Robbers forcing victims into freezers, small rooms Police see trend in suburban stores

February 07, 1997|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Barbara Fehr was pulling shampoo, peroxide and hair relaxers from the stock room of Sally's Beauty Supply in Glen Burnie on Tuesday night when two co-workers, one sobbing, entered the tiny room. Behind them came a man in a ski mask with his hand in his jacket as if he had a gun.

"I thought it was a joke," Fehr said.

It wasn't. The women soon found themselves robbed of their cash and trapped in an 8-foot by 20-foot room wondering if the robber had left the store.

In the six weeks of this year more than a dozen store clerks and customers at fast food restaurants and other businesses in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties have found themselves similarly holed up in cramped storage rooms or walk-in freezers, forced there at gunpoint by assailants headed out the door with cash.

Detectives say the modus operandi is a criminal refinement by robbers -- usually from neighboring jurisdictions -- out to hit lucrative suburban stores. Such robberies can pay well and require only five minutes to pull off, but hustling into a getaway car and speeding onto a highway before someone has the chance to call police is trickier in the suburbs than in a city.

"It's probably a lot easier to disappear in the city than in the county," said Sgt. Earl Fowlkes, who heads the Anne Arundel County robbery unit. "The area is tighter, the suspect might have more friends in a small area and there are more people around. The area down here is a little more spread out."

All this year's robberies have been at stores along major roads,usually less than a mile from an interstate, so police have had trouble catching culprits.

Of the 10 such robberies commited in the two counties, Baltimore County police arrested one man.

They believe robberies of McDonald's restaurants in Woodlawn, Pasadena, and Linthicum are the work of the same robbers, but have made no arrests.

Rounding up scared witnesses into a holding room may benefit robbers now, but experts say, the bandits are risking potentially greater violence.

"When you're herding people around, there's always the danger that someone is going to panic or do something to get the gunman upset," said Billy Thompson, head of the Criminal Justice and Legal Studies program at Anne Arundel Community College. "Violence might erupt."

No one has been injured in the local incidents, but it has been close. In December, a gunman fired a shot into a wall at a Pasadena Wendy's, after he ordered the manger into her office, police said.

Three weeks ago, a gunman fired at a customer at a drive-through window during the Linthicum McDonald's robbery.

"I still got ringing in my ear," said manager Nathan Johnson, who was opening the drive-through register for the gunmen when a woman in a Honda Accord drove by. "I think that woman probably saved my life. If they could fire on her for just sitting in a car, what would they do to me?"

Johnson was put into a refrigerator set at 38 degrees for about five minutes. His seven-member crew spent twice as long in a freezer set at 26 degrees below zero.

Anne Arundel County started seeing victims pushed into freezers with a string of robberies at Wendy's restaurants in October. Police linked the camouflage-wearing suspects in those robberies to robberies in Howard and Prince George's counties.

The Linthicum McDonald's was robbed Jan. 20, and the McDonald's in the 500 block of Baltimore Annapolis Blvd. was hit five days later.

Baltimore County has seen seven unrelated robberies since Jan. 4.

Pub Date: 2/07/97

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