A man and woman face charges after an armed robbery and pursuit by deputies on busy Interstate 75 that ended with two deputies being hit by the suspects' vehicle and deputies shooting and wounding the man.
Jovanny Pena, 30, is in stable condition at Tampa General Hospital after deputies fired at him as he drove his Jeep Liberty toward them on Wednesday evening. His 30-year-old accomplice Bryna McLaughlin was also taken to the hospital after complaining of an unrelated medical issue, deputies said.
Deputies said the pair robbed a Radio Shack in Sun City Center, threatening a customer and three employees, then taking cash and about 90 cellphones worth $56,000. A 911 call alerted deputies, who spotted their 2014 Jeep Liberty on I-75 in southern Hillsborough County and began a pursuit in the northbound lanes.
Two deputies were injured as Pena, trapped in rush hour traffic, attempted to get away by driving the wrong way on the interstate, the sheriff's office said. Deputy Richard Johnson sustained a possible broken left shoulder and Deputy Domingo Gonzalez was struck in the leg by Pena's vehicle, the sheriff's office said. Both were taken to a hospital but expected to fully recover.
Gonzalez and Deputy Michael Leisch, fearing the driver was attempting to strike deputies with the Jeep, fired their weapons at the Pena, deputies said.
Northbound I-75 was closed at the Gibsonton exit in south Hillsborough County for about four hours during the investigation, which was slowed by bad weather. The highway reopened before 11 p.m.
About 5:15 p.m., Pena, of Tampa, and McLaughlin, of Land O' Lakes, robbed a Radio Shack at 3842 Sun City Blvd., said sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
According to deputies, Pena walked up to the store wearing a stocking over his head while McLaughlin, also wearing a stocking over her head, waited outside in the Jeep.
As Pena entered the store, he walked up behind a customer and put a gun in her back, investigators said. He then grabbed the customer around the head and confronted a clerk behind the counter at gunpoint, investigators said.
Pena walked the employees to a back office and confronted the store manager and district manager, investigators said. Pena ordered all four to lie face down on the floor and to not look up. He made them empty their pockets, taking their cellphones and other personal belongings, investigators said.
Pena then loaded about 90 cellphones valued at about $56,000 into a plastic bag along with an undisclosed amount of cash and fled, investigators said.
Pena was seen throwing the bag into the Jeep and got behind the steering wheel as McLaughlin slid to the passenger seat, deputies said. A 911 call was made after the Jeep drove away.
Several minutes later, deputies spotted the Jeep in the Sun City area and attempted to conduct a traffic stop, but Pena refused and the pursuit began, the sheriff's office said.
Deputies pursued the Jeep as the couple drove several miles north on Interstate 75 before getting stuck in traffic, McKinnon said.
“The traffic was very heavy here,'' McKinnon said. “There are guardrails on both sides of the interstate so he had nowhere to go. He was actually desperate.''
With deputies close behind, Pena chose a dramatic option, McKinnon said: drive south on the northbound lanes of I-75. He didn't get far.
Pena drove 50 feet or less before ramming the Jeep into Johnson's patrol vehicle, causing the vehicle to strike Johnson and knocking him to the ground and injuring his shoulder, deputies said.
Leisch, fearing Pena was trying to run over Johnson with the Jeep, shot Pena in the upper body, deputies said.
Pena continued driving forward and rammed his way through the sheriff's vehicles and toward Gonzalez, who was struck in the leg as he fired at Pena, deputies said.
Pena continued driving south in the northbound lanes before strking two other cars, deputies said. Two people in those cars were not injured.
Pena and McLaughlin were then taken into custody.
Pena faces charges of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, armed robbery of a business, three counts of armed robbery of a person, armed kidnapping and false imprisonment.
McLaughlin faces charges of armed robbery of a business, three counts of armed robbery of a person, armed kidnapping and three counts of false imprisonment.
“It appears we have taken a dangerous individual off of the street,'' McKinnon said.
Gonzalez and Leisch, the deputies who fired their weapons, will be placed on routine administrative leave pending review of the incident, the sheriff's office said. Gonzalez, 37, has been with the sheriff's office for eight years. Leisch, 28, has been with the agency for four years.
McKinnon said the pursuit was appropriate under agency policy because the pair fled after having committed an armed robbery.
“It was a violent felony offense. It falls within the guidelines” of the agency's pursuit policy, he said. “It was an armed suspect.''
Deputies found merchandise that had been stolen from Radio Shack in the vehicle, McKinnon said.
McLaughlin did not appear to be injured from the shooting but complained of other medical issues and was taken away on a stretcher, the sheriff's office said.
The incident was at least the third in 24 hours in which sheriff's deputies or Tampa police shot a suspect or were shot at.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Tampa police shot and killed a drug suspect while executing a search warrant.
About 9 p.m. Tuesday, a man shot at Tampa police before hiding in an apartment complex. After about 2½ hours of negotiations, the man surrendered. No one was injured.
Tribune reporter José Patiño Girona contributed to this report.