NAPLES — Suspects in an armed robbery outside the Naples jewelry store have at least one thing in common with the victim — they drove to Naples from the east coast on Tuesday.
The other pieces of the puzzle — details described by witnesses, a shooter and detectives — are in chaos, much like the crime scene in the parking lot at Thalheimers Jewelers, 3200 U.S. 41 N.
“It’s not unusual in just about 24 hours since the crime for there to be a lot of contradictions,” said Naples Police Lt. John Barkley.
“When someone witnesses a traumatic event, sometimes it’s 48 hours before they remember the details,” he said.
Naples police aren’t even sure about the number of suspects. They have vague descriptions from witnesses saying they saw three to six people involved in the crime.
One of the suspects was described as small, possibly a woman, a young person — even a child, Barkley said.
“We’re keeping our eyes wide open to all possibilities,” he said.
It’s not known whether any of the suspects were shot, although none were reported at any local hospitals.
Contradictions remain in nearly all details, including how many total shots were fired, Barkley said. Detectives continued searching nearby residential lots and business parking areas for bullet casings Wednesday afternoon.
There are a few things, however, that are known. After witnessing Tuesday’s armed jewelry robbery, Naples jewelry store owner Sandy Thalheimer exchanged the first shot at armed suspects fleeing the scene, according to an initial investigation report released by the Naples Police Department Wednesday afternoon.
Whether that first shot by the vigilante store owner put the public at undue risk because the store faces the busy U.S. 41 North, or whether Thalheimer could face any criminal charges for his actions, remains outside the scope of the current Naples police investigation, said Barkley.
“That really doesn’t matter right now. We are working to catch the bad guys. A violent felony was being committed in (Thalheimer’s) presence and he took the steps he felt necessary,” Barkley said.
Thalheimer said the car, which was tearing through his parking lot to escape after the robbery, contained four masked people wearing bandanas. However, the salesman who was robbed described only two primary suspects donning hoods, according to reports.
Naples Police believe three people were involved in the robbery and up to five suspects, including drivers, were involved in the crime, Barkley said.
“It’s fluid right now,” Barkley said.
The jewelry salesman, Gregory M. George, was held up at gunpoint with a “large handgun” as he was opening the trunk of his vehicle, he told police, according to the report.
George came from Florida's east coast, and was perhaps a resident of Melbourne, Barkley said. It was not immediately released who George was working for or who owns the stolen jewelry.
Thalheimer’s theory is that George was followed by a gang for hours, which is a well-known practice in the jewelry industry.
The getaway cars used by the suspects were also rented from the east coast, but no further details were immediately released about the rental transactions.
George told police that two male suspects wearing hoods demanded the contents of his trunk, which included luggage full of jewelry, the report said.
He gave them what they wanted and ran in the store to call 911.
As the suspects attempted to flee in a black Ford Taurus, Thalheimer, who was leaving to get something from the convenience store, used his white Dodge Ram pickup to ram their vehicle, he said. Thalheimer, also the owner of a defensive gun school, then got out of his truck and pointed a .38 revolver at the suspects in the Taurus, according to the report.
At first, two suspects got out of the suspect vehicle, Thalheimer told police. They then ran across the street to a vehicle awaiting them, which was a burgundy Chevrolet SUV with Florida tag 145YSV.
A third suspect got out of the Ford sedan and faced Thalheimer with a weapon, the report said.
Thalheimer told deputies he fired a shot at that suspect, who then fled across the street with the others.
Thalheimer told the Daily News he wasn’t sure if he shot that suspect because the person was at close range.
According to the report, one of the first suspects to leave the Taurus and run across the street then fired three shots back at Thalheimer, who returned four more shots at the SUV that was then in the parking lot of the Mr. Tequila Mexican Restaurant across Ridge Street from the jewelry store.
Suspects then fled eastbound on Ridge Road in the SUV, ditched that first burgundy SUV about a mile and a half away on Creech Road and got into another gray SUV.
The suspects got away with three bags containing an undisclosed amount of jewelry.