SUN CITY CENTER — A woman screamed, onlookers gave chase and frightened business owners locked their doors Tuesday as an armed man rampaged through a busy shopping center parking lot, trying to steal several vehicles.
The chaos ended when a bystander shot and killed the man in self-defense, according to the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
Deputies did not release the name of the alleged car thief, or the man who shot him. But Mike Wheeler, the owner of Audibel Hearing Center, said the armed bystander was one of his employees, a 25-year-old hearing aid specialist.
"From what I understand, there was a gun in his face," Wheeler said. "He does have a weapon in his car. He chose to be the shooter and not the shootee.
"It goes without saying it's the worst day of his life ... He's just devastated."
Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister said the armed bystander is considered a crime victim in this case. The man who was fatally shot is from Pinellas County and has numerous felony arrests in his past, Chronister said.
The incident happened just after 9 a.m. outside of a Publix at 4854 Sun City Center Boulevard. Deputies did not say whether the cars targeted were occupied when the thief tried to steal them.
The Sheriff's Office released few details about the incident. Detectives interviewed witnesses who said they saw a man attempt to break into at least four vehicles. When he found a vehicle locked, he moved on to the next.
Debra Smith, 63, of Sun City Center, said she was cutting through the Publix parking lot on her morning walk when she heard a woman screaming. Smith turned around and said she saw a group of four or five men chasing the armed car thief.
The man dashed toward the south side of a row of businesses, which runs north to south, perpendicular to the Publix storefront. He tried to open the doors of several stores.
But the employees of those businesses — a jewelry store, nail salon, and the hearing aid store, among them — saw the man approaching and quickly locked their doors, the sheriff said.
"One employee saw him approaching with a handgun and couldn't secure the door in time but held the door handle so he couldn't get in," Chronister said.
The alleged car thief ran behind the building.
Wheeler, who was not there at the time of the incident, said his employees learned about what was going on outside. The armed employee told another employee at the hearing aid shop to call 911, Wheeler said, then walked out to check on his own car. Within seconds, the alleged car thief confronted him.
From the front parking lot, Smith saw a silver SUV drive behind the building from the north, appearing to trap the man there. Shortly thereafter, she heard several gunshots.
When deputies arrived they found the wounded man behind a building housing several businesses adjacent to the Publix.
He had been shot in the upper body. He was taken to South Bay Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
"What his motive was, we're not sure at this point," Chronister said.
Wheeler said the 25-year-old employee who shot the alleged car thief is a good worker and dependable supervisor who played college baseball.
"He doesn't have a malicious bone in his body," Wheeler said. "He's a real good guy. ... For this to happen, he had to be in fear for his life."
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