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    Pickup fleeing on U.S. 19 strikes 6

    The truck's driver is held after deputies say he stole a trailer and fled 3 miles, sideswiping a sheriff's cruiser and three cars and rear-ending two other cars.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 21, 2002


    Sandra Molder was driving her mother's car to her cook's job at Bob Evans Restaurant Friday morning when a collision with a suspected thief sent her spinning through one of U.S. 19's busiest intersections.

    She had a green arrow for a left turn and was following a line of cars from State Road 580 onto U.S. 19 when she glanced to the north. Blowing through the red light was an old pickup truck, painted black with spots of primer.

    "I saw him out of the corner of my eye, just plowing at me," said Molder, 28, of Holiday. "I just kind of tensed up because I knew I couldn't do anything about it."

    Rescue workers had to cut the roof off the 1987 Mercury Grand Marquis to get Molder out. She escaped with a sore neck.

    "The sheriff's (deputy) said if I had been a second faster, he would have plowed into the driver's side door," she said.

    Molder was one of six drivers, including a deputy, struck by a man who used a truck and a stolen trailer as a battering ram during Friday morning rush hour on U.S. 19, Pinellas County sheriff's officials said. She was the only one injured.

    Joseph Michael Czap fled from deputies for more than 3 miles, from Tampa Road in Palm Harbor to Enterprise Road in Countryside, sheriff's spokesman Cal Dennie said. Along the way, he sideswiped a sheriff's cruiser and three cars and rear-ended two other cars.

    Czap, 46, of 2130 McKinley St., Clearwater, abandoned the Chevrolet pickup truck after he clipped a telephone pole near Enterprise Road, causing the trailer to come unhitched. Covered in blood from broken glass, he ran through an office park, but deputies caught him.

    "When they finally caught up with him there was not one window in that pickup truck that was unbroken," Dennie said. "All of them were smashed out" in collisions with other vehicles.

    Czap was treated at Mease Countryside Hospital and released to deputies.

    Czap received six traffic citations for reckless driving and was charged with grand theft, resisting arrest with violence, aggravated assault with a motor vehicle, aggravated fleeing and eluding, and violating his probation from Hillsborough County on a grand theft auto charge. He was being held at the Pinellas County Jail without bail Friday night.

    The first person to notice Czap on Friday morning was Oldsmar businessman Ted Gilford. Arriving at his marketing and promotions firm just before 7 a.m., Gilford said he had an urge to walk across the road and check on the warehouse where he parks a couple of trailers he uses to carry vintage motorcycles and cars to car shows.

    Approaching the warehouse, Gilford said he saw a pickup truck drive by towing a trailer that looked a lot like one he had bought a month ago. The truck's lights were off and the driver looked like someone Gilford had seen driving around the Cypress Lakes Industrial Park.

    "I looked at him very carefully," said Gilford, 57. He thought: " 'Why would you drive around in the dark without your headlights on?' It was suspicious. . . . I ran to the back of the warehouse and sure enough, the trailer was gone."

    He came back just in time to see the truck, his trailer in tow, heading toward Tampa Road. Going west would have been easiest that time of morning, so Gilford called 911 and said the thief was probably heading that direction on Tampa Road.

    About 7:05 a.m., Deputy Rick Hoover spotted the truck and trailer heading south on U.S. 19 near Tampa Road, Dennie said. When Hoover tried to pull Czap over, Czap sideswiped his cruiser and kept going.

    Dennie said Hoover and other deputies followed Czap, but were not chasing him.

    "He did not want to get in a battle with this guy with the trailer, as crowded as U.S. 19 is at that time of the morning," Dennie said.

    In all, Czap was involved in accidents at or near U.S. 19's intersections with Tampa Road, Curlew Road, Republic Drive and State Road 580. An estimate of all the damage was not available, Dennie said.

    Gilford's trailer, which cost about $2,000, was destroyed, its fenders ripped off and all four tires and wheels battered.

    "He must have done a lot of damage with cars or medians," Gilford said. "I don't know if it's salvageable. When he left, I said to myself, 'Well, I can write that thing off.' I never thought they'd catch him."

    -- Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at (727) 445-4194 or Danielson@sptimes.com.

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