ST. PETERSBURG — Guy Sloben's bike was his most important possession, his sole form of transportation. He'd leave it behind only when it rained too hard to ride the 15-or-so minutes to his job at Winn-Dixie.
On June 30, Sloben pulled up to Dunkin' Donuts for a snack on the way to the supermarket, where he has been bagging groceries and collecting carts since 2006.
When he stepped outside, his bike was gone, lock and all.
"He was devastated when it was stolen," said Cheryl Dolinar of PARC, which helps people with developmental disabilities find jobs. "He's got a real fear of riding the bus. … He's so afraid it's going to break down."
Sloben, 41, is mentally disabled. He panicked and paced, still wearing his backpack full of work clothes. St. Petersburg police Officer Michael Romano talked to Sloben, drove him to Speedway and bought him a slice of pizza. Romano then dropped Sloben off at his job at the Winn-Dixie on 58th Street N.
After that, Romano met up with his partner, Officer Jeffrey Nichols, who was acting sergeant that day.
Romano told Nichols the story, how he was impressed by Sloben's work ethic. Nichols, too, was moved.
"Everywhere he went with him, the gas station and Winn-Dixie, people just boasted about how nice of a guy he was," Nichols said. "It just kind of touched me."
Nichols told Romano: "Follow me."
The officers drove to the Walmart Supercenter on 34th Street N. Nichols strode to the bike section, plucked a black Roadmaster off the rack and scooped up a heavy-duty lock. Then, he pulled out his debit card.
"I thought, I had the means to get a bike, and maybe he didn't," Nichols said. "So, I thought I'd just take care of it.
"That way, he had a way home."
Romano said Nichols didn't even discuss the purchase. In fact, he told Romano: "Don't tell anybody this ever happened."
"I'm being 100 percent serious," Romano said. "This is one of the more moving things I've ever seen or been a part of."
The officers drove to Winn-Dixie, where Nichols pulled the bike from the trunk and met Sloben for the first time, surrounded by smiling employees.
"He was just ecstatic, really excited," Nichols said. "He asked me why I did this. I told him it was because he deserved it."
Sloben was able to bike home to Gulfport that same day.
St. Petersburg police honored Nichols as police officer of the second quarter at a ceremony Thursday.
Sloben sat in the audience in his black Winn-Dixie apron.
"I went up to Officer Nichols and said 'Thank you, thank you for purchasing me a bike with your own money,'" Sloben said.
Nichols, a field training officer who has been with the force since 2008, also led his squad in arrests, citations and citizen contacts in that quarter.
"He's one of the more soft-spoken, humble people I have ever met," Romano said. "This is just one sliver of the nice things I've seen him do for people."
After the ceremony wound down, Sloben thanked Nichols once again and then headed back to Winn-Dixie.
Dolinar gave him a lift. Sloben was still on the clock.
Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.