Police investigate Mondawmin Mall robberies

Three separate groups being sought

September 21, 2010|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Three separate groups of robbers have held up merchants at Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall this summer, police said, and a gunman in the latest attack escaped with $100,000 worth of jewelry and watches.

Sunday's theft at Elite Gold & Diamond included 42 gold rings and diamond-encrusted Rolex and Gucci watches. It fit a pattern of other holdups that have predominantly occurred in the middle of the day, and it marked the second time the jewelry store was hit since August.

The crimes are occurring as city officials and investors work to revive Mondawmin — Baltimore's oldest mall — and surrounding neighborhoods. The shopping center underwent a $70 million renovation about two years ago that brought in a long-awaited Target anchor store, which officials had hoped would draw patrons from across the city who otherwise ventured to the suburbs.

When the discount retailer opened in 2008, Target gave the Baltimore Police Department $300,000 to purchase portable command posts and enhance cell-phone tracking to solve violent crimes and robberies.

Police officials say the money paid for a variety of crime-fighting tools, including enhanced technology to track cell-phone calls. Still, police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said detectives met recently with mall security officers and store owners to train them better in the use of video surveillance cameras.

Mondawmin merchants have been the target of seven robberies this year, most of them since the summer. By contrast, there were 10 robberies at the mall in the three years between 2007 and 2009.

City police said they have identified persons of interest in several of the robberies, but have made no arrests. Most of the robbers are well-disguised, making it difficult to identify suspects from video surveillance cameras.

Brittany Dorsey, the assistant manager of Payless Shoe Source, said she was held up about a month ago when two men walked in and pretended to buy socks. She said one man asked the other to borrow money, and when he went into his pocket he pulled out a gun and demanded cash.

"He said, 'Give me the money,' and ordered me to turn around," said Dorsey, who is 20 and started working at the store in November. "Customers don't know what's happening. … I think everybody should know."

Dorsey said the man put the gun to her side and that she's still shaken by the experience. "After it happened, everybody seemed like a suspect to me," she said. Asked if she felt safe in the mall, she said, "I pray that we are."

Mondawmin's general manager, Romaine Smallwood-Smoot, did not return telephone calls seeking comment. But she released a statement through a spokesman saying that the company hired additional security guards and that city police have increased patrols.

"Furthermore, management has conducted merchant meetings outlining safety tips for merchant's consideration to minimize their exposure to crime," the statement says. "As always, we continue to evaluate and revise our safety program accordingly while continuing to provide law enforcement officials access to the center's safety camera photographs and video archives."

The Baltimore region's shopping malls have seen their share of crimes — often violent — in recent years. In February 2005, a popular St. Paul's teacher and dean was killed during a botched robbery in the parking lot at Towson Town Center, and a teen was stabbed to death at the mall in 2002.

A 16-year-old Annapolis High School student and a U.S. Secret Service agent were shot and wounded by an 18-year-old at Westfield Annapolis Mall in 2006. And in 2008, two teenagers were involved in a stabbing at The Mall in Columbia.

Mondawmin is owned by General Growth Properties, which also owns Towson Town Center. Towson has recorded no armed robberies in the mall this year.

City officials had hoped that Mondawmin's makeover and added security would quell problems, becoming an example of urban redevelopment and a boost to the West Baltimore neighborhood bounded by Druid Hill Park and a $136 million Coppin State University physical education center.

Robberies are a top concern of Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III, Guglielmi said, adding that the police commissioner will try to convince the likely new Baltimore state's attorney, Gregg Bernstein, to make prosecutions of those crimes a priority.

The latest crime statistics released by city police show that commercial robberies have fallen this year from 453 through the end of August 2009 to 290 so far this year. Armed store holdups have dropped during that time span from 264 in 2009 to 149 this year.

Detectives have warrants charging two people with holdups using fake weapons at Mondawmin, the latest one occurring at the end of July. Guglielmi said there is a warrant out for one of two people who robbed stores with notes implying they were armed. There are no suspects in the armed robberies that include two jewelry stores.

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