Authorities say armed robberies targeted employees at local businesses

December 12, 2013|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

The long-time manager at the Ashland Café in Cockeysville arrived early on a Saturday to open the restaurant. But before he could get his key in the door, he said, two men held a gun to his temple.

The men demanded that the terrified manager open his safe, the manager recalled, and made off with $15,000 in cash, a .45 caliber handgun, keys and a cellphone before fleeing in a silver car. They'd hit a liquor store and a chain restaurant in coming weeks before police tracked them down.

Federal court documents in the case against the suspected robbers lay out a scheme to target cash-heavy business around opening and closing times, when they are most vulnerable. The series of brazen thefts this spring netted thousands of dollars before FBI and Baltimore County investigators pieced together the case using images from one suspect's cell phone.

"Obviously, it's a violent crime. We take it very personally. I take it very personally," said Baltimore County Police Chief James W. Johnson. "Baltimore County places significant resources into robbery investigations. The key is follow-up."

One suspect in the Cockeysville case, Sharmaine Christopher Diggs, has been charged with robbery and related charges in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, according to records. Diggs' attorney declined to comment on the case.

Another man, Paul Chance Jr., 26, was indicted in Baltimore County on Oct. 28 on armed robbery charges. His attorney declined to comment on the case but said a trial is scheduled for February. No charges are listed for a third man named in court documents.

The manager of the Ashland Café declined to give his name for this story because he is the victim of a crime. But he said his assailants threatened him, pistol whipped him and took away any sense of security.

"So many things we take for granted," he said. He said he no longer sees locks, safes and any other security device as protective. "All those things are worthless. They are there to keep the petty thieves out."

After the Cockeysville holdup in March, police said one of the gunmen startled an employee who had just closed down the Hobbit Liquor Store in the Parkside neighborhood of Northeast Baltimore. Documents said the gunmen forced their way into the business and took $70,000, Newport cigarettes and other items.

Days later, four employees leaving the White Marsh Olive Garden on Perry Hall Boulevard were confronted by several people with guns who police said piled out of a rented blue Dodge and demanded to be let inside. The restaurant had closed, and the employees ran away. The gunman got into their car and drove off.

Police said the end of the spree came a month later when they stopped Diggs and 45-year-old Stephanie Ringgold after leaving the Ashland Café, which they later told police they planned to rob again, documents said.

A 911 caller reported a man with a bag crouched down next to a parked car across the street from the restaurant. When he got up and began walking toward it, the caller went to call police and later saw a black Lexus with no lights on leave the parking lot.

Officers would later stop the Lexus, driven by Ringgold. Police found a black semiautomatic handgun, a pair of black and red gloves, a ski mask, a knit hat and a second handgun previously taken from the Ashland Café, according to court documents.

Diggs and Ringgold confessed to their involvement in other robberies, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. The federal court documents also names two other men who police have targeted in the search warrants.

Ringgold plead guilty to armed robbery in Baltimore County and is awaiting sentencing, her attorney said, but he declined to comment further about the case.

Ringgold told detectives she was the getaway driver in the initial Ashland Café robbery. She also told police she had seen a picture on Diggs' phone of the cash and other items taken from the Hobbit Liquor store, the documents said. She told police the picture message was sent to Diggs to show him what he had missed out by attending a funeral instead of the robbery.

Police said they also found on the phone pictures of Diggs and another person holding up two guns that were found weeks early by officers tucked inside a Rosedale Coin Laundry bag, along with five single green latex gloves on the side of Belair Road, near the on-ramp to Interstate 695. In the same photo, the laundry bag is visible and the men are wearing the same latex gloves.

In July, police attempted to search one man's home in Baltimore and determined that's where the photographs had been taken. Police also found two rounds of ammunition inside. Police also said in the documents that they linked one of the men to the Olive Garden attempted armed robbery after searching his cell phone records for that day, which showed he was close to a nearby cell tower.

Rental car records also showed Chance was an authorized driver of the a blue Dodge Charger rented by his girlfriend. The car's description and license plate number matched the description given by employees.

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