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Date of Issue: January 04, 2007

Man faces multiple charges in holiday holdup

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The Bradenton Beach police cruiser, left, and the Holmes Beach police truck, as well as the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office vehicle, met “by accident” when the high-speed pursuit and arrest of the CVS robber climaxed on the Palma Sola Bridge on Manatee Avenue. Islander Photo: Gene Page III
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John Francis Butler

John Lightner II wrote his 3-year-old son a letter to help him remember Christmas 2006, the holiday they witnessed a gunman try to escape after robbing a Holmes Beach store.

On Dec. 25, shortly before 6 p.m., the Lightners of Bradenton arrived to the Holmes Beach CVS Pharmacy at 605 Manatee Ave. W., as a robbery was taking place.

"At first I thought people had shoplifted," said Lightner, who saw a woman run, screaming, from the store. He said he learned from other witnesses that a man inside "pulled out a gun and demanded everyone lay on the floor" because "his children were going to have Christmas this year."

Authorities arrested John Francis Butler, 45, of Ninth Avenue West, Bradenton, on multiple charges in connection with the robbery. He was further charged while at the jail for the CVS robbery with holding up a Washington Mutual bank Dec. 21 in downtown Sarasota.

Butler, who as of Dec. 31 remained in the Manatee County jail, was charged with two first-degree felonies punishable by life in prison - robbery and carjacking - for his Christmas spree in Holmes Beach. He was also charged with two second-degree felonies - fleeing to elude and aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer.

The charges stem from what was an armed robbery at the CVS and an escape attempt that involved a carjacking and a high-speed chase on Manatee Avenue.

Butler used a BB gun in the CVS robbery, which can complicate a conviction for armed robbery. However, Holmes Beach Police Chief Jay Romine said, "In this case the charges are extensive enough that it shouldn't be an issue here."

HBPD was the primary respondent, with assistance from officers with Bradenton Beach Police and the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

Just before 6 p.m. Christmas, Butler was observed wandering around the CVS store.

He was in and out of the store several times until he came in one last time and pushed CVS clerk Sarah Lanzillo on the chest, shoving her to the floor, showing his gun and ordering everyone else to the floor, according to one source. One woman on the floor became so terrified that when the manager went with the robber to the office, the woman got up and ran from the store.

Meanwhile, the Lightners arrived in the CVS parking lot as the robbery was in progress. They needed some batteries to power a toy train, remote control car and robotic cat that 3-year-old John Lightner III received for Christmas.

They soon noticed frantic looks on the faces of the people in the parking lot and learned that they and the others were witnesses to a crime.

HBPD Officer Michael K. Leonard also arrived to the CVS to see "several people running out of the store."

The officer parked his vehicle, as an MCSO deputy arrived in a patrol car.

"I then observed John Butler exit the store with his hands in his pockets and I verbally ordered him to get on the ground," Leonard wrote in his report. "Butler then ran around the corner of the building and I ran to the corner of the building, where I observed one of the witnesses pointing across the street and yelling that he ran across Manatee Avenue."

The suspect ran toward Westbay Cove condominiums, where, with what looked like a semi-automatic gun, he demanded the keys to a 2006 Scion from the owner holding his 1-year-old grandson.

"As the gunman entered Westbay, screams could be heard," said Lightner, adding that his father had run after the suspect to keep "tabs on his whereabouts."

The motorist turned over the keys and the suspect drove off in the Scion, traveling east on Manatee Avenue with police in pursuit. BBPD Officer Roy A. Joslin III had been in the vicinity, heard the radio call for a robbery and responded. MCSO Deputy Beau Griner, on patrol in Anna Maria, also responded and gave chase.

The Scion first stopped in a dirt lot on the east side of the Anna Maria Island Bridge.

"Butler got out of the vehicle and barricaded himself behind the car," Leonard wrote.

Leonard and Joslin ordered the suspect to drop his weapon and get on the ground, but instead the suspect returned to the Scion and again drove east on Manatee Avenue, traveling on the north side of the road.

"Several vehicles were forced from the roadway, including a marked Manatee County patrol vehicle," wrote Leonard, who again led the pursuit, followed by Joslin, then Griner.

On the Palma Sola Causeway Bridge, the suspect lost control of the Scion. He crashed into a concrete barrier on the north side and then ran from the vehicle, shedding clothes and preparing to jump in the water.

During the apprehension of the suspect, three vehicles - a HBPD patrol truck and BBPD and MCSO patrol cars - were damaged.

"While outside of my vehicle giving verbal commands, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office unit crashed into the rear of Officer Joslin's vehicle, causing Officer Joslin's vehicle to hit my patrol car," Leonard stated.

The MCSO report stated, "The road conditions were wet and still raining. It was dark and there were no street lights."

Joslin was still in his car at the time of the accident and later sought treatment for a neck sprain at Lakewood Ranch Hospital, according to an incident report from BBPD.

Griner, advised by his sergeant, also went to Lakewood Ranch for an examination.

Leonard and HBPD Officer Mike Pilato arrested Butler. The suspect resisted, according to the HBPD report, so Leonard said he "hit him with a front knee strike to his stomach and hit him in the face with my elbow causing minor injuries to his face."

On the seat in the Scion, authorities found a BB gun and magazine and a CVS bag containing $7,635.71.

Police also collected a baseball cap and other clothing, a red cooler, a Bic lighter, an additional $282 and a note written by Butler to his mother.

The note, according to a property report from HBPD, was "apologizing for his downfalls and asking for forgiveness."

A report from MCSO said the note confessed to a bank robbery that occurred the week before in Sarasota County.

Butler also "made statements that he was dying and had eight months to live and was trying to commit suicide by cop," the MCSO report said.

Butler was taken to Blake Medical Center for minor injuries and then transported to Manatee County jail, where he remained at press time without bond.

Butler, who is scheduled for arraignment in February, has a history of trouble, multiple convictions for offenses in Manatee County, including obstructing justice, resisting a merchant, retail theft, marijuana possession, battery, disorderly intoxication, petit theft and resisting an officer without violence.

CVS employees declined to be interviewed, saying they didn't want to jeopardize the integrity of the case against Butler.

Days after the incident, customers casually shopped in the CVS, aware of what had happened but not intimidated.

"Something like that, it can happen anywhere, in any store in any city, I would say," said Bradenton Beach resident Stacey Keoser.

"I'm sorry it happened, and I'm thankful he was caught," said Paula Frasier, of Holmes Beach. "And now life goes on."

Meanwhile,John Lightner II said some day he will show his son the letter he wrote detailing the events of Christmas 2006.

"We felt a deep sense of sorrow that on such a sacred day a misguided man, without so much as a thought of the true meaning of Christmas, could ruin such a beautiful day," Lightner wrote in the letter.

But for now, the father is telling his child, "There was a bad man."

Last week, days after the incident, Romine echoed that statement.

"The bad guy went to jail," the HBPD chief said.