strangered in the night
b/ Tom Petty
hogerty / originalnoise.org
The Independent Florida Alligator (September 30, 1981)
William Randolph Hearst 1981 News/Feature Writing Gold Medal
convenience is in the eye of the beholder.
b/ dave hogerty
As the characteristic rattle and squeak of the convenience store door broke the early-morning silence, Dan Eifert looked up from behind the counter to see two men entering the store.
Moments later, Eifert would be lying on the floor with blood oozing from a bullet wound in his chest.
His nighttime job at the neighborhood Majik Market would be over.
Friends and relatives had warned Eifert about the danger when he accepted his job, but the convenience store at 13th Street and 16th Avenue offered the only job within walking distance of his Cin City apartment, and the graveyard shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. was the only one that didn’t conflict with his class schedule at the University of Florida.
Eifert was now 20 years old. He had been away from his home in Maitland for three years, ever since he left for the university, and he was determined to make his own decisions and support himself as he pursued a degree in mechanical engineering.
Eifert knew the risk involved in the job. The frequency of convenience store robberies was high, averaging one a week in Gainesville, but he wanted the independence and he tried to manage the fear. He told himself a friendly attitude could eliminate a lot of the danger.
“Before I actually worked, I had two days of training,” Eifert said. “The instructor talked about the possibility of being robbed and said if you were polite and cooperative, the robber would usually leave peacefully.
“I believed that was true. I also thought a friendly attitude would build a loyal clientele for the store.”
Through such an approach, Eifert developed casual friendships with regulars, like the guy with the orange Toyota who came in every few days to buy chewing tobacco, and the girl who at first was angry, but later thankful that Eifert refused to sell her cigarettes — she never smoked again.
Eifert had been working the graveyard shift for eight months, and the job was beginning to take its toll. The $105 a week satisfied his financial needs, but the pressure of school and lack of sleep was forcing him into depression.
“Near the end, school wasn’t going too well,” Eifert said. “On my last night the biggest thing on my mind was deciding which of my four classes to drop.”
Until the two men entered the store, the night of May 1, 1981 wasn’t much different from most others. A lot of the regulars had been by earlier and the nightly 2 a.m. rush for a last six-pack of beer or bottle of wine had just ended. An Alachua County ordinance prohibits the sale of alcoholic beverages after 2 a.m.
In the night’s line for liquor had been an old high school friend of Eifert who didn’t have a Friday class and was out on the town with a couple of friends.
“Terry Dunigan is a real jokester,” Eifert said. “As she was going out the door, she stuck her head back in and yelled, ‘Oh year, don’t get robbed!’”
Eifert assured her he wouldn’t.
Later that night he would be proved wrong, and with it, his philosophy of polite cooperation, blasted by a .38-caliber revolver.
Four months after having been shot, Dan Eifert stood on the stand in a crowded Alachua County courtroom, at the courthouse in downtown Gainesville, Florida. Once again Eifert was looking Robert Lee Reed in the eye. This time as the Eye Witness, who had seen clearly the murderous eyes of the man who tried to kill him.
In the gunman’s trial Eifert stood before the jury and described how the defendant, Robert Lee Reed, had tried to kill him. He opened his shirt and showed the jurors the bullet wound and dramatically dark, 10-inch surgical scar, running horizontally across his chest.
“It was close to three,” Eifert said. “I had just finished cleaning up and was working on a differential equation when the two men came in. Being black and about the same age, I assumed they were together.
“I got a little suspicious when the big guy went to the far aisle and seemed to just be wasting time while the smaller man came towards the counter.”
Eifert greeted the small man as he would any strange customer.
“Hello, can I help you with something?” he asked while establishing eye contact.
“You can get a good idea of what kind of person you’re dealing with by the look in his eye,” Eifert explained.
“Give me all the receipts,” the small man said, the words coming through his teeth in a low voice.
Eifert couldn’t figure out why he would want the receipts. Then he saw the gun in the man’s right hand and knew he meant the money.
“My knees and voice were shaking when I asked whether or not to include the change,” Eifert said. “But I was still fairly calm, because the pistol was still at the man’s side.
“I grabbed a paper bag and began filling it with bills, still believing that if I cooperated and gave him what he wanted, he’d just take the money and leave.”
As the small man grabbed the bag with his left hand, he raised the gun and without warning fired a single bullet into Eifert’s chest.
“I was looking him straight in the eye and I had no idea he was going to shoot,” Eifert said. “It all happened in a flash. The gun appeared as a blur and sounded like a firecracker. I felt no pain, but I did feel pressure where the bullet entered my chest. I took a step back out of surprise and put my hand over the hole.
“When I saw blood covering my arm and dripping off my elbow, I thought he had shot me in the heart.”
