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Thrown Big Gulp slows robber

A customer filling mugs with soft drinks intervenes as a man holds up a Texaco station. Authorities believe they have found the suspect.

By CHRIS TISCH
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 29, 2001


LARGO -- Gary Knajdek Sr. is a big man who carries two big mugs.

The 6-foot-5, 350-pound man lugged his two 52-ounce Big Gulp mugs into the Texaco station on East Bay Drive Thursday night and started filling one with Diet Coke for his wife, and the second with Diet Coke and lemonade to satisfy his own thirst.

He heard soft talking coming from the front counter area behind him. He turned and saw the clerk emptying cash into a plastic bag. A man stood at the counter facing the clerk.

Knajdek figured it was a holdup.

He filled his red mugs and headed toward the register. The clerk told him to stop, but Knajdek kept coming. He slapped the mugs on the counter and locked eyes with the thief. He was short and wiry, with a gray turtleneck sweatshirt pulled up to his nose. He held a dull-black handgun in his right hand by his crotch.

Knajdek, 55, towered over the 5-foot-6, 120-pound man. He knew the guy didn't have the nerve to shoot the gun.

He was right. The robber snatched the bag of cash and dashed for the door. Knajdek, a disabled Vietnam veteran who has prosthetic bone from elbow to shoulder in his right arm, hurled his Big Gulp at the robber.

The football-sized drink hit the robber in the leg, sending him sprawling toward the window and into a display of phone cards, which spilled onto the floor like a deck of playing cards.

Knajdek stomped toward the fallen robber, who scrambled to his feet and darted out the door.

Outside, Knajdek's wife of 33 years, Patricia, sat in the couple's blue Dodge minivan. She had been waiting for her husband when she heard him holler. The yell penetrated the rolled-up van windows.

The robber exited the store and headed directly for the van. Patricia Knajdek flipped the electric locks, sealing the door.

The robber sprinted toward a carwash. Knajdek bounded after him until the robber slipped behind a strip mall and vanished from sight.

Largo police say the young man may be responsible for up to five recent stickups in Pinellas County. Largo police and Pinellas sheriff's investigators believed they had caught up with the robber in Madeira Beach late Friday and were planning to interview him, but no charges had been filed.

Knajdek, a native Midwesterner with enormous hands, said he wasn't afraid, even though his weapon of choice was unusual.

"I think it probably weighs 5 or 6 pounds, full," he said of his mug-turned-projectile. "I think if it hit him in the right place, it would have knocked him out."

Largo police used words such as "admirable" and "resourceful" to describe Knajdek's actions but said standing up to armed robbers is dangerous.

"We caution people who are involved in this type of crime to be compliant with the person's request and to be observant of what the suspect looks like," police spokesman Mac McMullen said.

Knajdek, who has two sons and four grandchildren, agreed: "I would not recommend this for the common citizen on the street."

A common citizen Knajdek is not, based not only on his impressive size but his combat experience.

His year and a half in Vietnam, where he was frequently shot at, taught him true terror. A man with a turtleneck wrapped over his mouth is not it.

But Knajdek, who moved to Florida six months ago, said he has no regrets about Thursday night. Much like an NFL quarterback the morning after a game, the only thing that bothered him the next day was his right arm.

"It was sore this morning because I overextended it," he said.

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