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2-minute robbery 'felt like a lifetime'

By MARCUS FRANKLIN and CARRIE JOHNSON
Published March 23, 2004

photo
[Times photos: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
Law enforcement officials investigate outside the GTE Federal Credit Union branch office at 4584 38th Ave. N in St. Petersburg on Monday. Authorities say three masked gunmen came inside while another man waited outside in a silver Hyundai Sonata.


Terry Crady, right, is consoled by a friend after the robbery. Crady works at the credit union, but she wasn't on duty when it occurred.

ST. PETERSBURG - Wearing ski masks and black clothing, three robbers rushed into the GTE Federal Credit Union Monday morning, and two of them scaled the counter.

"I want the shipment. I know it came today," one of them told 20-year-old teller Lauren Hunt and her co-workers. A shipment of money in a Brinks truck had arrived at the credit union on 38th Avenue N earlier that morning.

"They wanted us to unlock the vault," Hunt said. "They told me I was moving too slow. They told me to hurry up or they'd shoot."

Impatient, one robber did fire his weapon, and a bullet struck the leg of a teller standing near Hunt. The trio ran outside, where a silver Hyundai Sonata and getaway driver were waiting.

"They were saying it lasted maybe two minutes," Hunt said, "but it felt like a lifetime."

The injured teller was treated and released from Northside Hospital & Heart Institute, a hospital official said. Police wouldn't release the woman's identity.

St. Petersburg and FBI investigators, who were alerted to the robbery by the credit union's silent alarm, were still searching for the robbers Monday. They also were reviewing surveillance tape.

"These guys are bad," said Bill Proffitt, a St. Petersburg police spokesman. "We need to find them."

The well-prepared robbers arrived shortly before 9:20 a.m., one hour and 20 minutes after the credit union opened. Police gave this account of what happened next:

Four men pulled into the parking lot off 46th Street. The driver parked about 20 feet from the main entrance, where a Wackenhut security guard was posted.

Three of them, armed with at least one handgun and assault rifle, got out and headed toward him.

"They knock him down, Mace him and drag him inside," Proffitt said. "They tell him to sit still, and they go about their business inside the bank." The guard's name was not released, and he declined to talk to a reporter.

Hunt, the teller, said that after the men made their demands, one grew impatient and fired a weapon toward the floor. A female teller was hit. "I think it ricocheted off the ground," said Hunt, who has worked there for nine months.

The robbers got away with at least $1,000 from tellers' drawers, Hunt said. As the men left, they ran right into Chuck Miller, 46, who was planning to make a deposit.

"I didn't even make it into the door," Miller said. "One of them yelled at me and told me to get down on the ground."

Although he saw what looked like an Uzi in one of the gunmen's hands, Miller still thought it was some kind of drill. Then the robbers scooped up the $90 he was planning to deposit and drove away.

Miller scribbled down the getaway car's license plate number and waited for police.

"He could have had an itchy trigger finger," he said. "Thank goodness he didn't."

After driving away, the robbers ditched the car in an alley behind Disston Plaza, a few blocks west of the credit union, and took off in different directions, police said.

The four-door car had been stolen from a Chevron gas station at 18th Avenue S and 34th Street at 8:20 a.m. Friday, according to the car's owner.

Rich Helber, executive vice president of GTE Credit Union, said the company would not comment on the robbery. The Wackenhut Corp. in Palm Beach Gardens did not return messages.

As word of the robbery spread, friends and relatives of employees rushed to the credit union to check on loved ones.

Christine Accardo, 40, was in tears as she delivered a pack of Marlboro Lights to her sister, Rose Borgias, a loan officer, who was still inside the building for police questioning.

"This is so ridiculous," Accardo said. "They have no security. What are they going to do, wait until someone gets killed?"

Accardo, who is also a member of the credit union, said she's planning to withdraw her money and urge her sister to quit.

"They don't care about their employees or their members," she said.

Tina Tinley, 35, the niece of teller Meta Signorelli, said employees had been asking their supervisors for stricter security measures.

"All of the tellers were begging them to put up Plexiglas after the last robbery," Tinley said. "At least if they had that glass they would feel more secure."

Jim Mast, a letter carrier, was delivering mail across the street when a man pulled up next to him in a Jeep Cherokee.

"He said he had been in the drive-through at the credit union when he heard screaming and saw the tellers drop to the ground," Mast said. "He was really freaked out."

Mast used his cell phone to call police and report the robbery.

"That place gets robbed all the time," Mast said. "I guess one security guy isn't going to scare off a lot of people."

Customers, seeing police and TV news crews, asked whether the credit union had been robbed "again" as they pulled up. Monday's robbery, in fact, wasn't the first at the branch. One of the previous incidents closely resembles Monday's robbery.

In that November 2001 incident, four masked men held up the credit union at gunpoint. Three of the four robbers leapt over the teller counter and grabbed money, while the fourth stayed in the lobby and held employees and customers at gunpoint as they lay on the floor. Police said it was too early to tell whether the two robberies were connected.

The credit union was hit again in February 2003, when a robber made off with $10,000. A 19-year-old man was later charged with the crime. The branch also was robbed by two armed men in June 1998.

Meanwhile, police also said it was too soon to say whether there could be a connection between Monday's robbery and a similar robbery of a Bank of America on 54th Avenue S last October. In that case, three armed and masked men burst into the bank. They roughed up the security guard and jumped the counter and also fired weapons during the robbery.

- Marcus Franklin can be reached at 727 893-8488 or mfranklin@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 23, 2004, 08:10:39]


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