a firearm, punishable by up to life in prison, as well as dealing in stolen property and felon in possession of a firearm.
Jordan Gracia, 19, was being held Wednesday without bond at the Hillsborough County jail on charges including robbery with a firearm, punishable by up to life in prison, as well as dealing in stolen property and felon in possession of a firearm. [ Courtesy of Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]

In response to written questions from the Tampa Bay Times, the Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday that setting up such an undercover deal is a process of “back and forth ... with the final location ultimately agreed upon based on where the suspect is willing to go and where the undercover deputy will be the safest in the event that other deputies must quickly move in for their protection.”

The Sheriff’s Office added, “The safety of the undercover deputy and the surrounding public is always at the forefront of our decision-making.”

At a news conference after the incident, Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski said, “We would love to do it out in an open field in the middle of somewhere, but I fear if we did that, our deputy would be dead.”

A former undercover officer who now teaches criminal justice echoed the explanation from the Sheriff’s Office, saying she considers gun buys the most dangerous of undercover meetups because officers aren’t in control.

“Any operation that’s in public in the middle of the afternoon is far from ideal,” said Jillian Snider, a former officer with the New York Police Department and now a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “But sometimes law enforcement just don’t have a choice.”

Snider, who worked on undercover operations for more than a decade, said she doesn’t believe it was the deputies’ decision to meet in a mall parking lot.

As buyers in this transaction, they probably had little say in where the sale would happen, she said. Too much pushback about the time and place and they risked scaring the sellers away and ruining the operation.

Aside from lack of control, another reason gun buys are so dangerous is that undercover officers are typically unarmed while dealing with suspects who carry weapons, Snider said.

An ideal setting for such an operation, she said, would be at night where a “ghost team” of officers could hide in plain sight — a place like a mall parking lot after hours, away from large groups of people but not completely isolated like in an open field.

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Still, Snider said, the safety of civilians is more important than any single gun buy. If the sellers insisted on a daytime buy at a mall, delaying the operation was worth considering, she said.

“The operations I worked on were completely different from gun buys,” said Snider, who often went undercover as a prostitute to catch men who abused them. “But we always shut down entire streets and removed all civilians from the area before proceeding. You have to eliminate as much risk as possible because the public comes first.”

Hillsborough sheriff's Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski speaks to reporters at the Westfield Brandon mall Monday about an undercover operation gone awry.
Hillsborough sheriff's Chief Deputy Donna Lusczynski speaks to reporters at the Westfield Brandon mall Monday about an undercover operation gone awry. [ NATALIE WEBER | Times ]

Questions about the time and place of undercover operations also arose in December 2016, when a Sheriff’s Office cocaine buy next to a Wendy’s restaurant in Ruskin also ended in gunfire.

The sellers also tried to rob the undercover deputy and bullets flew a few feet from the restaurant’s drive-thru window. No deputies or bystanders were injured. Both suspects were shot.

Lusczynski, speaking to reporters at the time, said the place and time ― 5 p.m. — were chosen to miss the dinner rush and so deputies could remain hidden nearby.

“Unfortunately, this is the place where drug dealers conduct most of their deals,” Lusczynski said then.

At the Monday news conference in Brandon, Lusczynski asked how the two suspects could be free to sell stolen firearms with their history of arrests.

Arrested at the scene was 19-year-old Jordan Gracia of Lithia, whose occupation was listed as buser at a Brandon restaurant. Gracia was being held Wednesday without bond at the Hillsborough County jail on charges including robbery with a firearm, punishable by up to life in prison, as well as dealing in stolen property and felon in possession of a firearm.

Gracia has faced criminal charges 17 times since 2016, according to state records, including burglary, armed burglary, domestic battery, resisting arrest, juvenile in possession of a firearm and felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to up to five years in a juvenile center in March 2019. In October 2020 and again in March 2021, he was determined to be mentally unable to stand trial.

Still at large was Jaycob Riley, 19, who faces five counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, as well as armed robbery and felon in possession of a firearm. Riley was sentenced to up to a year in jail in March for charges including grand theft. He was arrested earlier in Pasco County on a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. The charge was dropped.

Anyone with information was asked to call the Sheriff’s Office at 813-247-8200.

Crime Stoppers of Tampa Bay announced Wednesday that a reward of up to $5,000 is being offered for information leading to Riley’s arrest. To be eligible, call Crime Stoppers at 800-873-8477. To make an anonymous tip online, go to www.crimestopperstb.com or send a mobile tip using the P3 Tips Mobile application.

The Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday in answer to the Times’ questions that it will not alter its policy for undercover meetups based on the incident at the Brandon mall.

“Every case is evaluated and analyzed on an individual basis to protect both the citizens and the deputies that interact with these criminals,” the office said.

The Sheriff's Office is seeking information on the location of 19-year-old Jaycob Riley, a suspect in the shooting at a Westfield Brandon mall parking lot Monday.
The Sheriff's Office is seeking information on the location of 19-year-old Jaycob Riley, a suspect in the shooting at a Westfield Brandon mall parking lot Monday. [ Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office ]
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