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    Gunfire halts good deed in St. Petersburg

    The shaken Habitat for Humanity volunteers just wanted to help rebuild a house during their spring break.

    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    A house being rebuilt with help from some University of Alabama students is reflected in a van window that was shot out Wednesday when a fight broke out nearby. The students hid until police arrived at the house on Eighth Avenue S in St. Petersburg.

    By LEANORA MINAI, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 28, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Dripping sweat and yearning for the beach, seven University of Alabama students patched holes and hammered nails in the Wednesday morning heat. They had driven 600 miles to spend spring break rebuilding a house in Childs Park.

    As they toiled, they heard yelling and cursing between two men across the street. Tensions escalated, and soon about 15 cars drove up; punches were thrown. Suddenly, 40 men filled the block, and shooting began.

    "We heard the gunfire, and we just ran," said Mary White, 21, a University of Alabama student and volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. "I've never heard gunshots."

    She and other students took cover inside and huddled in a bedroom closet until police arrived. Outside, student Morgan Clark, who was in the university van retrieving a hammer, ducked as stray bullets shattered the vehicle's windows.

    No one was injured in the 10:17 a.m. shooting in the 3900 block of Eighth Avenue S. Later, three men -- Antonio Graham, 26; Deyonta Mells, 16; and Harold Roberson, 25 -- were arrested. They had been in two cars matching the vehicles that sped away from the shooting. They were arrested on felony and misdemeanor drug charges.

    Police say they will investigate whether these suspects did any shooting. They say they're still seeking other suspects.

    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    As the students hover nearby, R. Wolfson and Dallas Holtman of the St. Petersburg Police Department examine a car that was shot.

    Officers said they didn't know what led to the violence, but they believe it may have been part of an ongoing dispute over drugs. A front window of the Habitat house had already been pierced by bullets.

    "It's just fortunate that nobody was hurt," said Ken Smith, 53, director of the United Methodist Student Center at the University of Alabama. He was working on a window when the shooting started.

    Witnesses say passing motorists exchanged fire with a man on the sidewalk in front of 3931 Eighth Ave. Although witnesses said eight to 10 shots were fired, police recovered about five shell casings after the shooting.

    Two bullets struck a Honda owned by Dan Stowers, the Habitat for Humanity site supervisor.

    Other bullets shattered the back panel windows of the university van and left a round hole through a shoulder belt.

    Clark, an industrial engineering student, hit the van floor.

    "I was getting hammers," she said, her hands trembling.

    Clark, 19, who is from Robertsdale, Ala., a suburb of Mobile with a population of 3,782, said she did not want to talk about what happened.

    "These things don't happen in Robertsdale, Ala.," said Peter von Herrmann, 21, who was drilling wood when the fight started.

    photo
    [Times photo: Fred Victorin]
    Dallas Holtman of the St. Petersburg Police Department photographs the inside of a van that was damaged by gunshots Wednesday outside a house in St. Petersburg.
    Stowers, who lives on St. Pete Beach, tried to calm the students. He asked them if anyone wanted to caulk. He told them that the shooting was isolated, not something that happens all the time.

    Then he answered his cell phone.

    "Gang fights and shots and everything right in the front yard," Stowers told another Habitat supervisor. "The van windows were shot out. My car was hit twice."

    The shaken students, who worked six-hour days since Monday, left the site. They'll remain in St. Petersburg but plan to work on a different Habitat project the rest of the week.

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