Time, location of HCSO undercover drug operation criticized

Image 1 of 8

An undercover drug operation turned into a shootout in a busy Wendy's parking lot and some are questioning the choice of the sheriff's office to hold the bust in such a busy area.

Deputies say an undercover narcotics team arranged a cocaine sale with two alleged dealers at the Wendy's in Sun City Center at about 5 p.m. Tuesday. When an undercover deputy was talking with one of the accused dealers, the dealer pointed his gun and tried to rob the deputy.

Investigators say the deputy's backup heard what was going on and came to help the deputy. That's when the dealer fired his gun at the deputies and they returned fire.

Parents tell FOX 13 members of the Lennard High School girl's basketball happened to be in the store.

People who eat at the restaurant say it's always busy.

"Innocent people could have gotten hurt. Hostages taken. Something could have gone wrong. They might want to reconsider how they do these drug busts. Was it worth it?" said William Waring Jr.

Benjamin Zingale says he trusts the deputies' judgement.

"Well they gotta catch them wherever they're at, you know and I'm positive that the officers are trained to deal with any situation," said Zingale.

Deputies said the location for the bust was determined by the suspected dealers. Investigators say they take the risk to the public into account when planning undercover operations, and if they knew the transaction was going to turn violent, they would have stopped it.

Deputies also tell FOX 13, undercover operations need to happen in a place where backup can easily access the deputies posing as sellers.

"We typically do them in open areas so that we have the ability to bring units it and be in close proximity and hidden. This was at an earlier time in the day so we were trying to do it when it wasn't actually dinner time," said Col. Donna Lusczynski.

HCSO says it's standard practice to review operations and critique their decisions, including what improvements could be made in the future.

The men deputies say tried to sell them cocaine have been identified as Efren Esparza-Lopez, 20, and 19-year-old Luis Gutierrez. Gutierrez is in the hospital with critical injuries.

Esparza-Lopez faces attempted murder on a law enforcement officer charges along with drug-related offenses. Gutierrez is expected to be charged upon release from the hospital.