Eifert was sure he was going to die as he dropped to one knee and slipped into a state of shock. The fleeing robber then fired a second shot, at the other man in the store, but missed. Eifert dragged himself out from behind the counter as he weakened and staggered across the store to the telephone.
He was struggling to remain conscious — which to him meant staying alive.
He reached for the receiver, but it slipped out of his bloody hand and dangled below his waist. He groped to retrieve it, then began to dial the 911 emergency number. Suddenly the big man was beside him.
The man was Harold Batie, a Gainesville fireman. As Eifert fell into his arms, Batie could see Eifert’s face was turning chalky white and his lips blue. Batie took the phone and completed the emergency call.
Eifert lay back on the floor as the warm blood flowing from his chest formed a crimson pool around him and he began to lose perception of time. His mind seemed removed from his body as he observed the chaotic scene in the store.
“I heard the stern voice of a policeman ordering people away and I noticed the ambulance crew coming towards me,” Eifert said.
The ambulance attendants were the same two who had stopped at the store earlier for Coke and lemonade, but now, instead of offering friendly conversation, they were shoving tubes and needles into Eifert’s body in an effort to save him.
Eifert was now so shocked that he didn’t realize the seriousness of his condition. He protested when one of the crew was about to cut off his favorite Firebird T-shirt. It had been given to him as a gift when he sold his car, a Firebird. The attendant assured him there was a hole in the front of the shirt and it was stained with blood anyway.
Eifert felt relieved that the attendants had familiar faces, but while police were clearing out the crowd, Eifert’s blood pressure dropped to 60 over zero — dangerously low. A body tourniquet had been applied and a saline solution was being forced through his body to keep his heart functioning.
The one thing Eifert still had a firm grasp on was the pain. It hadn’t been immediate, but it was now worse than he had ever experienced. “I’ve never felt pain like when they picked me up and put me on the stretcher board,” he said.
En route to the hospital, Eifert became reacquainted with reality.
“I wasn’t worried,” he said. “But when the attendant reached up and pumped the saline bag, I felt wetness on my right side. At first I was confused, but then I realized the saline was coming out of the wound. It was then that I realized I was still in trouble.
“Things have made me happy and ecstatic before, but nothing has been more joyous than when I was finally at Shands (Teaching Hospital) and the doctor said they were going to put me under for surgery.”
When he woke at 7:30 that morning — the time he would normally leave work — Eifert was in the intensive care unit, where he remained in serious condition for three days. Two days after leaving intensive care, he went back into surgery to have the bullet removed. Eifert thought the bullet had passed through his body, but it had actually pierced the left lung and lodged against a rib in his back.
After a week’s stay in the hospital and physical therapy to rebuild the muscles in his chest, Eifert’s body recovered, but his encounter with death had more permanent effects on other parts of his life. Now he realized that the concern expressed by his friends and relatives when he took the job was more than justified.
The store continued to pay his salary while Eifert was in the hospital, and worker’s compensation took care of the medical expenses, but Eifert gave up the idea of ever going back to work at the store.
“Now I have more time to enjoy myself,” he said.
“The biggest change I’ve experienced since the shooting is that I put a lot less emphasis on school. I probably still study more than most of my friends, but now I consider everything personal as more important.”
Eifert felt a personal duty to testify for the prosecution in the trial of the man arrested and charged with the robbery and shooting. His name was Robert Lee Reed, 28, previously arrested 21 times on 29 charges, ranging from burglary to aggravated assault.
“I don’t hate the man,” Eifert said. “But I do think he’s sick and I owed it to the person who’s now working the graveyard shift to get him off the street.”
In the trial, four months after the shooting, Eifert stood before the jury and described how the defendant had shot him. He opened his shirt and showed the jurors the bullet wound and the 10-inch surgical scar across his chest.
The verdict came within an hour.
Robert Lee Reed was found guilty and immediately sentenced to 75 years for armed robbery and two consecutive 30-year terms for two counts of attempted murder in the first degree.
Out of curiosity, Eifert went back to the store shortly after he was released from the hospital. From behind the counter where he once had stood, his replacement, a thin blonde who was also a UF student, spoke to him.
The girl noticed he was looking at the stain on the carpet behind the counter.
“One of the guys who works here says that’s blood,” the girl said. “Supposedly a clerk was shot here recently.”
“And what do you think?” Dan asked.
“I think it’s probably Coke or something,” she answered, smiling.
Eifert hesitated, then looked the new clerk in the eye, wondering if she too might be trying to handle the fear of the job. He smiled back and said, “Yeah, you’re probably right.”
At the time Dan Eifert was shot at the Majik Market, convenience store robberies averaged one a week in Gainesville, Florida. One year later, that rate had increased 25 percent.
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