SARASOTA — Undercover police officers stormed a McDonald's restaurant and ordered diners and employees to the ground as they tried to catch a suspected cocaine dealer Thursday.
The Sarasota police officers were dressed in black, carried rifles and wore masks when they ran into the restaurant on the corner of Beneva and Fruitville roads. They burst through the door at dinner time, yelled for patrons to hide under tables and chased a 24-year-old man who hid in a bathroom.
It was a drug sting that went bad because of a milkshake.
Police say the arrest would have gone smoother if the suspect, Juan T. Dixon, had not stopped at the door of the restaurant to go back and grab his shake from the counter.
It was supposed to work like this:
A confidential informant and an undercover detective waited inside the restaurant to sell Dixon an ounce of cocaine and 100 Ecstasy pills for $950.
More than a dozen officers waited outside, including Lt. Steve Breakstone, who organized the operation. His role was to radio for squad cars to drive up for the arrest once the deal was complete.
The uniformed officers were supposed to swoop in and arrest Dixon in the parking lot. The deal, according to reports, went as planned -- with Breakstone calling for the squad cars when Dixon was about to leave.
Then, the milkshake.
With the squad cars zooming into the parking lot, Dixon turned around to get his drink from the counter.
When he got back to the door, he saw the cars waiting for him and, realizing he was about to be arrested, he ran for the bathroom.
He shoved a boy out of the way and hid inside.
The police officers burst through the door and yelled for everyone to get down. A customer, a woman who did not want her name used, ducked under a table and worried that the masked men were robbers, not police.
"I thought it was a gang," she said. "I mean, they had masks and guns and I never heard anyone say, 'police.' I thought these guys were coming to rob us."
Undercover officers routinely wear masks during drug buys to conceal their identities.
Breakstone and Sarasota Police Chief Peter Abbott say officers had no choice but to rush into the restaurant because they thought Dixon was armed and might flush the drugs down a toilet or barricade himself in the restroom.
"We had to go get him, or this thing could have been much worse," Breakstone said.
Breakstone and Abbott would not say whether detectives or the suspect chose the McDonald's as the location for the deal.
There were no injuries. Dixon was arrested and jailed on drug trafficking charges.
According to police reports, he still had the drugs on him when he was arrested. He was held without bail on Friday in the Sarasota County jail.
Abbott said it is common for undercover detectives to conduct stings and drug surveillance in public places because they do not want to raise a suspect's suspicions and place officers in greater jeopardy by requesting more remote locations.
"We don't want these guys to get their hackles up and do something stupid," Abbott said.