Robbery unit gives detectives time to concentrate on finding suspects

Division's investigations include holdups this month at two convenience stores

January 31, 2000|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

On a bone-chilling night last week, Detectives Steven Lampe and Duane Pierce were looking for a man armed with a needle and syringe. He was last seen speeding away from a Jessup convenience store in a bright red Cadillac with chrome rims.

The man had filled the syringe with a yellow liquid, hid it in his sleeve and strolled into the High's convenience store in the 7900 block of Washington Blvd. He threatened to stab the 76-year-old clerk with it if she did not give him the store's cash.

"Once I saw what he had in his hand, I just gave him what he wanted," she said, shrugging her shoulders as she recounted the robbery that occurred Jan. 21.

Thursday night, Lampe and Pierce had stopped by the store that is situated among pay-by-the-hour motels, junkyards and across the road from a truck stop. They were posting a flier offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to an indictment in the case.

"I've been robbed three times in 11 years," the clerk continued, smiling just a little at the thought.

"But the first two times were at the store in Elkridge and they had guns," said the clerk, who didn't want her name used. "I think one of them was a toy gun, but I wasn't going to try to find out."

As Lampe and Pierce left the store, she waved. "Come back and see me," she called out.

The detectives, part of a new four-member unit that was created to stop robberies, assured her they would.

Robbery unit formed

After robberies jumped 86.5 percent in the first three months of 1999 compared with the same period the year before, Police Chief Wayne Livesay formed a specialized task force in April to concentrate only on robberies.

The task force's five detectives -- who had split their time among robberies and other serious crimes -- had immediate success. They made eight arrests from April through July. They got to know and exchange information with their peers in nearby departments and started to pinpoint patterns in crime. Livesay decided to make the task force a permanent unit in July.

"Developing a relationship with other departments is crucial," said Sgt. Karen Shinham, who oversees the unit. "Prince George's, Baltimore, Anne Arundel [counties] -- we sit right in the middle of it all, and as we know, criminals don't stop at the county line."

Learning on patrol

Lampe, 33, and Pierce, 31, learned the finer points of criminal behavior as patrol officers. In Howard County, patrol squads have greater responsibility in investigations than those in larger jurisdictions, such as Baltimore County, where patrol officers are required to do little more than baby-sit a crime scene until detectives arrive. But in Howard, which had no specialized detective units, patrol officers often were called upon to investigate everything except robberies, rapes and homicides.

"We were the only jurisdiction without a robbery unit," Shinham said.

In the Howard unit, the detectives are free to concentrate only on robberies. Most commercial robberies, the detectives say, are committed by out-of-county residents. Most street robberies are carried out by locals. Commercial robberies tend to be more planned, while street hits are opportunistic.

Dishonest Abe

Take the case of Kevin Andre Gibson, 35 -- the man accused by police of robbing stores in Howard, Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties and Falls Church, Va., while dressed as Abraham Lincoln. Most bandits don't take the trouble to dress up for their hits beyond wearing a ski mask. But in April, when "Dishonest Abe" committed his first holdup at the Friendly's restaurant in Kings Contrivance Village Center, he played the 16th president's part right down to the beard and stovepipe hat.

Tracking down suspects can be a tedious job that resembles nothing of the glamour and excitement portrayed on television police dramas. There are no jerky camera shots between detectives who exchange knowing looks in a dirty, noisy squad room while the guilty parties are hauled in.

Often the description of the suspect is vague. If anyone got a look at the getaway car, the description is equally as vague. Sometimes fingerprints are left, sometimes not. And as for video cameras, not all stores have them.

Sometimes making an arrest is the result of luck that strikes when the bandit's time has run out.

Gibson, who was charged with several counts of armed robbery, was arrested after an Oxon Hill Dollar Store was robbed. Prince George's police arrived at the store in time to catch a suspected accomplice, who led detectives to Gibson.

Good thing, said Pierce, because Dishonest Abe, who had hit four times in Howard County, was driving him crazy.

Robberies increase

According to the most recent crime statistics, robberies have increased in Howard County from 125 during the first nine months of 1998 to 178 during the same period last year.

Shinham said she expects to see a decline in the number of holdups when the final 1999 figures are released next month.

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