JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Anger replaced Keith Ireland’s fear as the Jacksonville store clerk watched a knife-wielding robber rip the cash register from the counter of his Southside Hess store in late October.
Ireland, who’d run outside after fighting off the robber, returned and threw a 2-liter bottle of Coke at the man as he headed out the door. Ireland went into the parking lot, got a partial license number of the turquoise getaway truck and called 911.
Police quickly spotted the truck and caught the suspect, a felon, after a predawn chase that ended in Riverside. The register and its $274.82 were recovered after being tossed from the truck.
Ireland said he felt he did the right thing, and a prosecutor called him a hero. Hess didn’t see it that way.
Ireland, 56, said he was suspended the day of the attack and got fired from his $7.50-an-hour job four days later. Jobless and down to his last few bucks Thursday, Ireland said he’s still not sure why he lost his job of 2½ years.
A document Ireland received after applying for unemployment pay said that he was fired for “leaving the work area without permission.” Ireland believes he was punished for pursuing the robber and also for allowing someone in the store before dawn. He said he was unaware either action was against company policy but would have accepted counseling if Hess felt he did something wrong.
“I thought it was rotten,” Ireland said of being fired.
Hess spokeswoman Lorrie Hecker said the company does not elaborate on personnel matters. She said Ireland failed to follow several company safety rules, but she wouldn’t elaborate.
“Hess takes the safety and security of our employees very seriously,” Hecker said.
Assistant State Attorney Rich Mantei said Ireland’s actions were critical to solving the case.
“Someone ought to give him a medal rather than take anything away from him,” Mantei said.
The robber struck about 4 a.m. at the Hess station at Emerson Street and Philips Highway. Ireland said he let the man in and out of the store twice, then saw him pull out a knife when he let him in again.
The man was only a few feet from Ireland when he slammed the door on his booth. The man then went toward the open counter and Ireland ran outside. He said he looked back into the store, saw the man ripping out the cash register and returned.
“I was mad,” Ireland said.
He said he tossed Coke at the man’s back, then followed him outside and got the truck’s license plate as it drove off. The register was tossed out the window during the police chase, which went across the St. Johns River and ended when the truck crashed into a fence near Memorial Park.
The driver was caught a short time later by a police dog. Jamie Butterman, a 28-year-old convicted drug offender and burglar, remains in jail without bail after being charged with armed robbery, felony fleeing and criminal mischief.
Ireland said one supervisor thanked him for his efforts.
“It never occurred to me I would get fired,” Ireland said.
Ireland said he enjoyed his overnight job and was praised in at least two evaluations, including one in June in which he was thanked for “always looking out for the best interest” of Hess.
Ireland said he’s been unable to find another job and isn’t sure how he’ll survive living in his rented room with no other source of income. At this point, he said he’d even take a job at Hess if it reconsidered for some reason. He doesn’t believe that’s likely, however, and admits he thinks very little of his former employer.
“They’re an evil company,” he said.
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