Steven McClure used to think his Bare Bones restaurant was safe on the U.S. 40 corridor in Ellicott City. The only time his silent alarm system had ever gone off was when an employee accidentally tripped the button.
But McClure now worries that his suburban location no longer is the safe haven it used to be. Two armed robberies of restaurants nearby within a four-day period have changed his thinking.
"We've felt safe for a long time because we were out here," he said yesterday, moments after Howard County police Sgt. David Richards left him with a few tips on crime prevention. "Obviously, being out here doesn't deter them from hitting this area."
County police are investigating the robberies of the Crab Shanty restaurant, on Plum Tree Drive, late Monday night, and the Sir Walter Raleigh Inn, on Baltimore National Pike, late Saturday night.
In each case, three bandits wearing stocking masks and armed with shotguns approached an employee taking out trash after closing and forced the worker back into the restaurant.
Once inside Sir Walter Raleigh, the robbers rounded up the other employees and locked them into a walk-in freezer before stealing an undisclosed amount of money. At the Crab Shanty, the employees were locked in a bathroom.
County police are investigating possible links to five similar robberies at restaurants in Baltimore County and one in Baltimore between June 23 and last Friday. The robberies involved two to four assailants.
The holdups occurred at Suburban House, Pikesville, July 19; Chi-Chi's Mexican Restaurant, Timonium, July 25; Bob's Big Boy, Catonsville, last Friday; and three Sizzler restaurants -- Catonsville, June 23; Baltimore, July 1; and Owings Mills, July 15.
The robberies occurred just as several men suspected of being part of a shotgun robbery gang that terrorized establishments in Baltimore and Baltimore County over the winter were being brought to trial.
Eric Cornell Wheeler, 30, of the 1100 block of McKean Ave., Baltimore, pleaded guilty in Baltimore County Circuit Court Monday to a string of shotgun robberies. He was described as a leader of a group that robbed dozens of stores, restaurants and banks during the winter.
Earlier this month, three other men suspected of being part of that gang pleaded guilty to federal bank robbery charges for holding up a bank in Wilmington, Del., and Michael Fouchong was sentenced last week to 10 years in prison for robbing a Towson credit union.
Tony Bedford, 20, who goes by the name Sadiyq Abdullah Muhammed, faces 13 robbery charges in Baltimore County and Baltimoreand is charged with attempted murder in the Feb. 28 shooting of a hotel clerk in the Pikesville Holiday Inn.
Baltimore County police spokesman Stephen R. Doarnberger said yesterday that police had arrested everyone involved in the winter robberies, but he wouldn't rule out the possibility that the recent robberies are related to the incidents last winter.
In the summer robberies, Doarnberger said, the bandits have gotten in and out of the establishments within minutes, taking time only to open safes. No shots have been fired and there have been no injuries.
The bandits in the winter robberies often fired weapons and in some cases pistol-whipped employees and customers.
Howard County police are advising restaurant owners to be more cautious at night, particularly when employees leave to take out the trash.
McClure, the Bare Bones manager, said he is confident that his security system would provide sufficient protection for employees because the false alarm triggered a rapid response from State Police. He said his night employees have been advised to keep the back door locked and to watch out for one another.
Robert Farrell, assistant manager at the Sizzler restaurant across the street on U.S. 40, said the restaurant chain has advised its employees on security measures. He also is reminding them to use common sense.
"I've been robbed before," Farrell said. "It's not pretty."
He said the two Ellicott City robberies have brought managers of eating establishments along U.S. 40 closer as they exchange tips and information about a situation they never before had to worry about too deeply.
"People are a little shocked," Farrell said. "After all, what do they say? It's a city problem. Right?"