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Soft Drink Salesman Slain in Supermarket Robbery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Coca-Cola salesman, apparently unaware he was talking to an armed robber in the middle of a holdup, was shot and killed Monday when he refused to hang up a telephone in a Ralphs supermarket in Van Nuys, police said.

Los Angeles police suspect that the same two men--and possibly a third--are responsible for a string of four early morning armed robberies at Ralphs supermarkets on Monday, including the one in which salesman Robert Ward was shot and killed.

Ward, 28, of Sylmar was shot about 6:30 a.m. while talking on the store phone on the manager’s desk from the Ralphs at 7225 Woodman Ave. Authorities said Ward apparently angered the gunman, who was trying to get all customers and employees to congregate in an area near the checkout stands.

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The robber apparently thought Ward was ignoring him, Detective Steve Fisk said. “So he reached over, grabbed the phone out of his hand, and put a bullet in his head. It was just that quick.

“He was about to be married,” said Fisk, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Van Nuys Division. “He had a fiancee. It’s tragic.”

Fisk and other authorities said Ward made early morning stops at the supermarket at Woodman Avenue and Sherman Way every day and often used the phone at the front of the store to make calls. Coca-Cola employees at the Sylmar sales center where Ward worked had no comment, and company spokesman Bob Phillips said he had few details about the shooting or about Ward.

“We’re just shocked and saddened by the incident,” Phillips said. “We are working very closely with police, but we have no other information.”

Police also said they had little information about the gunmen, and no suspects in the slaying or the series of early morning armed robberies. But they said they believe the same two gunmen were responsible for all the crimes, because such robberies of supermarkets are rare and because the tactics used in all four were similar.

Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, who commands all San Fernando Valley L.A. police divisions, said there was a “strong possibility” the same men robbed all four stores and that a getaway driver also might have been involved.

The men escaped with an unspecified amount of cash from the Ralphs store in Van Nuys. Also robbed were Ralphs stores at 4033 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Studio City; 10455 Sunland Blvd., Sunland, and 14049 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. No injuries were reported in those holdups, Fisk said.

“We simply have no theory on why they chose us or anything else,” said Gene Brown, a spokesman for Compton-based Ralphs Grocery Co. He said he could not comment on the amount of money stolen, but said it was “very, very minimal.”

In the Sunland robbery, two men left with about $300 and some cigarettes after the 4:30 a.m. holdup, Sgt. Jay Bender said.

Staff writer Aaron Curtiss contributed to this story.


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