At first, Dennis M. Stoker thought it was amusing that the Salt Lake County sheriff's detectives mistook him for a notorious armed robber.
After all, the 42-year-old Sandy man, the father of five children and a self-described conservative church-going man, doesn't even have a traffic ticket blotting his driving record. He doesn't own a gun.But for two weeks and two days, Stoker, a retail store manager, was the Salt Lake County Sheriff Department's top suspect in a string of 14 November convenience store robberies. He was charged but never arrested, as the "Top Gun" bandit, so-called because the gun-wielding robber always wore a blue corduroy hat with the movie title emblazoned on the front.
"It was so funny at first," he said. "Everyone who knows me thought so."
The suspicion of guilt that shadowed him for 16 days ended at 2:15 p.m. Thursday, when he got a call from his defense attorney, Brad Rich, telling him the charges would be dropped. "It was like somebody had turned on the lights," Stoker said. "Life started again."
Charges were dropped after Stoker was able to provide colleagues' testimony and cash register receipts that verified he was working at the time of the robberies. Several of the eyewitnesses also began to question whether Stoker was the bandit or whether they just remembered him after seeing him in the area.
Stoker, 42, describes himself as a quiet, low-key kind of guy, a 22-year company veteran. His gray-dusted hair is receding to display an open forehead. The corners of skin around his brown eyes crinkle easily with his ready smile. Animated gestures punctuate the words that spill out of his small, mustache-lidded mouth.
His ordeal all began, he said, one day when he stopped at a fast-food place for a chicken lunch after buying stamps for his secretary. It was happenstance, for Stoker rarely eats lunch away from his desk.
A clerk at the restaurant thought Stoker bore a resemblance to the "Top Gun" robber and phoned in his license plate number to police.
On Dec. 27, when Salt Lake County sheriff's deputies walked into the store he manages, Stoker thought they might be there to handle a shoplifting problem. Then they said they needed to talk to him and produced official-looking documents, including a warrant to search his house.
"Then I was so relieved. Right then, at least in my mind, I knew it was a mistake. I was so confident with the system I thought this would be taken care of in a half hour to an hour," he said.
The suspicion stretched to over two weeks.
Stoker and his family began to wonder if a legal system designed to protect the innocent until proven guilty still works.
The drama turned chilling when Stoker arrived at the Salt Lake County Jail for a lineup. There he was stripped, searched, fingerprinted and dressed in jail clothes. He was taken on a tour of the jail to find prisoners willing to volunteer for lineup duties. Few of the volunteers matched the description of the robber.
Four of the 16 eyewitnesses to the robberies claimed Stoker was the "Top Gun" bandit in a police lineup.
"I was so demoralized when I found out it wasn't over with and the nightmare continued, so to speak. The jail thing haunted me.
"My family was emotionally devastated. Even though in your heart you know it's not you, you wonder what if you fall through the cracks. You start thinking about the guys you read about in the Readers Digest or the guys you hear about on "20/20" who fall through the cracks. And you start to wonder: `What if that happens to me?' "
Stoker said he's not bitter. He doesn't blame the system. But he does warn other citizens to be aware of the sacrifices necessary for the justice system to work.
Stoker's brush with the law cured him of a certain naivete, he said. "I don't think Mr. and Mrs. Citizen realizes that once another citizen suspects you, then you are put in the position of trying to prove your innocence."
Stoker has strong praise for his attorney, although initially he was worried that having such a high-profile defense attorney might indicate that he was guilty.
When the search of his home turned up no incriminating evidence, Stoker was confident even the detectives thought he was innocent. "I felt that even that night they knew they had the wrong person. You could tell they didn't think it was me."
Stoker said if he bears any resemblance to the bandit, so do 5,000 other men in the Salt Lake Valley.
Stoker is partially balding, but eyewitnesses claimed the robber was wearing a cap. Stoker, 42, has brown eyes, a flat stomach and drives a dark-blue pickup. The robber, thought to be at least 50 years old, had blue eyes, was overweight with a pot belly and was seen getting into a light-colored sedan.
Stoker works until 6 or 7 p.m. most days. The robberies occurred between 3 and 5 p.m.
He is grateful for the support of a network of work associates and neighborhood friends, who raised money for his defense bill. He's learned to prepare financially for emergencies. And he's started a detailed journal to keep track of his daily life, in case he ever needs to provide another alibi.
Stoker said he lost hours of sleep in the past weeks, and the trauma also exacerbated health problems. But the sacrifices will have meaning, if the "Top Gun" bandit is stopped.
"I want the fellow caught, whoever he is, so it's worth it. I think the public needs to know the sacrifices we have to make to allow the system to work."