A shoplifting story that could have been just a throwaway crime blotter item was transformed into front-page tabloid gold thanks to a series of photos taken at the scene of a prolonged scuffle outside an AutoZone in the Bronx yesterday. It all started when an unidentified shoplifter set off the store's alarm system when he tried to walk out with an electric drill and an Allen wrench set, worth a total of about $80. Two employees gave chase, even after the thief turned to them with a syringe in his hand and vowed, "I'll give you AIDS with this syringe!"

But clerk Nelson Lozada, 23, and assistant manager Oscar Castelan, 19, don't get paid the big bucks to let a little AIDS stop them from defending AutoZone. They say the East 149th Street establishment is hit by multiple shoplifters a day, and so they chased the suspect for about a block before tackling him. According to the Post, a surreal scene unfolded, with Lozada calling 911 while holding the perp in a chokehold, and witnesses gathering around as the three men fought. Some onlookers reportedly pleaded with the employees to give up, telling them, "It's not your store! Why do you care?"

"We're trying to do the right thing, and they're sticking up for the bad guy. It's disappointing," Lozada tells the tabloid. But ultimately, they wearied of the struggle, and let the thief run off, leaving behind the stolen merchandise. Police arrived too late to intervene, and looked for the suspect without success. It's too bad they didn't bring Post reporter Lisa Riordan Seville along in the squad car, because she found the suspect on East 138th Street. "They didn't have any right to do that to me," the man told her, pointing to a black left eye and bloody scab on the back of his head. "I'm homeless. I'm not going to steal from other homeless people. Better to steal from the store."