Store Robberies Shock Customers


The word out among the local gangs is not to bother Yee’s Market, a small corner grocery store in Harbor City run by a tight-knit Chinese family whose reputation is that of friendly entrepreneurs respected by residents.

If you were short of money, the Van family thought nothing of shrugging off the difference and letting you pay later. Their store is a popular stop for children seeking candy, gum or soda after school. Residents are dependent on it being open every day of the week, including Christmas.

So customers were shocked Monday when they heard that the Vans, immigrants who fled communism in China and Vietnam, had been held up three times in the last week by the same robber.


“When you do good things from your heart, like they do, bad things like that should not come along,” said Ernest Montgomery, a customer for eight years.

After images from the store’s security videotape showing the robber were broadcast on TV, police Sunday arrested Tony Martinez, 40, at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, where he was visiting his girlfriend after she gave birth to the couple’s baby, said Det. Lyle Prideaux.

The holdups have left the Vans shaken, particularly Mui Van, 55, who was in the store during two of the three robberies.

“Customers have come in and said I should buy a gun. I don’t like that,” she said, remembering the tensions that occurred after a Korean-born grocer shot and killed an African American teenager in 1991 in a dispute over a bottle of orange juice.

But her husband, Son Van, 65, wants to beef up security, adding some kind of alarm to their video camera system to protect his family at the store they have owned for nearly 15 years.

The small market on Belle Porte Avenue is a reflection of the mostly Latino neighborhood. There are Mexican baked goods, stacks of Spanish-language newspapers, plenty of salsa and tortillas.


A steady stream of children and teenagers trickles in and out of the market for their daily supply of sweets.

“This is my grandma,” said Rusty, a red-haired teenager who threw his arm around the diminutive Mui Van, described by police as a “very tough” lady.

On Jan. 12,, Mui was standing behind the cash register when Montgomery allegedly walked in at 11:15 a.m. and drew a handgun, said the couple’s son, Ken Van, 35.

When Mui came around the counter, the robber grabbed her sleeve and forced her to open the cash register, taking $206 while her husband was in the cooler.

On Thursday, the same man returned at 3 p.m., pushing Mui to the ground as her husband watched and stealing $500 after he used a large knife to pry open the cash register, Prideaux said.

On Sunday, the robber showed up at 9:30 a.m. when the Vans’ daughter was working. He pointed something from inside his pocket and stole $200, police said. On the security videotape, police said, the robber was heard saying that he planned to come back every day.


After TV stations broadcast the store’s surveillance videotape on Sunday afternoon news programs, Los Angeles police said they received a tip that Martinez had been living in an abandoned building two blocks from Yee’s Market.

Police officers didn’t find Martinez there, but showed his pictures to residents, who thought that he had gone to the hospital to see his girlfriend, Prideaux said.

Martinez was arrested at 7:30 p.m. Sunday. He will be arraigned in San Pedro Municipal Court on three counts of robbery. If convicted, he could be sentenced to 25 years to life under the state’s three-strikes law because he has two previous convictions for robbery, police said.