The St. Paul coffee shop thief ran with the money, but Mark Laliberte ran faster.

The 30-year-old medical researcher and marathon runner sprang into action after he noticed two men acting suspiciously around the unattended coffee shop cash register in the St. Joseph Hospital lobby Tuesday afternoon. When he saw the wad of $20 bills concealed under one man's sweat shirt, Laliberte became a man on a mission that would take a wrestling match and a foot race to resolve.

He grabbed the man with the money, then felt the thief's accomplice seize him. Laliberte held firm. The second man released his grip and slipped out the hospital door.

Now it was a two-man fight.

"We kind of sumo wrestled there in the hall,'' Laliberte of Roseville said Wednesday.

The crowd in the hospital stood motionless and silent.

"I wrestled him to the ground at the door. That's when I ripped off his sweat shirt and it freed him," Laliberte said. Laliberte grabbed his feet and pulled him to the ground. They exchanged punches. Laliberte's shoe came off, his suit coat fell to his shoulders.

"It straitjacketed me and he escaped out the door,'' Laliberte said.

Laliberte, a veteran of numerous marathons and triathlons, was up and ready to run in pursuit. He ripped off his jacket and raced down Exchange Street after the suspect. Laliberte can run a mile in 6 minutes, 30 seconds. "I was running faster than that because I knew it was a sprint,'' he said.

The suspect ran ahead, looking back over his shoulder. Laliberte was gaining.

"I said, 'That's right, I'm gaining on you. I'm going to catch you. You might as well stop,'" Laliberte said.

The chase ranged over several downtown blocks until the pair hit Ninth Street. That's where Laliberte "horse-collared" the suspect.

Onlookers stood paralyzed. "I'm yelling, 'He stole money. Please help,'" Laliberte said.

"Maybe they were all in shock,'' he said a day after the incident. "Part of it may be they didn't have the full story. Part of it may be we're just interested in being left alone in this society and we don't have a solid sense that we're all in this together.''

After collaring the suspect, Laliberte kept his hold on him as they walked back to the hospital. The suspect dug in his heels, swearing every now and then.

Once they were back in the hospital, Laliberte gave the suspect a quick leg sweep that he remembered from his college kickboxing days and brought the man to the ground. With his knee on his back, Laliberte waited to for hospital security and the St. Paul cops, who placed the man under arrest.

"We don't usually suggest that people chase down suspects,'' said St. Paul police spokesman Peter Panos. "We usually suggest that people be good witnesses.''

But Laliberte caught a suspected thief. "That's good,'' Panos said. "And no one got hurt.''

And Kathy Sundberg, owner of the Ginkgo coffee bar in St. Joseph's, is feeling "awe, admiration and exuberance.'' The $350 that was stolen was returned and Laliberte is her hero.

"I feel like I should put his picture up by the coffee bar with a little 'Our Hero' wreath around it,'' she said. "We're really grateful because that's a huge amount of money for us.''

Laliberte just shrugs off the commendations. "I just consider myself a regular guy who was put in the right situation at the right time with gifts to share.''

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788