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.