A masked man put a gun to the head of a bartender at Dizzy Issie's and demanded that she open the register while he counted to five. The man yelled, "Keep down ... don't move" to the 50 or so people at the hipster Remington bar. A second man, also masked, stood lookout at a side door.
After prying the till free, the pair ran out with about $800 and hopped into a waiting car. Shaken customers picked themselves up. Several called police, and then everyone cleared out for the night.
Police say they believe the same men have held up eight bars in the past three weeks, usually the same way.
Either two or three men enter the tavern wearing gloves and masks or bandanas to cover their faces, according to police. One man, waving a gun, immediately jumps behind the bar and, in most cases, removes the entire cash drawer. Another man stands as a lookout and prevents people from leaving the bar.
"We're pursuing this very aggressively," said Matt Jablow, a police spokesman. "This is unusual for us. We're giving it a lot of attention."
In addition to the Tuesday night robbery at Dizzy Issie's, police believe the group is responsible for holding up three other bars this week - one in Charles Village on Monday night, one in Upper Fells Point late Wednesday and another in Pigtown early yesterday morning. In recent weeks other bars have been held up in Remington, Mill Hill and Carroll-South Hilton in West Baltimore.
"It was really, really quick," said Gary Deane, the owner of I Bar, a cozy Charles Village watering hole that was robbed of about $350 Monday night. "I told the police it was almost military, the way he was in [and] out." Deane said he didn't know until after the robbery that a second man was standing at the door preventing people from leaving.
The tavern is a tiny room with exposed brick walls, a flat-screen television and a square bar. When one man flashed a gun, he said, most customers immediately crouched for cover.
"I was the only one left standing," Deane said. "It was a very frightening thing when it happened." Later, the police came and some customers trickled out. But others stuck around to exchange war stories. The next day, he said, 90 percent of his customers returned.
Police said the robbers want the cash register and don't ask customers for money. But at Molly's Public House, a Remington corner bar in a converted rowhouse that was robbed Nov. 1, one customer was apparently so flustered that he emptied the cash in pockets onto the bar without being instructed to do so.
The robbers scooped up the man's $8 as they fled with the till, according to the police report.
Police believe the robbers have used three different escape cars: a red Dodge pickup, a black Volkswagen station wagon and a brown Mercedes. "We're cautiously optimistic that we'll make arrests in these cases," Jablow said.
In the Northern district, where three of the eight robberies have occurred, police have stepped up patrols and have additional plainclothes officers in the area.
"They are pretty brazen to do something like this," said Northern District Deputy Major Ross Buzzuro, "This is not the norm. We want this to stop. We don't want anybody to get hurt."
Buzzuro said he believes the bars are targets of opportunity: "It is a quick way for people to get money." But, he cautioned, "these are dangerous individuals."
One community particularly hard-hit is Remington, an up-and-coming residential neighborhood with a strong community association. Situated several blocks south of the Johns Hopkins University and the Baltimore Museum of Art, it attracts a mix of students and artists but also has families who have lived there for decades.
"Something needs to be done," said Elaine Stevens, the owner of Dizzy Issie's, which counts filmmaker John Waters among its patrons. Stevens said she has been a bar owner in the city for 20 years and has never experienced anything like this.
Stevens, however, was gratified that nobody was shot. And, she said, the loyalty of her customers surprised her. When the robbers left, people hugged each other. Customers left $200 cash on a table for various bills - even though with the register out of service they couldn't settle up.
And the next day many of those who had left the bar without paying came in with money:
"My customers said they weren't going to be scared away."