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    Pasco deputies foil truck hijacking

    Two men steal a truck hauling $350,000 in cigarettes, shoot a trucker and kidnap another before their capture.

    By MOLLY MOORHEAD
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 23, 2002


    It was a little after midnight as the two Miami area truck drivers, hauling $350,000 in cigarettes, wheeled their semitrailer truck into the Flying J truck stop in central Pasco County.

    The plan was to gas up and get back on the road to Kentucky.

    Two armed men had other ideas.

    They confronted the truckers at gunpoint, forced them into the sleeping compartment and told them to be calm or be killed.

    One of the truckers made a desperate bid for freedom. He popped open the emergency exit door and scrambled outside as a gun went off. He got away but took a bullet to the leg.

    Moments later, the truck was rumbling south on Interstate 75, the second trucker held captive.

    "I thought I was at the end of my road," 40-year-old Jose Luis Machuat of Hialeah later told an interpreter.

    With Pasco County sheriff's deputies pursuing, the hijackers pulled over and abandoned the truck. One of them ran into nearby woods; the second climbed into a minivan that had been following the truck.

    A mile north of State Road 54, the van slowed and pulled to the shoulder. With the vehicle still moving, two men jumped out and ran into the woods.

    Their escape led to a massive search by 18 Pasco sheriff's deputies, two helicopters, a Tampa police officer, two Florida Highway Patrol troopers and two police dogs. Several hours later, two men were arrested and the third suspect, thought to be the minivan driver, still was at large.

    Trucker Angel Alberto Gutierrez, 30, was shot in his right thigh and broke both wrists when he landed on the pavement. He was taken to University Community Hospital in Tampa, where he was treated and released Tuesday.

    He declined to comment.

    Machuat, left in the semitrailer truck when the suspects ran, was unharmed.

    Late Tuesday morning, Pasco sheriff's deputies arrested Fernando A. Solorzano, 26, of Hialeahafter receiving a tip on a suspicious person, according to sheriff's reports. Solorzano was arrested near Blair Drive and Overpass Road in the Wesley Chapel area, not far from where the hijackers abandoned the stolen semitrailer truck.

    Solorzano told deputies he had driven the getaway van but was not involved with the hijacking and shooting. But Gutierrez identified Solorzano as one of the hijackers, according to reports.

    Several hours later, a sheriff's deputy stopped a suspicious car on Old Pasco Road in Wesley Chapel and arrested 24-year-old Luis Carlos Acosta of Hialeah.

    Solorzano and Acosta each are charged with attempted murder, kidnapping, carjacking, grand theft of more than $100,000 and felony fleeing to elude law enforcement. They are being held in the Pasco County jail at Land O'Lakes in lieu of $180,000 bail.

    The events leading up to the late-night hijacking began about 7:30 p.m. Monday when Gutierrez and Machuat left Hialeah.

    Investigators believe the hijackers might have been tailing the truck from the start.

    The two truckers and the two men arrested Tuesday all live in South Florida. The minivan used in the getaway was rented in Miami-Dade County.

    Pasco sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers called it "a definite possibility" that the hijackers followed the truck from Hialeah.

    "It doesn't look like it was a random hit. It looks to be target-specific," Powers said.

    Sheriff's Cpl. William Batten was in the Flying J buying a cold drink when the hijacking occurred. He attended to Gutierrez and alerted deputies in the area to be on the lookout for the suspects.

    "His prime concern was to get help for the wounded guy and get a (bulletin) out to other units," Powers said.

    For Machuat, the entire ordeal lasted about 20 minutes. As he sat kidnapped in the semitrailer truck, he said he had one thing on his mind.

    "I kept thinking of my family, Jesus Christ, my wife, my brother," Machuat, who has three sons, said through an interpreter.

    Several hours later, truckers in the Flying J were buzzing about the day's events. Gutierrez was headed home to Miami with his family. And Machuat was back on the road to Kentucky, hoping to complete the cigarette delivery.

    -- Times photographer John Pendygraft contributed to this report.

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