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Braddock store owner pins would-be robber

| Friday, March 21, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Al Handza did a small favor Thursday afternoon for a young man in Braddock, a few minutes before the man put a gun to his head and tried to rob him.

Handza, owner of Al's Market on Braddock Avenue, refused to be bullied and grabbed the robber's hands, wrestling him to the ground.

During the struggle, the gun discharged twice and the wounded thief tried to run, only to be stopped by Handza and detained for police.

The robber, whose identity and age are not known because he gave a phony name to police, was taken to UPMC Presbyterian hospital in Oakland with gunshot wounds in the arm and back, said Braddock police Sgt. Frank Barreiro. The extent of the injuries is not known.

Handza, 61, who had cataract surgery on Tuesday, said he didn't have time to think about how scared he was.

"What are you going to do?" Handza said with a shrug 90 minutes after the incident.

"He came behind the counter with a gun, put it to my head and we started tussling."

Handza, who has operated the small market near the Rankin Bridge for 26 years, said the young man often comes into the store and was there twice yesterday before the holdup.

"The second time, he bought two bags of chips but was short 18 cents," Handza said. "I said, 'You're always in here. I'll get it tomorrow.'"

A minute later -- shortly before 5 p.m. -- the man returned, trying to hide his face with a hooded sweatshirt and bandana.

"He said, 'This is a stickup!' I thought he was joking because he'd just left."

The .22-caliber handgun the robber was pointing at Handza's head was no laughing matter, and the store owner acted to defend himself.

"I threw him and we went down together," said Handza, who was alone at the time.

As the two wrestled, the gun discharged twice and the robber said, "I'm shot!"

The thief got up without the gun, ran out the door and around the corner between two buildings, where he was stopped by a 12-foot fence.

Handza grabbed the gun off the floor, called 911 and ran outside after the robber.

"He couldn't get over the fence. I held his own gun on him and told him to hit the ground, face first. He laid there, and the cops were here in less than a minute."

Barreiro said the investigation has been turned over to Allegheny County Police detectives. He said he believes they will charge the man with robbery and weapons violations.

Handza said the last time somebody tried to rob him was 12 to 15 years ago.

He said the store -- which features hot and cold sandwiches, coffee, luncheon meats and canned goods and a Lottery machine -- is open from 4 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day but Sunday, when he closes at noon.

"I'm very upset and mad something like this could happen," said Handza's daughter, Deborah Handza. "He just had surgery two days ago. He shouldn't even be here, but it's hard to keep him away from work."

She said her father has a lot of "good, loyal customers" who watch out for him, especially when it's dark.

One customer, who lives in West Mifflin, returned after hearing about the shooting, Handza said.

"He drove over to make sure my dad is OK."

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