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Team effort lands suspect

Several factors were stacked against a robbery suspect: a watchful driver, a quick-thinking pharmacy worker and a lot of deputies.

By CHRIS TISCH

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


Several factors were stacked against a robbery suspect: a watchful driver, a quick-thinking pharmacy worker and a lot of deputies.

PALM HARBOR -- The first thing that went right Tuesday morning is that cops were everywhere.

About 30 Pinellas sheriff's deputies were scouring north Pinellas County because they suspected that a prolific robber would strike again in that area soon.

He was suspected of robbing 17 businesses in the past three weeks, including one earlier that morning. He robbed mostly hotels, many along the U.S. 19 corridor, from Pinellas Park to New Port Richey.

The second thing to go right: An observant driver in the parking lot noticed a man in a white Mercedes circling the Shoppes at Clover Place parking lot in the 3300 block of Tampa Road.

The man parked the Mercedes on the side of the building, as if he were trying to conceal the car. He left it running when he exited. He wore a dark duffel bag over his shoulder, his arm tucked into the bag like he had a gun. He walked into the Clover Pharmacy.

The observant driver jotted down the man's tag number, then drove closer for a look.

The third lucky break came from a pharmacy technician inside the business who picked up the phone soon after she realized the man with the duffel bag was sticking them up.

Though she stood only 10 feet from the robber, who threatened he had a gun and would shoot them if he didn't get money, she concealed her right hand, dialed 911 and then put the phone down.

When the robber got his money, he stormed out of the pharmacy, almost knocking a customer down.

Soon after he left, a trap was set.

The 911 dispatcher called the business, asking what was going on. The watchful driver walked inside and handed over the suspect's tag number.

Within minutes, a description of the robber and the tag number were reaching deputies' radios. Deputies saw the white Mercedes on U.S. 19 and gave chase.

The driver led them north to a dead-end street near the Sheraton Four Points hotel, where he ditched the car and dove into a canal off Lake Tarpon. Dozens of deputies swarmed to the area and waited on shore as another fortunate factor kicked in:

The man was not a very strong swimmer.

Minutes later, the out-of-breath and water-logged suspect came ashore and was taken into custody. By late Tuesday afternoon, Mauro S. Solone, 32, was charged with two robberies and was being interviewed in connection with at least 16 more.

State records indicate Solone was released from state prison Sept. 27 after serving almost 10 years for armed robbery convictions. Investigators say he began this string of crimes only 17 days after his release from prison.

Investigators suspect Solone, who lives at 566 Brady Road in Tarpon Springs, started with a Farm Store in Clearwater.

The Clover Pharmacy was apparently the last.

Clover Pharmacy owner Sam Wahba said he was filling prescriptions in the back about 10:30 a.m. The robber entered the store, approached a sales associate in the front and handed over a note demanding money.

Wahba handed over a couple of hundred dollars in cash, which the robber stuffed in the left front pocket of his blue Jeans.

"Hey, everybody's got to make a living," Wahba recalled the robber saying.

Unbeknownst to anyone else, a pharmacy technician had picked up the counter phone with her right hand, which was shielded from the robber. The business has three incoming lines, and she fidgeted her fingers to get an outside line and dial 911.

But as she did, the first line rang. It was a customer calling. She let it ring.

She moved over to the second line. She began to dial. But the second line rang. Another customer. Again, she let it ring.

She finally moved to the third line, where she got through. Even though she couldn't talk on the phone, she placed it out of sight, hoping a dispatcher would hear what was going on through the receiver.

Moments after the robber left, a deputy who had been patrolling at a nearby bank appeared.

Investigators say they don't think Solone ever carried a gun. He wrapped a sweat shirt or towel around his hand and implied that a gun was underneath.

Sgt. George Steffen of the Pinellas sheriff's robbery unit said he can't remember a robber who ran such a concentrated string of robberies.

"I think he was desperate. He was using the money for drugs," Steffen said.

Steffen said detectives continued to interview Solone late Tuesday. He was cooperating with investigators, Steffen said.

Investigators say it was a combination of a proactive investigation and good instincts by witnesses that led to the arrest.

"They did a nice job, some of the victims and witnesses in this case," Steffen said. "That helps out."

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