APOLLO BEACH, Fla. (FOX 13) - A crime spree involving stolen cigarettes spanned three Bay Area counties early Friday morning.
Authorities in three counties – Pinellas, Manatee and Hillsborough – are investigating a series of 7-Eleven robberies that all may be connected.
Largo police said the first robbery occurred at the 7-Eleven on 150th Avenue around 1 a.m. Multiple suspects stormed inside and grabbed about 90 cartons of cigarettes, which a store manager claimed were worth nearly $10,000. A clerk tried to intervene but was tackled and sustained some injuries.
"He tackled one of the suspects. He was injured slightly as the other suspects attacked him," said Lt. Randall Chaney with the Largo Police Department.
A separate robbery took place around 2:30 a.m. at the 7-Eleven in Palmetto, located at 4920 Moccasin Wallow Road. The Manatee County Sheriff's Office said seven suspects entered the store, where one suspect used a tire iron to force the clerk to the floor as the others grabbed $3,000 worth of cigarette cartons from behind the counter. Security video from the convenience store showed the suspects exiting two cars, a white Toyota four-door sedan and a silver SUV.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said another robbery happened just after 3 a.m. at the 7-Eleven in Apollo Beach, located at 6190 U.S. Highway 41. Deputies said seven suspects arrived in two vehicles, a four-door white Toyota Camry and a silver Acura MDX. The suspects first attempted to rob a clerk who was standing outside the store, according to investigators. They then went inside the building and stole approximately $600 worth of cigarette cartons and an unknown amount of lottery tickets before fleeing.
Around 3:50 a.m., Bradenton police spotted the two suspect vehicles at a Wawa gas station and started pursuing them along with Manatee deputies. At some point, authorities lost the sedan, but continued following the SUV. The chase went onto I-75 northbound, where deputies said the suspects inside the vehicle threw black plastic bags containing cigarette cartons out of the windows.
The chase continued onto I-275 before coming to an end on U.S. 41. The SUV struck stop sticks twice during the pursuit, and deputies said the driver attempted to evade a third set of stop sticks when the vehicle spun out of control and came to a stop on the road.
The four suspects then attempted to flee on foot but were immediately apprehended by both Manatee and Hillsborough deputies. Deputies arrested 19-year-old Brashon Hall along with a 16-year-old and two 17-year-olds.
Authorities believe the suspects' involvement could span far past Friday's robberies.
"This has been a multijurisdictional trend of people going into the stores in a very brazen way of just taking the cigarettes, loading them into bags and getting out. It's been happening throughout the Tampa Bay Area," said Randy Warren with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.
Manatee County said there have been a number of robberies similar to the ones that occurred Friday over the past months.
They stated they hope Friday's arrests might mean that an end to the robbery ring spanning across the Tampa Bay area and into Central Florida could be in sight.
"We don't know how many players there are, we know there are four of them in jail today," said Warren. "There are others probably out there. We'd like to know who's behind it."
All four suspects face charges of attempted armed robbery, robbery of a business, and fleeing and attempting to elude police.
Investigators are still looking for the three suspects who got away in the white Toyota Camry.