Trojan horse flops at market

Published in The St. Petersburg Times on March 28, 1992:

By Wes Platt

The stranger wheeled the large plywood box into the indoor flea market about 10 minutes before closing time Thursday.

Tom Wellman, co-owner of Indoor Fleas in New Port Richey, was sitting near the entrance when the man told him he was delivering the box to a booth in the back of the building.

It wasn’t unusual for vendors to bring their goods in to set up for Friday, when the market opens for the weekend, but Wellman sent an escort with the stranger just in case.

“There was something about him that just wasn’t kosher,” Wellman said.

Handyman Alex Wieczorek followed the man and came back moments later.

He told Wellman: “That guy’s a ventriloquist! He’s got two different voices. He’s either a ventriloquist or a wacko. One or the other. Man, he’s giving me the spookies.”

“We started kidding about (there being) a guy in the box, but we said, `Nah,”‘ Wellman said.

But sure enough, Wellman soon found out that Robert Raymond Gehm, 37, had been smuggled into the flea market inside the box. Gehm was arrested about an hour later by Pasco County deputies on a burglary charge, according to an arrest affidavit.

He told authorities he had planned to crawl out of the box after everyone left and rob the flea market, the affidavit said.

The effort was reminiscent of the legend of the Trojan horse. Greek warriors hid inside a huge wooden horse that the Trojans took into their city. When the Trojans fell asleep, the Greeks crept out of the horse and conquered the city of Troy.

Here’s how Gehm’s alleged ploy was foiled, according to police and an interview with Wellman:

When the delivery man walked out, Wellman asked him questions about the box. The man seemed evasive.

“I don’t know nothing. I was just told to deliver the box,” the man reportedly said. “The guy asked me to bring the stuff in.”

After the delivery man left, Wellman and Wieczorek became increasingly suspicious and walked back to the booth – which Gehm had rented that morning.

Wellman entered the booth. The padlocked homemade crate, four by two by two feet, was held together with sheet metal screws but was loosely constructed. Wellman pulled the lid open enough to look inside and saw a thin, blond man wearing amber sunglasses and gloves crouching there.

Gehm said nothing at first. Wellman called 911 and then trained a .38-Special on the box, telling Gehm, “I sure hope you’re not armed. I’ve got a pistol aimed at the box.”

“I’m not moving,” Gehm reportedly said. “Everything’s cool. Everything’s cool.”

While they waited for deputies to arrive, Wellman and Wieczorek joked with Gehm.

“We told him we’d been talking in the hallway, thinking maybe we should pick the box off the floor about five feet, drop it and then see what comes out,” Wellman said.

“Thank God you didn’t do that,” Gehm replied.

“He’s laughing and we’re laughing,” Wellman recalled. “He’s a pretty good-natured dude.”

Other vendors Friday told Wellman that Gehm had been in the flea market during the past few weeks, buying hats. He seemed friendly, they said.

About 7 p.m. Thursday, deputies arrived. One deputy asked Wellman if he had a key to the crate. Nope. Wieczorek? No.

“I’ve got it. I’ve got the key,” Gehm said from inside the box.

After he was released from the crate, Gehm told deputies he had built the box and rented the booth intending to smuggle himself in to the flea market so he could steal merchandise from the vendors.

Gehm, a self-employed maintenance worker, is 5 feet 8 and weighs 117 pounds. He had expected to crouch in the crate for about an hour before carrying out the planned thefts.

He was booked into the Land O’Lakes jail, where he was being held Friday in lieu of $1,000 bail. Late Friday, Gehm still had not told authorities who the delivery man was, said sheriff’s spokesman Jon Powers.

Wellman said Gehm’s scheme was doomed to failure anyway, thanks to motion detectors set up in the flea market. One step out of the box would have set off the alarms, Wellman said.

Nothing like this had ever been tried at Indoor Fleas in its five-year history, he said.

“It’s sad to say it was more funny than anything,” Wellman said.

In an Instant

This article appeared in The St. Petersburg Times on Nov. 20, 1995:

By Wes Platt

The night Nathan Phillips came home from college, about two dozen of his buddies from Land O’Lakes High School flocked to his family’s house in Foxwood.

His mother, Barbara, pulled him aside.

“Am I going to see you at all this weekend?” she asked.

It had been a month since the 18-year-old had left to become a freshman at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. He had pledged Kappa Kappa Psi, joined the college marching band and found a new crop of friends.

His mother missed him. She didn’t mind washing the laundry he brought with him, but she wanted to spend time with him, too.

Nathan had plans for Saturday. The high school marching band had practice, and the former drum major planned to help out. Anything for his alma mater, which last year elected him homecoming king.

“I’ll go to practice tomorrow, but I’ll come home early,” Nathan promised. “I’ve got a test on Monday, and I really need to study for it.”

Nathan never made it home. He died in a wreck Sept. 30 while riding with a friend, Mike Knapp, 19, to a convenience store about a mile from the high school.

Mike spent nine days in St. Joseph’s Hospital recovering from a collapsed lung and broken ribs. In the two months since the accident, Mike’s injuries have nearly healed. But serious emotional scars remain.

Mike had made a choice, the sort people make every day: Can I make it? He took a chance and made a left turn into the path of an oncoming car on U.S. 41. He didn’t make it.

In an instant, one life ended and others changed irrevocably.

Mike takes support and comfort from his mother and adopted father, Alice and Richard. But he also takes solace from Richard and Barbara Phillips and their surviving sons, Sean and Keith, who might just as easily have turned their backs on him.

“You can’t help but wish both Nathan and Mike were well, but it’s not Mike’s fault,” Barbara Phillips told the Times. “We’ve got to get him well. What good is it going to do if he doesn’t come out of this? He’s like one of our own.”

Continue reading In an Instant

Five Days and Forever

This article was published in The St. Petersburg Times on May 26, 1997:

By Wes Platt

Inchon, Korea, Sept. 15, 1950, 5:15 p.m.

Half of 1st Platoon foundered in a broken-down boat. The other half scrambled up the seawall at Inchon, then were pinned down by a North Korean army bunker.

Third Platoon, a reserve squad led by an untried Marine named Baldomero Lopez, scaled the wall and lobbed grenades into the zigzagging trench that led to the bunker.

Lopez, 25, a gung-ho soldier from Tampa, was not supposed to be here. He was assigned stateside, to a Marine Corps school. But he could not play it safe while his fellow Marines laid it on the line in Korea.

He begged. He cajoled.

The Corps granted his wish. Now, in his first firefight, Lopez closed on the bunker. He dropped to his knees, yanked the pin from a grenade and drew back his right arm for the pitch.

A staccato burst stitched the Marine’s right side. Lopez dropped the live grenade and fell on his stomach.

“Grenade!” he shouted.

With his right elbow, he pulled the grenade beneath himself, against his belly, and died so that his platoon might survive.

His sacrifice earned Lopez a Medal of Honor. In the half-century since, his selfless gesture has been commemorated several times.

A rifle range at the 1st Amphibian Tractor Battalion was named after him. The U.S. Naval Academy named the room he occupied as a midshipman after him. A pool at Tampa’s MacFarlane Park was dedicated in his honor. So was an elementary school in Seffner. The Marines named a pre-positioning ship after him.

At 10:30 a.m. Friday, ground is to be broken for the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land O’Lakes, in central Pasco County.

More than 50 years ago he walked the halls of Hillsborough High School, an anonymous student. Today he is remembered as an overachiever, a soldier, a hero.

Continue reading Five Days and Forever

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