Police are looking for two men believed responsible for 28 armed robberies at Southland fast-food restaurants over the past four months, including three in one night this week in north Orange County.
Twelve of the holdups have occurred in the adjoining Orange County cities of Buena Park and Cypress. The remainder have all taken place in southeast Los Angeles County, in such cities as La Mirada, Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Norwalk and Bellflower.
Although no injuries have been reported in any of the holdups, the gunmen have fired their weapons into the ground on two occasions, Buena Park Police Sgt. Terry Branum said.
"These guys are armed and dangerous," Branum warned. "Somebody could get hurt."
The three latest robberies took place within 20 minutes of one another Wednesday night. The first holdup was reported at 8:50 p.m. at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant in the 6800 block of La Palma Avenue in Buena Park, where $365 was taken and a customer was robbed of her purse, Branum said.
Two Del Taco restaurants in neighboring Cypress were also robbed Wednesday night--the amounts taken were $165 and $290--by men matching the same description as those seen at the Jack-in-the-Box, according to Cypress Police Sgt. Sandy Stanton. No customers were present in either of those holdups, Stanton said.
Following their "takeover" pattern in the previous robberies, Branum said, the gunmen entered the establishments and ordered everyone to the floor. Then they jumped behind the counter and emptied the safes and cash registers.
The robbery spree began April 2 with the holdup of a Der Wienerschnitzel in Buena Park. The same franchise was hit again by the same men 10 days later and then the suspects branched out to other fast-food restaurants in the area, Branum and other police officials said.
Although the gunmen have struck at several different fast-food restaurants in the two counties, Der Wienerschnitzels have been hit a total of nine times, while Jack-in-the-Box and El Pollo Loco franchises have been robbed four times each.
While most of the robberies occurred without incident, the gunmen ran into some difficulty a week ago in Buena Park when they held up an El Pollo Loco restaurant on La Palma Avenue and customers kept pulling up to the drive-through window.
Tina Jackson, the assistant manager on duty at the time, said one of the gunmen pointed his pistol at a customer and yelled, "This is a robbery. Get the hell out of here." The customer sped away and telephoned police, she said.
Jackson recalled that otherwise the men behaved very calmly during the five minutes they spent emptying the safe and cash drawers. They surprised the six workers on duty, she said, by walking into the back kitchen through an employees' door. Two customers were inside at the time, while three others were waiting outside in the drive-through line.
"They had guns and just told everybody to hit the floor," Jackson said. "One of them started yelling at me to open the safe."
Jackson said the timing of the holdup was ironic because she and the other workers had just gone over a local news article that detailed the robbery of another El Pollo Loco, apparently by the same men.
Restaurant managers report that their employees have been so traumatized by the robberies that some have quit or taken long vacations.
"Everybody is still shaky," said Sam Fong, manager of the Jack-in-the-Box that was robbed in Buena Park Wednesday and on June 29 by the same men.
To help make themselves less vulnerable, Fong and several other restaurant managers are installing surveillance cameras and brighter lighting. They are also keeping less money on hand and locking side entrances at night. All of the robberies have occurred at night; most have taken place between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., although there was one as late as 12:40 a.m.
At Del Taco corporate headquarters in Costa Mesa, officials have taken the added step of hiring private security guards to patrol some of the chain's outlets after three were robbed in Cypress and La Mirada. Paul Hitzelberger, vice president of marketing, said the company has also issued alerts to all of its Southern California franchises.
Police have only sketchy descriptions of the suspects. One is described as 5 feet, 9 inches, to 6 feet tall, 190 to 240 pounds and wearing a black and brown baseball cap. The other is described as 5 feet, 6 inches, to 5 feet, 10 inches tall, 155 to 180 pounds and possibly having an earring in his left ear.
Anyone with information on the men is asked to call Buena Park police at (714) 521-9352.
FAST FOOD BANDITS ON THE RUN
1. April 2, 8:16 p.m. Der Wienerschnitzel, 7501 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park
2. April 16, 8:04 p.m. Der Wienerschnitzel, 7501 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park
3. April 24, 8:27 p.m. Subway, 6122 Orangethorpe Ave., Buena Park
4. April 26, 8:37 p.m. Der Wienerschnitzel, 7501 6131 Lincoln Ave., Buena Park
5. May 23, 9:21 p.m. Jack in the Box, 5460 Beach Blvd. Buena Park
6. June 29, 8:45 p.m.Jack in the Box, 6865 La Palma Ave., Buena Park
7. July 6, 9:14 p.m. Der Wienerschnitzel, 7501 6131 Lincoln Ave., Buena Park
8. July 19, 8:57 p.m. Der Wienerschnitzel, 7501 6131 Lincoln Ave., Buena Park
9. July 19, 9:35 p.m. El Pollo Loco, 5251 Beach Blvd., Buena Park
10. July 26, 9:29 p.m. El Pollo Loco, 6041 La Palma Ave., Buena Park
11. August 1, 8:50 p.m. Jack in the Box 6865 La Palma Ave., Buena Park
12. August 1, 9 p.m. Del Taco, 5981 Orange Ave., Buena Park
13. August 1, 9:11 p.m. Del Taco, 4901 Lincoln Ave., Cypress