Takeover Robbers Target Restaurants

Times Staff Writers

The last customers were waiting to collect their takeout pizza and pasta orders Wednesday night when two masked gunmen slipped in through a back entrance to Barone’s Famous Italian Restaurant.

One robber put a gun to the bartender’s head and demanded the day’s receipts.

Another confronted manager Robin Adams and co-owner Tom Monteleone as they sat in a red leather booth at the 60-year San Fernando Valley institution, which had reopened in Valley Glen just last week.

“They were so calm, so in control,” Adams said. “I thought it was the chef screwing around.”


In fact, Barone’s was just the latest Los Angeles restaurant to be robbed. While crime continues to fall across the city, police are struggling to contain a sharp jump in armed robberies. Authorities are particularly concerned about a series of takeover robberies targeting restaurants. In the San Fernando Valley alone, upward of 200 have been hit in the last two years. Officials in other parts of Southern California also report an increase in the crime.

Detectives say the holdups are the work of several groups of bandits targeting smaller, sit-down eateries, usually as owners are counting cash at closing time.

The upturn comes as bank robberies in Southern California have plunged -- 455 last year compared with 2,600 a year during their peak in the early 1990s. Detectives say assailants are turning to restaurants because they can quickly make off with several thousand dollars without the security barriers of a bank.

“What we are seeing in some respects is displacement,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger. “It’s more opportunistic hitting restaurants. They see a mom-and-pop restaurant, and that doesn’t come close to being as fortified as a bank. And they take that opportunity, using the same type of aggressive behavior.”

The problem has become so severe that Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton and other city officials are supporting state legislation that would give up to two years of extra prison time to robbers who use masks.

“These robbers are more likely to be vicious to their victims because their identities are masked,” said Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, who represents the Ventura Boulevard shopping corridor where many restaurants have been hit.


Greuel has asked her colleagues to pass a resolution calling for the Legislature to impose the tougher restrictions, adding: “The mask deters the department’s ability to apprehend these robbers.”

Restaurants robberies are nothing new, and assailants have long used masks.

But police said takeover robberies are different.

Usually, they involve armed robbers swarming a business. They often make a dramatic gesture, such as holding a gun to someone’s head. They take cash and other valuables not just from the till but also from employees and patrons.

Police began noticing a particularly aggressive form of the robbery about three or four years ago. Detectives said the tactics are similar to those employed by bank robbers starting in the 1990s, when groups would storm branches, using their weapons and sheer numbers to intimidate tellers and customers.

The Valley, with its broad boulevards and easy freeway access enabling rapid getaways, is particularly attractive to restaurant robbers, police said.

Last year, three bandits in ski masks robbed a Thai restaurant in Northridge. The owner ran out of the eatery to get help, but the robbers fatally shot her stepson, who worked there. They got away with about $300.

Though overall violent crime is down this year, the Valley has recorded 1,488 armed robberies in a one-year period ending July 15, a 12% increase from the previous one-year period.


Restaurant bandits are also hitting other parts of Southern California.

In April, the Houston’s steakhouse on Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena was hit two days in a row by masked robbers who forced employees to open a safe at gunpoint.

Authorities later arrested Derrick Oden, 39, who was charged with 26 counts related to a string of takeover robberies in the South Bay and elsewhere. Pasadena police believe he was involved in the Houston’s robberies and one at a Sizzler nearby.

Gardena Police Lt. Chuck Balo said Oden got sloppy when he robbed a Sizzler in that city. He allegedly dropped a money bag with his fingerprints on it. A few blocks away, police said they found a ski mask with hair on it. Balo said a DNA test matched the hair to Oden.

But Balo conceded that it was a lucky break.

Lt. Paul Sylvia of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Major Crimes Bureau said he is dealing with a string of takeover robberies at family-style restaurants around the region. But when the bandits wear masks and gloves, evidence is difficult to obtain.

“It’s still a matter of bringing evidence to prove the suspects are responsible,” he said.

Though banks over the years have added numerous security measures to prevent robberies, most restaurants are unprotected.

“Criminals rob restaurants for the same reasons they rob banks: That’s where the money is,” said LAPD Cmdr. Charlie Beck. “They don’t have security guards. They don’t have security cameras.”


But that might be changing.

Bandits last year hit Killer Shrimp, a popular eatery on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.

After the robbery, manager Bob Hydar hired a security guard, and he said employees are much more careful about locking doors around closing time.

Still, he can’t turn his restaurant into a fortress.

“If you’re open for business, your doors are open,” Hydar said.

Times staff writer Ashley Surdin contributed to this report.