Fed-up Businesses Take Law (and Bat) Into Own Hands

August 27, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

After the first robbery at Killer Trash, a kitschy vintage clothing store on Broadway in Fells Point, clerk Brittany Byers was shaken. The second time, she and other employees were told to lock the door behind customers.

When the same man came back a third time, Byers' boyfriend whacked him about a dozen times in the head and arms with a baseball bat before the robber scurried away.

But the man was not easily deterred. He had struck earlier that day and was in the middle of a string of 17 robberies of city business in 22 days, police say.

Six blocks away at Tuxedo Zone, Rod Thompson, a former police officer, was held up after measuring the same man and allowing him to try on pants. Thompson, who hadn't been robbed in nine years of business, learned after calling police that he wasn't alone. Owners were getting fed up. Thompson distributed fliers throughout the neighborhood, and told Byers that if the man came by the store again to call him first; he could get there faster than police.

Preparing himself for a repeat visit, Thompson hung a switchblade on his belt. He hid a Louisville Slugger in a front closet. And under the front desk, he stashed a giant kitchen knife and a shiny new ax.

Perhaps for his own good, police on Tuesday afternoon arrested 39-year-old Mark Lomax, after detectives staked out a business they believed he might strike a second time.

"It's over," the detectives told him.

"Thank God," Lomax responded, according to a police spokesman.

Lomax admitted to the monthlong robbery spree, according to police. All of the businesses were in some of the city's most well-traveled corridors, such as downtown, Charles Village, Mount Vernon and Fells Point. Four of the stores were robbed more than once.

Among the targets was the Lutheran Mission Society Compassion Center, a secondhand shop on Eastern Avenue that has two giant paintings of Jesus hanging on the wall, free slices of poundcake on the front counter and a bin of items on sale for 5 cents. On Aug. 3, a man entered the store and spent time looking through the hand-me-down clothes, then walked to the front counter and jammed a hard object, shrouded by a plastic bag, into the back of a volunteer and demanded money.

The center's coordinator, Laura Hall, said the man took a small amount of cash and left without most of the store's customers' even noticing.

"We give many of our items away for free, or ask very little for what we do have," said Hall, 24, speaking in a hushed tone. "It's very frustrating that someone would feel they have to steal from us."

The gun-in-a-plastic-bag routine was not new for Lomax. In 2005, he was charged with robbing a Subway restaurant on North Charles Street - three times in a span of eight days. Each time, he pointed a plastic bag at the employee and implied that there was a gun inside. He made off with $80, $80 and $350, which prosecutors said he used to buy drugs.

At trial, public defender Sean Coleman tried to get his client off by asking jurors "what kind of moron robs one restaurant within a little more than [a week]?

"It makes no sense," Coleman said, according to a transcript.

A probation agent recommended that Lomax be locked up, saying he had a "horrific record" and had "clearly demonstrated that he is a predator."

Lomax was sentenced to 21 years in prison, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. When the case came back to court on June 22, Baltimore Circuit Judge John Addison Howard gave Lomax 15 years, suspending all but five. The judge made the sentence retroactive to 2005, and Lomax was set free.

Police say the latest crime spree began shortly thereafter, with the theft from the mission store, then from a clothing store in Charles Village. On Aug. 14, he robbed Killer Trash for the first time, and then the same North Charles Street Subway restaurant he had been convicted of stealing from three times.

He robbed a Chinese carryout on Greenmount Avenue, a Dunkin' Donuts near Roland Park and a liquor store in Mount Vernon. He hit Killer Trash - again - then A People United, a Zen boutique downtown.

Thompson, 50, the owner of Tuxedo Zone and a police officer from 1979 to 1981, said Lomax was acting strangely when he came into the store. He grabbed Thompson by the shirt, indicated he had a weapon, and said, "You know what time it is," demanding money.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me? We do mostly charges here, there's no cash,' " Thompson said.

He copied a police "wanted" poster and passed it out to local businesses, something he said police hadn't done. "I didn't want nobody else traumatized like we were," he said.

At Killer Trash, which features retro garb and a framed picture of John Waters, Byers was shaken by the robberies. Her boyfriend, Mike Voorhis, 20, said he felt guilty that he hadn't been there to protect her the second time. He vowed to stay with her to prevent a repeat.

Lomax came back on Aug. 22, entering as a group of women left, and made a move for the register.

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