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St. Petersburg police search for man who held two real estate agents at gunpoint

St. Petersburg police say this gray Nissan Murano was driven by the man who held two real estate agents at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.
St. Petersburg police say this gray Nissan Murano was driven by the man who held two real estate agents at gunpoint Wednesday afternoon.
Published Jun. 4, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — The real estate agent was showing a home to a man in a straw hat when, police said, he pulled out a handgun and bound her hands and feet with zip ties.

The man called the agent's husband and demanded a ransom, police said, then left the house. As soon as he was gone, the woman loosened the ties and ran to a home nearby.

Less than an hour later on Wednesday afternoon, police said, the man was pointing the gun at another real estate agent, whom he then robbed.

"Neither one of them was injured, although they were pretty shaken up, as you can imagine," St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said.

Detectives were still searching for the man Wednesday evening. He is described as white, in his mid 40s, between 5 feet 5 and 5 feet 8. In addition to the hat, he wore a blue shirt and black pants, police said. He had brown hair and a goatee, and spoke with a thick Northeast accent.

As soon as police realized they had two cases on their hands, Fernandez said, the first priority was protecting other real estate agents. They contacted Realtors' associations and released surveillance photos of the man's gray Nissan Murano.

The man "has been calling Realtors asking to see properties,'' a bulletin from the Pinellas Realtors' organization said, and listed the name Robert Evans and a phone number.

"If you receive a call from this person or phone number, indicate that you will meet him at the property, hang up and immediately call the St. Petersburg Police Department," the bulletin said. "DO NOT GO TO THE PROPERTY THAT HE IS REQUESTING TO SEE.''

"We have no indication if he used his real name or a made-up name," Fernandez said. "That's something we're trying to track down."

While the man remains at large, police do not plan to release the names of the victims, Fernandez said.

The first incident happened in the 1700 block of Oxford St. N, near Tyrone Square Mall, police said. The agent there was a Realtor with Hofacker & Associates Inc., owner Bill Hofacker said. The business has changed its locks because the victim's keys were stolen, he said.

The second incident was in the 5800 block of 12th Street N., near Northeast High School.

Such crimes happen occasionally, Fernandez said.

"I think everyone in the bay area has seen cases," she said, "but this man hitting twice within an hour — and he's armed — is a concern."

The murders of several Realtors, including some in the Tampa Bay area, have highlighted the dangers of a profession where agents typically deal with strangers and have to meet people in empty homes.

The most recent victim was Arkansas Realtor Beverly Carter, 49, whose body was found in a shallow grave in October. Carter had gone to an empty house to meet what she thought was a prospective client.

The man accused of killing her, Aaron Lewis, said he targeted Carter because "she was a rich broker … who worked alone.''

In 2011, Iowa real estate agent Ashley Okland was shot to death in the model unit of a new townhome complex. In 2009, a transient was arrested in the killing of prominent Brooksville agent Steven Van Slyke. And the same year, investigators unearthed a green plastic tub and the remains of Rosemary Christensen, a Belleair real estate agent who had vanished in August 1999.

The discovery ended one of Pinellas County's most infamous unsolved mysteries and led to the arrest of Christensen's husband.

A 2011 survey of Realtors nationwide found that 42 percent of female real estate agents and 18 percent of male agents said they had "occasionally'' felt unsafe in the course of their work.

As part of agents' training, "We talk about safety and security,'' said Rachel Sartain, broker and team leader at Keller Williams Realty St. Petersburg. "Things like not taking your purse into an open house but locking it in the trunk, letting somebody know where you are at all times, if you feel nervous making sure you have an escort.''

The Pinellas Realtor Organization and the Greater Tampa Bay Association of Realtors also offer safety courses, tips and alerts like the one that went out about Wednesday's robberies.

Realtors are increasingly taking advantage of high-tech security measures, such as mobile phone apps and jewelry containing tiny devices that send silent alarms. Some agents also carry mace or pepper spray.

But agents say gut feelings are often the best protection.

Notes Ann Rogers of Coldwell Banker: "Sometimes you just get this sense there's something creepy about this person.''

Contact Claire McNeill at cmcneill@tampabay.com and Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com.