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LAPD Targets Valley Holdups

Times Staff Writers

Undercover officers are lurking around upscale eateries in the San Fernando Valley, trying to blend into the nighttime pedestrian traffic.

Patrol cars circle around restaurants looking for anything out of place.

And from the air, police helicopters are switching on infrared cameras while checking tips radioed to them from officers on the ground.

It’s all part of a campaign by authorities to stop a group of criminals who for the last two years are believed responsible for more than 50 “takeover” robberies of Valley eateries and taverns.

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Their most recent hit came Sunday night at Ca’ del Sole, a popular Italian restaurant in Toluca Lake.

Officials admitted Monday that they are frustrated the crime spree has gone on for so long, and said they are trying to take a more aggressive approach in catching the robbery crew.

Detectives are studying the restaurants that have already been hit in an effort to predict the next potential targets. They also are poring over records in search of potential suspects with histories of takeover-style armed holdups.

The FBI is also assisting in the campaign.

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“It’s frightening,” said Joel Simon, president of the Encino Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t think I ever felt that way before, and I’ve been living out there a long, long time. Our community has to pull together and give the police as much support as we can. You can’t put a cop in every restaurant.”

As in their other crimes, the thieves struck just around closing time and entered Ca’ del Sole with their semiautomatic handguns drawn and their identities concealed with ski masks and gloves.

Police said one of the robbers trained his weapon on several employees and patrons, forcing them to the ground and taking their money and jewelry while also clearing out the cash register.

Another robber took money from a safe before both men escaped in an unknown vehicle with several thousand dollars.

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Robberies are up 17% across the Valley, which has seen more than 200 takeover robberies of eateries and other business over the last two years. But LAPD officials said they are particularly concerned about this one elusive group of robbers.

“It’s certainly been a challenge to identify and capture them,” said Lt. Paul Vernon. “The Valley is huge. There are many restaurants. We’ve had to look in lots of haystacks to find this one needle.”

The group has targeted some of the Valley’s most well-known eateries, including Valley Inn, Killer Shrimp and Barone’s.

They also are believed to be responsible for fatally shooting a worker in May 2005 at a Thai restaurant in Northridge.

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LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division Det. Steve Koman said the thieves probably are casing establishments before robbing them, and may even be sophisticated enough to try to gauge the police response to the location and how frequently patrol cruisers come by the restaurant.

He added that the bandits appear to have two distinct units that carry out the crimes.

The first crew, which is believed to have participated in the fatal shooting at the Thai restaurant, was part of an initial crime wave that targeted 18 restaurants from January to August 2004.

Detectives are puzzled because the robberies appeared to stop last summer after the crimes were first publicized. Koman said it is possible that some members of the gang were arrested or that they decided to take a break until media attention subsided.

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But the robberies resumed in March, adding another dozen to the tally. Detectives believe this new round of crimes involved a second crew that may include some members from the first.

“These are very violent men willing to do whatever it takes,” Koman said. “Sooner or later they are going to make a mistake and they’re going to get caught.”

The robbers burst into restaurants with guns drawn, using the shock of a sudden holdup to their advantage.

Witnesses have alternately described the suspects as black, Hispanic or white.

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The biggest problem for detectives is that the robbers wear masks, which have made it impossible to develop descriptions of them.

Because of the crimes, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton and the Los Angeles City Council are seeking increased penalties when masks are used in a crime.

LAPD Deputy Chief Michel Moore said police still have their hands full as thieves look for softer targets.

He recently addressed the United Valley Chambers of Commerce and the Valley Industry Trade and Commerce Assn. about the robberies and the steps businesses can take to prevent them.

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LAPD officials in the past have suggested that restaurants keep back doors locked, install security cameras and hire security guards.

While the LAPD is struggling with the ski-mask bandits, Vernon noted that the department has arrested suspects who it believes are responsible for numerous robberies of businesses as well as thefts of personal electronic devices, purses and jewelry.


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