USF student Ian Wilbert, groggy from sleep, answered his door Sunday at Campus Lodge to find two strange men asking about a person he didn’t know.
Moments later, he was being robbed at gunpoint.
After taking cash and a Playstation, his assailants left him face down on the floor of his apartment.
He wasn’t willing to leave it at that.
In a series of events that could have been pulled from a movie, Wilbert grabbed a rifle from beside his bed, charged after the robbers in his bathrobe and was nicked in the neck by a bullet during a brief exchange of fire with his assailants.
“It was surreal,” Wilbert said. “I thought, ‘Is this a movie?'”
Three men have been arrested in connection with the robbery, and Wilbert, an international studies major who said he is taking a semester off, was released from the Tampa General Hospital the night of the shooting. He was back at work soon after.
At 3:40 p.m. Sunday, a ringing doorbell roused Wilbert, sleeping after a night
working the graveyard shift at a bar. Two black men were outside, asking if Jamal was home.
“I guess it was some random person they made up,” Wilbert said. “I thought maybe they were looking for my neighbor across the hallway there.”
Then another man came around the corner and put a gun in Wilbert’s face. He pushed him into the apartment, demanding money.
“He asked me where the money was at,” Wilbert said. “It took a second to sink in, ‘I’m getting robbed here.'”
He said he was chilled that the men were reckless enough to rob him without masks: perhaps they didn’t fear being identified because they would kill him.
The other two men followed the gunman and victim, wearing a bathrobe, into the apartment and shut the door.
While the gunman steered Wilbert through the apartment with a gun to his back, the other two men looked for valuables, taking an undisclosed amount of cash and a Playstation 2, according to police reports.
Once they were in his room, the gunman asked Wilbert if he had any guns, but he denied, saying Campus Lodge prohibits the possession of firearms. The gunman wasn’t aware of the .308 rifle Wilbert kept in a canvas bag near his bed.
Wilbert noted a change in the gunman’s demeanor as the situation progressed.
“His tone of voice at first was very aggressive, he cooled off a little bit later, as the robbery went on,” Wilbert said.
Wilbert told the man about money he made working at Guavaween the night before, and to his surprise, the gunman admitted he went there and partied.
They made small talk, and at one point, the gunman offered to sell Wilbert some mushrooms later.
“It was so weird, like something out of British comedy,” Wilbert said. “Really quirky sort of situation there.”
In that split second
While one of the other men was searching Wilbert’s room, the gunman fixed his attention on his weapon, which was apparently giving him trouble.
Standing in the doorway with him, Wilbert noticed a large knife of his lying on his desk, partially obscured by papers.
“In that split second, I was thinking, well, ‘I could grab the knife and maybe stab him right now,'” Wilbert said. He refrained because, though he knew the second man in his room was unarmed, he wasn’t sure about the other.
When they were satisfied with what they had, they prepared to leave, bringing Wilbert along with them.
They made him lie face down on his living room floor and sprayed his face with pepper spray. Wilbert said the spray didn’t fully reach his eyes, and so he faked the pain until they left.
It was just shock
When they were gone, Wilbert rushed to his bedroom to get his rifle.
“I was trying to get three rounds in (the gun), one for each guy, and my hands were just shaking too bad,” Wilbert said. “So I was only able to get two. And I didn’t want to take the risk of them getting away.”
He ran outside and saw the men getting into a red 2008 Chevy Impala. Wilbert chased after them, and two of the men – the gunman and another – ran away in alarm, seeing Wilbert’s rifle. The driver, who was unarmed, was left behind, and his friends had disappeared.
Wilbert repeatedly shouted at the driver to get out of the car. With the rifle aimed at the man’s back, Wilbert began walking him toward the apartment building.
Wilbert didn’t notice that the other men had come out of hiding behind him, but heard gunfire. The bullet, he said, passed through the back of his robe and grazed his neck.
“I felt stunned for a second, it didn’t really hurt,” Wilbert said. “It was just shock, I guess.”
While Wilbert stood there, coming to grips with what had happened, the driver escaped. All three men apparently met at the Impala and drove away.
Wilbert followed the vehicle on foot, and near an intersection by the front entrance to the complex, he leveled his weapon on the Impala and fired. But some of the pepper spray still clinging to his face was irritating his eyes, he said, so the shot went wide.
A Sheriff’s deputy, who happened to be on patrol at the moment, saw him fire the gun, Wilbert said. When the car rolled up he laid his rifle on the ground, and frantically pointed at the Impala, saying that the men had robbed and shot him, Wilbert said.
Ordering Wilbert to sit on a nearby curb, the deputy pursued the suspects. They later abandoned their vehicle and fled into the neighborhood, according to police documents.
Cedric Stephens, 20, of 1216 Beacon Hill Drive, Tampa, and Derrick Grady, 19, of 2017 17th Ave., Tampa, were both arrested Monday, Oct. 30 on several counts of armed home invasion. Both were booked on attempted murder.
Both are being held with no bond at Orient Road Jail.
The third suspect, identified as Ronnie Bolden, 18, of 4204 Sewaha St., Tampa was arrested Tuesday.
Police have linked the three to two other home invasions, one the same morning as the incident at Campus Lodge, and another two days earlier.
Wilbert said he wasn’t afraid living in the same apartment, and rejected requests by his father to move in with family out of state.
“Maybe changing apartments would be smart,” Wilbert said. “It just feels like I’m running away, and it’s just not something I do.”
Dan Catlin can be reached at (813) 974-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org.