Robbery links lead task force to arrests

Detectives build ties with area police units

May 10, 1999|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

To five Howard County detectives -- members of the police department's newly created robbery task force -- the suspects in the county's rash of commercial robberies are beginning to form identities of their own.

One always uses a silver-colored handgun.

Another is left-handed.

A pair of suspects -- a short man and a tall one -- always work together.

And another suspect allegedly targeted Blockbuster Video stores.

County detectives arrested Howard Anthony Jefferson, 40, of Baltimore and charged him Friday with armed robbery in a Blockbuster holdup.

It was the task force's second arrest, and for task force members the more significant.

"A lot of the other cases, the initial work was done by other jurisdictions," says Sgt. Karen Shinham, the task force leader. "In this case, we initiated the investigation [and] were able to help other jurisdictions."

Task force members -- who were appointed by Police Chief Wayne Livesay on April 1 -- say their job is to solve robberies and build ties with robbery detectives in other jurisdictions, who are often looking for the same suspects.

"County lines mean nothing to criminals," says Detective Donald J. Guevara, one of those appointed. With a task force, "the coordination is a lot easier."

Howard County is the only jurisdiction in the region without a permanent robbery unit. Instead, the violent crimes section -- the same group that investigates killings, assaults and rapes -- has handled robberies. Usually that was sufficient, until as many as five robberies began occurring weekly.

From Jan. 1 to March 22, 65 robberies were reported in the county, compared with 29 in the same period last year and 52 for that time frame in 1997, says Sgt. Morris Carroll, a county police spokesman.

Quarterly crime statistics released Thursday showed robberies were up 86.5 percent during the first three months of this year, compared with the same period last year. A 22-day hiatus until the end of April ended with six robberies occurring this month.

Task force officers -- who were pulled from the department's narcotics, property crime and patrol section -- spend their evenings producing composite sketches and crime location maps and meeting with victims.

A recent day for Detectives William Porter and Guevara -- who with Shinham, Cpl. Darin Chambers and Cpl. Brook Donovan make up the task force -- started with a trip to an Ellicott City woman's house to show her photos of six suspects. A gunman stole church money and her pager outside a church.

"If I had to pick anybody, it would be this guy with the longer hair," she says, her hand shaking slightly.

Guevara says that having a witness identify a suspect is only a small piece of the puzzle.

"You have to remember where they are coming from," Guevara says of the victims. "They are looking down the barrel of a gun."

The woman tells officers that her pager, a duplicate of the one that was stolen, had five pages in 10 minutes. When she shows them the numbers, they see a pattern they commonly see with robberies.

"They are drug-related," Guevara says.

The officers then go to Dobbin Center, where a Lane Bryant store was robbed April 7.

"In that case, we had a good witness description," Shinham says.

It turns out that authorities in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties and in Baltimore are looking for a suspect of a similar description in robberies of two plus-size women's stores, a number of Blockbuster Video stores and some small stores in their jurisdictions, a total of 13. The links: He nearly always wore a beige cap and told victims to go to the back of the store as he was leaving, Shinham says.

County detectives go from one store to another, giving staff fliers with a sketch of the suspect.

Nearly all store owners know about the case and say they have taken precautions with more security, increased lighting and a higher awareness. Detectives find no one who has seen the suspect -- until the last store.

"I know he's been in here buying cigarettes," a store security worker says. "He smokes them out back."

It is one of 60 leads the task force has received, but one of 20 that don't lead anywhere, Shinham says.

But a patrol officer gets one of the handful of tips that have led to a suspect's name.

Officer Robin Goodson responded to the latest Blockbuster robbery May 3 in the 9400 block of Baltimore National Pike in Ellicott City. A neighboring businessman says he saw a Meals on Wheels truck parked in the area, and police make the link to a man who worked for Meals on Wheels in Baltimore for more than a year.

His co-workers "were very stunned when we came to arrest him," Shinham says. "They said he was very dependable."

The man is also a suspect in the Lane Bryant store robbery, she adds.

While nearly everyone agrees that the Howard task force has been productive, it is unlikely the group will be around after this month because of the demand for officers on the streets, Shinham says.

Instead, officials are considering assigning two detectives to handle robberies.

"The summer is coming up, and crime will increase," Shinham says. "But I think we will have [a permanent task force] eventually."

Pub Date: 5/10/99

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