His story: Man fleeing deputies, attacked by gator speaks to WFL

His story: Man fleeing deputies, attacked by gator speaks to WFLA.com

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PINELLAS COUNTY, FL -

How did a man wind up with his arm and head in a gator's mouth? By running away from a traffic stop, according to Pinellas County deputies.

"I'm still in shock," said Bryan Zuniga in a jail interview with News Channel 8. "I'm just glad to be alive right now and that I'm okay."

Zuniga says the gator's teeth left deep holes from his left arm, up his shoulder, and onto his face.

"From the tip of my fingers to half my bicep - that's how long the snout was," Zuniga said.

This story starts early Thursday morning in the 7100 block of 78th Ave. N in Pinellas County. Deputies say they pulled over Zuniga, who's 20, for failing to "maintain a single lane."

"I was going from a gas station to another one but they were both closed. I did use my traffic signals for every turn and switching lanes," he said. "I saw a car with one headlight following me and I just felt uncomfortable. I didn't know if it was a police officer. I didn't know if it was undercover."

Zuniga said one reason he was uneasy was because, recently, people have tried to "intimidate" him, but he wouldn't elaborate on what that meant.

"I saw the car approach behind me and it pulled in the driveway behind me too. As it did that - I just jumped out of my car and I started running," he said. "I didn't hear 'this is the sheriff's department' or 'I'm an officer.' I just heard someone say 'stop and come here.' I just kept running. I didn't want to look back. I was scared."

Eventually, he says, he did realize what was really happening.

"By the time I jumped a couple fences and I was running away I heard 'back-up' and I realized it was an officer. Then I was just surrounded by cops and I realized I was alluding a traffic stop," Zuniga said. "I was just scared of the way the officers were going to approach me if they were going to tease me, hit me, abuse me or something because I was running."

He made it to a canal and started swimming away.

"Because I was swimming for so long and I was running - I got exhausted so I stopped," he said.

The water was knee-deep.

"That's how the gator caught up to me. When he saw that I stopped, he attacked me," Zuniga said. "The moment his teeth and his jaws touched me - I was in a death roll and I was fighting for my life."

He says the gator clamped down on his arm up to his armpit and bit his face too. How did he get away?

"I don't know. I must've poked it in the eye or I made it realize I didn't want to be gator food," he said. "The moment it released me - I stood up and I just ran."

Zuniga walked to St. Petersburg General Hospital where deputies eventually caught up with him and took him to jail.

"I feel very lucky to be here and alive ... and know that I have my body parts still together - not my arm missing, a finger, or an eyeball," Zuniga said. "It's just all a misunderstanding and misunderstandings lead to bad things."

At his first appearance on Friday, a judge could see Zuniga's injuries even as he came up to the microphone on tele-conference.

"What did you tangle with a K9," asked Judge Frank Quesada. This is the conversation that followed:

Bryan Zuniga: "An alligator."

Judge: "Alligator? Police using alligators now?"

Bryan Zuniga: "No."

Judge: "Oh."

Quesada assigned a public defender to represent Zuniga since the defendant couldn't afford one. Among other things Zuniga is facing charges of fleeing and eluding a law enforcement officer, which his defense is already challenging. The judge set his bond at $2,300. As of Friday night, the man who says he survived a gator attack was still in jail.

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